Fine Tuning Fine Dining: Service Struggles to Keep Up with San Antonio’s Growing Rep As a Food City, But Workers Shouldn’t Take the Blame

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK
San Antonio’s expanding hospitality industry pulled in more than $15 billion in 2017 with the restaurant and catering sector contributing more than half of that figure.

As the city’s grown, so has a local appetite for elevated dining — and an expectation from travelers that the Alamo City deliver a world-class restaurant experience.

“It used to be that chefs could graduate here but couldn’t stay in San Antonio; they had to move out to the East or West Coast to grow. But [great chefs] have helped to change that,” said chef Bruce Auden of Biga on the Banks. “There’s great food happening here in San Antonio.”

Yet industry pros warn that the city’s service quality isn’t keeping up with its growing reputation as a dining destination. Whether it’s the prevalence of casual dining, outdated working conditions or a lack of opportunities and education, San Antonio’s service quality has yet to catch up.

Quality of service continues to be a common complaint among local diners. San Antonio may be able to deliver a down-home casual dining experience or entertain tourists looking for River Walk margaritas, but many think the city needs to step up its game.

To be sure, there’s a marked difference between great and average restaurant service. A top-notch server is attuned to the needs of each table, is able to suggest a wine to complement a dish and can speak knowledgeably about the ingredients or cooking techniques involved in the daily special.

Such nuances are part of the reason some diners are willing to pay $100 or more for a meal. Service quality can also make or break a new restaurant or affect the reputation of a longstanding one.

It may be tempting to blame restaurant workers themselves for San Antonio’s service woes, but experts point out that factors such as lack of training and advancement opportunities, not to mention high turnover rates, contribute to the current state of the industry.
click to enlarge Chef Stefan Bowers - FACEBOOK / DAVID TAPIA
Facebook / David Tapia
Chef Stefan Bowers
“Yes, good help is hard to find, but it’s really a two-way street,” said chef Stefan Bowers of local restaurants including Battalion, Rebelle and Playland. “If employees are in a dysfunctional work environment, they now have enough options to say, ‘Not interested.’”

Changing Restaurant Culture

Restaurant employees have always come and gone, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual employee turnover rate nationwide reached an all-time high of 75% last year. In an industry where nearly three out of four workers will leave their job within a year, that makes it difficult for restaurants to grow or succeed, industry insiders say.

“Without engagement, people are going to go on to the next new thing,” said Anne Anderson, founder of San Antonio’s Wolfe & Wool, which consults with restaurants to improve their workplace culture. “People are desperate for good kitchen help. It’s really a worker’s market right now. Part of the recipe for success is actually caring about employees.”

Anderson has partnered with local restaurateurs including Lisa Asvestas, owner of The Cove and Five Points Local, to develop programs that help define employee expectations, strengthen company culture and improve professional relationships between management and employees.

Last year, Asvestas began major changes to her restaurants to improve working conditions. Among those, she established a $15-per-hour minimum wage, hosted weekly check-ins, started free yoga classes and offered paid leadership training and access to affordable healthcare.
click to enlarge Lisa Asvestas smiles as an employee helps a customer. - SANFORD NOWLIN
Sanford Nowlin
Lisa Asvestas smiles as an employee helps a customer.
So far, the numbers point to worker turnover being a fraction of what it was last fiscal year, when three-quarters of her employees didn’t make it to their first anniversary.

“After being in this industry for over 20 years, I wasn’t happy with the business model at all,” Asvestas said. “We’ve made huge changes to really redefine the culture and seen a lot of improvement since making huge changes. It’s different from how it was 20 years ago, and we need to see that it can be something more than a part-time job. … We have to look at it in a different way, because it isn’t sustainable the way it is now.”

Financial Barriers

One out of seven San Antonio residents is employed in the hospitality industry yet the mean hourly wage of $11.60 trails the $12.30 national average. That makes it hard for workers to justify staying in food service and putting in the time to become experts at their craft. That becomes especially true as they look to have families or put down roots by purchasing a home.

But pay is only one barrier.

