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Wages up for workers at Springfield eateries

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by Paul Schreiber

SBJ Contributing Writer

Wages are up for local restaurant employees, and competition for personnel continues to be brisk, according to local restaurant owners and managers.

Springfield is home to a wide variety of restaurants, and employment possibilities range from service work for waiters, waitresses and bartenders, to kitchen work for specialty chefs, prep cooks and dishwashers. Compensation for these positions varies according to the degree of job difficulty and, when applicable, the applicant's previous experience.

Speaking of work opportunities in the restaurant field in general, Rose Gerhard, general manager for Chili's Grill and Bar, said, "There are a lot of jobs to be had for people that are dependable." As promising as this sounds for employment seekers, local restaurants "also have a lot of people apply for the jobs," she added.

While the quantity of job-seekers for Springfield's restaurant positions is usually high, employers are interested in certain qualities in their employees. James Clary, owner of Clary's American Grill, is straightforward when it comes to prospective applicants. "I have this philosophy: No. 1, I don't hire cranky people. I hire people that enjoy this business and enjoy other people," he said.

Mike Wappel, general manager for Ruby Tuesday's, echoed Clary's sentiment regarding applicant personality. "The first thing we look for is somebody that's friendly, hard-working and knowledgeable as far as restaurants go," he said.

Compensation for local food-service employees has been increasing in recent years due to stiffer competition between Springfield restaurants. This is particularly true for kitchen personnel responsible for food preparation. Those who make the cut can often expect higher pay for their efforts than in the past.

"When I started, most of the line cooks and prep positions were making barely over the minimum wage," said Crystal Webster, assistant manager of the Black-Eyed Pea.

Today, "I know that we have people here who make up to $8 or $9 an hour, hourly employees," she added.

Gerhard noted this wage phenomenon, as well. "The back of the house, compared to when we opened four years ago, are over double in wages," she said. The reason behind these pay increases, in addition to rising competition between restaurants for qualified candidates, is that these are "hard positions," Gerhard added. "It takes a certain type of person that wants to work that hard."

Gerhard also noted the need to effectively qualify those candidates to whom she offers positions. "We try to hire employees that will be here for a full year because we have a very expensive and extensive training program for our staff," she said. "Once I've invested in training them, I like to keep them for a while."

The issue of wages for employees will often affect smaller independent restaurants more than those belonging to large corporate chains. In fact, the presence, or lack, of available dollars for operating expenses is one of the main obstacles to longevity among restaurant ventures.

Clary cited two reasons for

the "high failure rate" among restaurants, especially smaller independents, as "under-capitalization and lack of experience."

On the first count, Webster agreed, stating that a large corporate office "bails you out" if necessary. "They write the checks. They take care of your bills," she said.

Lack of experience is overcome as restaurant owners and managers address operating costs, employee turnover and customer service. Clay Smith, owner of McSalty's on Delmar, is familiar with both the risks and the benefits of operating a small restaurant successfully. Still, he likes the autonomy inherent in sole proprietorship. "The advantage is you make the calls instead of someone making the calls above you," he said.

Ultimately, Wappel's aim of providing "great service and great food" was echoed by each local restaurateur. To this mix, Gerhard adds one more ingredient for restaurant success. "The third thing would be to have fun."

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