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More People Turn to Food Service Jobs in Tough Times; 
Polishing Up Waitressing Skills Not Used Since College
By Karen Robinson-Jacobs, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

February 10, 2009 - -- It was nearly Christmas and Lisa Johnson, an agent with Realtor Ebby Halliday, hadn't seen a commission check since Halloween.

"I started borrowing money from my parents," said Johnson, 33, who works full time in Halliday's Routh Street office in Dallas. "It really took a toll on me." So she polished up waitressing skills she hadn't used since college and began moonlighting, working evenings serving cocktails at the new Hully & Mo Restaurant and Tap Room in the Quadrangle in Dallas.

Lots of restaurant workers are lifers, but the industry has always attracted a transient group, too -- people between jobs or looking to supplement their income.

With today's economic meltdown, the restaurant life raft is rapidly filling with applicants from inside and outside the restaurant industry.

Thousands of people flooded the Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers chain with applications when it began advertising late last year for 42 jobs in its new Plano office.

Recruiters got more than 10,500 resumes, and about 45 percent were from people who didn't have restaurant backgrounds, the company said.

"What we're seeing is that recruiters are being deluged with resumes of overqualified people," said Joni Thomas Doolin, chief executive and founder of People Report, a Dallas restaurant research and consulting firm.

"They're applying in droves. We're starting to see them coming from retailing, grocery, banking," she said.

Some would-be waiters will be disappointed to find that there's more competition for jobs they used to think of as easy pickings.

"If you were counting on waiting tables to get through this, it may be harder than you think," Doolin said.

Greg Cavanagh, managing partner at Capital Grille in Crescent Court in Dallas, says he's seen more job seekers with scant restaurant experience.

"We tell them we require two to three years of fine-dining experience," he said, adding that turnover in his shop is lower since the nation's been shedding jobs.

From DVDs to ...

On tax day 2008, Dave Ewing, a 20-year sales and marketing veteran in Irving, was laid off from his sales job with a subsidiary of the Weinstein Co., the Hollywood-based filmmaker. That forced Ewing, 42, to switch from hawking DVDs to peddling his resume.

In November, he took a bartending job at Cadillac Ranch in Las Colinas "to help make ends meet."

"After looking for a job in my field for seven months, it was hard," said Ewing, who did a brief stint as a bartender in 1987 before launching his sales career.

Ewing now has a day job selling upscale kitchens for Hollman Inc. in Irving. But he still bartends two nights a week because, with his finances still unsteady, leaving that gig "is not an option now."

Experts say Ewing and Johnson are lucky.

There are about 12,000 restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth, the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association estimates. Sales in Texas are expected to grow 4 percent this year, compared with 2.5 percent for the nation.

But that may not translate to boatloads of new jobs.

Doolin's company publishes a quarterly restaurant workforce index.

Across all restaurant types, fewer operators said they expect to add jobs before April. The drop in planned hiring was greatest among operators of more expensive restaurants, which tend to pay more.

Easier hiring

The cutbacks come in an industry that faced a severe labor shortage as recently as three years ago.

"There are certainly pockets of shortages throughout, but it's not as big of a challenge as it has been" to hire people, said Annika Stensson, a spokeswoman with the National Restaurant Association.

Doolin said there are more applicants from outside the industry than even six months ago.

But will the new recruits stay?

Even at sit-down restaurants, the pay is often lower than in the corporate world.

Johnson estimates she would make "maybe $45,000" as a full-time cocktail waitress, significantly less than what she was making in real estate.

Ewing said he made more than $100,000 a year in a previous job.

So he kept looking for a position in sales and marketing even while pouring drinks part time.

"I didn't want to go backwards in my salary," he said.

Doolin said that to ward off a future brain drain, restaurants need to focus as much on keeping workers as on getting quality applicants in the door.

"You need to be that judicious about holding onto talent," she said.

Breaking into the restaurant business may not be as hard as breaking into show business, but it does take some effort.

Zero in on what type of restaurant job you think you've got a shot at. Fast food typically pays the least for entry-level jobs but is showing the strongest sales trends now.

Eat at the restaurant you're thinking of, preferably more than once. Ask staffers if and when the restaurant needs help and how they feel about working there.

Have a good answer for "Will you just work here until you find something else?" Capital Grille, for example, asks for a five-year commitment from its recruits.

If you're targeting a chain, find out which locations need more workers or where the next location is opening.

Go online. Most chains and independents have Web sites. Look for jobs on:

-- Dallasnews.com -- The National Restaurant Association's site -- Snagajob.com for hourly jobs -- Jobing.com -- Fohboh.com, a social networking site

Go in armedwith references, especially names of restaurant execs.

SOURCES: People Report, Dallas Morning News Research

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To see more of The Dallas Morning News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.dallasnews.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Dallas Morning News

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