PORTLAND, Maine — Weeks after Portland was anointed Restaurant City of the Year by a prominent food national magazine last summer, longtime chef King Bishop left his job at one of the Old Port’s most popular dining spots.
For a restaurant industry facing a statewide labor shortage, a move like Bishop’s might be the canary in the coal mine. The 36-year-old graduate of Southern Maine Community College’s culinary program had worked behind the line at Street and Co. for 13 years — seven of those as head chef — but the dream of operating his own restaurant was being packed away for another. Bishop became a full-time caregiver and launched Candy King, his own cannabis company, making specialty edibles and distillate.
“If I could get the same hourly wage to cook with cannabis, it’s much more appealing,” Bishop said. “I felt like I couldn’t be the only person who is bailing on the restaurant industry.”
As it turns out, he’s not. As restaurant owners in Portland and beyond struggle with a back-of-house labor shortage that they say threatens their business model, Bishop and a wave of other cooks responsible for elevating the Maine food scene over the last decade are finding better wages, less stressful work environments and greater opportunities for advancement in cannabis. Equipped with years of training, cooks are becoming caregivers, bartenders are now “budtenders” and pastry chefs make better livings as specialized cannabis chocolatiers and candymakers.
“Every [medical marijuana] caregiver I talk to is hiring staff and the staff is coming directly from the restaurant industry,” said Andy Pettingill, co-founder of Evergreen Cannabis Co., a grow room and caregiver service based in Cumberland.
“There’s a science to making edibles,” said Jules Muzyka, who left her post at French restaurant Marche in Lewiston last year to make medicated artisanal chocolates, gummies and candies with Wind Hill Growers in Manchester. The skills required to be successful in a restaurant’s kitchen are also necessary in the boutique edibles market. “Everything has to be perfect for these things to come out right.”
Like Bishop, many experienced chefs broke into the industry around the time of the Great Recession, which initiated a period of wealth stagnation from which millennials as a generation haven’t recovered. It’s over that same span that the Maine food scene acquired its clout. Now Portland chefs, who have generated a ton of money into the hospitality industry and not seen much of it trickle their way, are seeing the industry shift away from fine dining and toward counter- and “fast-casual” service. Additionally, rising housing prices have pushed low-wage food workers to the outskirts of the city, where transportation costs and longer commutes negate the savings from lower rent.
As restaurant owners, many of whom face tight margins, wrestle with the decision to slash or consolidate kitchen positions rather than pay higher wages, the cannabis industry is another way for cooks to make money with their skills.
Bishop said a line cook’s typical pay in Portland is between $12 and $14 an hour — though the industry-standard practice of sending cooks home in the winter months to keep their hours down makes their annual income less predictable. A talented line cook or sous chef can make as much as $15 to $18 an hour. Salaried cooks make between $35,000 and $45,000 a year.
Many dispensaries and cannabis wellness centers offer starting wages of $15 per hour, with specialty-cooking positions and by-the-pound trimming jobs that pay much more. Many expect more will join the wave once marijuana is available recreationally in stores, which could happen in some Maine towns and cities as early as next summer.
While there’s a lot of culinary expertise that binds restaurant and cannabis cultures, the distinctions between everyday work across the two industries are plentiful. Pettingill and Hernandez, both in their 40s with young children, said a key difference is flexibility, namely being able to work more reasonable hours and spend time with their families.
Another difference is baked into the environments. Working in kitchens is intense, fueled by the adrenaline rush of banging out high volumes of orders at a standard of quality while juggling distractions and requests.
Work in the cannabis industry is much chiller.
“You go from working underneath somebody for 90 plus hours a week in a restaurant to being your own boss, so it didn’t feel like the same work,” said Charles Doherty, a medical marijuana caregiver who founded Highbrow, a glass gallery and wellness boutique, with three friends in 2017. “My responsibilities are greater now, but the stress of the restaurant industry always felt like more. It’s kind of a high-ego industry.”
