Restaurant Leaders Partner with Emily Griffith to Offer Free Culinary Schooling

By Ed Sealover for Denver Business Journal | Worker shortages have grown so severe at Denver restaurants that industry leaders have partnered with Emily Griffith Technical College to offer a free four-week course to anyone interested in learning how to become an entry-level line or prep cook.

Launching in January, the Culinary Quick Start program hopes to attract hundreds of potential workers, teach them the basics of cooking and kitchen management before offering them to a group of more than 100 restaurants currently looking to fill job openings.

Sage Restaurant Group and EatDenver, the local industry group for independent restaurants, have teamed with Emily Griffith to develop the curriculum, and a cadre of some 30 chefs have already volunteered to help teach the classes, EatDenver executive director Adam Schlegel said Wednesday.

Offering such a course tuition-free is unprecedented as far as Schlegel knows, but the constantly swelling numbers of eateries in the metro area are also reaching new levels of desperation, Schlegel said. With more than 250 restaurants a year coming online in Denver each of the past two years and only a small percentage of locations closing, cook salaries are rising at 20 percent a year and causing some restaurants to get into bidding wars to try to find back-of-the-house employees.

“It’s not going to be able in four weeks to make you go out and become an executive chef,” Schlegel said of the program, for which classes will be offered on weeknights at the technical college’s downtown location. “But it will be able to give you the know-how to be able to work in a kitchen where workers are so needed.”

The program sprang from a grant the city of Denver received from the Walmart Foundation and Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership to attack pressing issues in its retail workforce.

At a meeting to discuss how to use the money, Schlegel — a co-founder of the Snooze breakfast restaurant chain — suggested the biggest area of need was short-term education to give entry-level workers the technical skills they needed to function in restaurants. Emily Griffith officials, who offered a similar four-week course to train construction workers, immediately approached him with this idea, he said.

Restaurant leaders initially kicked around the idea of a low-cost course — around $500 or so — that wouldn’t burden workers likely to make between $13 and $15 per hour in their first job. But a Denver Office of Economic Development grant will allow the course to be free in January and February, Schlegel said, and leaders of the effort already are preparing another grant request to a private foundation to try to continue offering the program cost-free for the rest of 2017.

The need for the program speaks to the continuing boom in Denver’s restaurant sector, which has not slowed despite national same-store restaurant sales dipping some 2.5 percent throughout 2016.

Some restaurateurs are hiring applicants with no experience and putting them straight to work in their kitchens right now, hoping they can train them on-the-fly to keep up with customer demand, Schlegel noted.

Emily Griffith officials will market the program to a wide range of potential workers now outside of the industry. Officials believe this can attract both people looking for a job and people looking to change careers.

“We are in dire need of cooks to fill the gaps in the labor pool, and this program will enable underemployed and under-trained workers a unique opportunity to change both their lives and the dining scene for the better,” said Jamey Fader, culinary director of the Big Red F Restaurant Group, which operates Lola Coastal Mexican and Jax Fish House and Oyster Bars, among other concepts.

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Ed Sealover covers government, health care, tourism, airlines, hospitality, restaurants and brewing for the Denver Business Journal. Phone: 303-803-9229.