For many, the cost of education is also a major hurdle. While local community colleges such as St. Philip’s College offer two-year culinary degrees for about $12,000, students who attend private culinary institutions frequently graduate with $60,000 or more in debt.

Restaurant industry jobs don’t usually require a college degree, but higher education can provide a leg up in getting hired at a prestigious eatery. It can also be invaluable for servers, chefs and bartenders working to achieve upward mobility.

“With the hospitality industry, it’s about getting in and then proving yourself and your skill set, and that’s how you get promoted and start earning more money,” said Frank Salinas, who chairs the Tourism, Hospitality and Culinary Arts program at St. Philip’s. “But it’s really difficult when you come out of a private culinary school owing $60,000-plus, and if you’re in San Antonio, you’re [often] getting the minimum wage.”

St. Philip’s is working to overcome that hurdle by partnering with area high schools to offer dual-credit courses. The degree program also requires a 16-week practicum that provides students with real-world, hands-on experience so they can find meaningful employment after graduation.

Seizing Opportunity

For St. Philip’s graduates like David Arciniega, now an executive chef at Texas State University, those opportunities have made all the difference. Arciniega was working a food service job when he attended a job fair at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus.

“I had to call my boss and tell him I wasn’t coming back,” he said. “I didn’t have references like some of the other servers and hosts who were hired, but I made the cut. ... I was probably the only [St. Philip’s] graduate to make the cut.”
click to enlarge David Arciniega says his education from St. Philip’s helped him advance in the industry. - JAIME MONZON
Jaime Monzon
David Arciniega says his education from St. Philip’s helped him advance in the industry.
Arciniega’s first job at the CIA was helping open student-run restaurant NAO in 2012. The experience showed a new side of local dining culture. Armed with that knowledge, he moved up over the next five years — as a cook, server and bartender.

“It was an eye opener to see the quality of service they were going for: the plates, the cuisines, the bar program,” he said.

Arciniega went on to help train other student classes working in the restaurant. Eventually, he left to run his own eatery, Amaya’s Tacos in East Side San Antonio, then landed at Maverick Brasserie in 2018. He helped develop Maverick’s bar program, eventually becoming the front-of-house manager, before departing recently for the gig at Texas State.

Upward Trajectories

Arciniega’s upward career trajectory is something St. Philip’s hopes to continue replicating — and more frequently. Indeed, the institution, a historically black college with a Hispanic student majority, is preparing to enter a new era of culinary education.

The school will unveil its new Tourism, Hospitality, and Culinary Arts Center for Excellence by fall of this year. The $30 million facility will include a 100-seat tiered lecture hall, a teaching kitchen and two student-run restaurants.

Like St. Philip’s, the CIA also offers degrees in the culinary arts and baking and pastry as well as learning labs and state-of-the-art equipment. Although NAO, the CIA student-run restaurant at The Pearl, closed in 2018, a new eatery Savor has since opened, allowing young chefs and servers to gain hands-on experience in an elevated setting.

However, part of the problem may come down to declining interest in upscale dining experiences.

According to a 2019 study by market research organization NPD Group, the total number of visits to full-service restaurants has declined by 700 million since 2014, while the number of visits to quick-service establishments increased by 630 million.

“Finding help is very difficult. And that was one thing that kind of led me into quick-service restaurants,” said Andrew Weissman, the influential local chef who’s stepped away from fine dining to focus on concepts such as The Luxury and Mr. Juicy. “I was like, you know what, it would be kind of cool to do these kinds of restaurants but apply five-star mentality to everything from fine dining to fast casual.”
click to enlarge Chef Andrew Weissman - LEA THOMPSON
Lea Thompson
Chef Andrew Weissman
But not every chef is willing to take Weissman’s approach, and as San Antonio expands as a culinary destination, many visitors will continue to expect fine dining experiences with exemplary service at the center.

To that end, Bowers of Battalion and Rebelle points out that the biggest difference between great and mediocre service is the investment restaurant owners are willing to make in their employees.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to the management to invest in and treat the people they’re hiring with dignity,” he said. “You have to provide a living wage and you have to train. You have to invest time and concern and empathy and be a human being to the people that you hire. Restaurants are going to have to adapt.”

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