Many salaried chefs said they’d typically work 12-hour days, rarely seeing the sun. Few have health insurance, and calling in sick is “frowned upon” behind the line.
“It’s a grind — the pay’s not quite always where it should be for line cooks,” Bishop said. “It needs to be a livable wage for the kind of work people are doing. You don’t see a lot of 40-year-old cooks. It kind of breaks your body after a while.”
Rather than higher wages, many veteran cooks are “paid” in titles or with the opportunity to work under prestigious chefs. While this is beneficial in an industry that functions on relationships, it can also function as a soft ceiling for more advanced cooks.
“When I was a cook in fine dining restaurants in New York City, what they did to give you a salary was give you a title,” Hernandez said. “You’re ‘chef de partie’ — what that really means is that they call you the chef of that station to put you on salary and work you 80 hours a week.”
In the restaurant industry, you have to earn your way through, Bishop said.
“That means you make no money, and what you’re being paid in is knowledge. [Owners] will say ‘This is a learning kitchen’ — but I think that’s a bad premise to get someone to stay at your restaurant,” he said. “I’d get it if I were working at a place like The French Laundry, but I don’t see that here in Portland.”
For a long time, what motivated chefs working in Maine restaurants to get through the grind was the dream of starting or running their own place. That dream is considerably more difficult in cities such as Portland, where overhead costs are high.
“There’s a lot of outside money coming into Portland,” Bishop said. “A lot of these restaurants aren’t just being created by locals. It’s difficult to keep up.”
Even those who went to culinary school say the chances of seeing a return aren’t great.
“It’s an absolute racket,” Doherty said. “You rack up debt [to go to culinary school] and get into the restaurant industry, and you’re making $12 to $14 an hour. You’re handcuffed, you’re stuck in debt.”
Doherty, 34, ran many popular midcoast restaurants before making the leap to Highbrow, which now has four stores in the area. A former sous chef at Fog Bar and head chef at Black Bull Tavern, Cafe Miranda and Trackside Station, he said he often worked 90 plus hours a week at the Rockland restaurants, a schedule that can take a toll on anyone.
“It’s a really deep hole to crawl out of,” Doherty said. “Even by the time you pay off everything, you might just be old and tired.”
Just how big is the wave?
The migration of kitchen professionals moving from restaurants to cannabis may constitute a wave, but it is not a flood — though the pending timeline that would legalize recreational cannabis could open the gates. Food industry and hospitality trade groups explain the labor drought by citing factors such as a low overall unemployment and higher costs related to a rising minimum wage, which hit $11 an hour statewide this year and will be raised to $12 in January 2020.
Steve Hewins, director of Hospitality Maine, a food industry trade group, sees the workforce shortage as a demographic problem at the state level — in other words, not enough people.
“Cannabis doesn’t stick out to me to have risen above any other issue,” Hewins said.
Those with financial stakes in the food industry aren’t pointing to cannabis as a direct culprit, but the trend is hard to ignore. The BDN talked with nearly two dozen medical marijuana caregivers and dispensaries in the area, and nearly all of them employed people who recently worked in traditional kitchens.
Meanwhile, Portland restaurants are feeling the squeeze.
“Everyone is going through it,” said Austin Miller, who opened the Japanese-inspired restaurant Mami in 2017. “Front-of-house workers are easy to find, but it’s hard to find cooks for sure. We resolved to start everyone at $14 to 15 an hour — that’s the lowest level just to get interest in the job.”
Miller said the labor shortage is dictating what restaurants are able to cook and produce on their menus. He said that hasn’t affected Mami, but has heard of some restaurants “dulling down” their menus because they can’t do what they want with staff they have.
David Iovino, longtime chef-owner of Munjoy Hill’s Blue Spoon who sold the restaurant in 2018, said he noticed last year that his regulars were getting pushed out of the neighborhood, and openings for staff positions weren’t getting replies.
“I used to get 20 resumes for an ad for a cook,” Miller said. “Now I’m getting about two.”