A McDonalds commercial that aired circa the 1996 Olympics depicts several young, bright-eyed, would-be Olympians, stockbrokers and otherwise successful adults finding their first jobs at America’s favorite fast food establishment. While the overt PR at work in the commercial creates a decidedly deceptive and overly optimistic view of minimum wage employment, it actually has some baring on the reality of the American workforce.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 32% of American adults got their first job in a restaurant and over half have worked in one at some point. 80% of salaried restaurant workers began working on an hourly wage, making the food service industry, as McDonalds implies and Anthony Bourdain says explicitly, a “true meritocracy.” And what’s more, the thriving American restaurant industry is the nation’s largest employer, save the US government.
The 2006 StarChefs.com Salary Survey is our third annual contribution to the dynamic dialogue of restaurant economics and worker wages and benefits. Do pastry chefs generally receive health insurance? Does going to culinary school mean making more money? Where’s the best place to work as a line cook? These are the kinds of questions we seek to address. With over 3,000 respondents, from every state of the union, this is financial food fodder that should satiate your appetite for facts and figures until next year.
In a Nutshell, If You Will
If you’re among the elite – an executive chef, working in the US, in 2006 – you can expect to make $73,260. A little more if you live in New York, $88,947, a little less if you work in New Mexico, $65,000. While the odds of ending up in an executive chef position would seem to be against you if you aren’t, say, a white man (only 15 % of those executive chefs surveyed listed themselves as something other than “Caucasian”, and only 9% were women), the good news is that the average salary for Hispanics and Latinos that are in executive chef roles actually surpasses the national average, at $73,610.
But, as anyone who’s worked in a kitchen, taken a look at our past Salary Survey results, or even read Kitchen Confidential will tell you: the vast majority of American kitchens are filled not with rich, franchised, celebrity chefs, nor do many working in the restaurant industry go by the coveted title Executive Chef (3 % of whom are actually paid for their near unanimous, serious overtime) Instead, America’s kitchens are mostly comprised of hard-working, often underpaid sous chefs, pastry chefs, managers, bartenders and line cooks. These are their stories (read graphs and statistics).
Money and Geography
Executive chefs make more money than line cooks and do better in New York than Florida. No surprise there. But, if you’re looking to work in Las Vegas, for instance, pastry is the apparent smart financial move, as the average pastry chef’s salary ($81,250) soars there, nearly doubling the national average ($42,922), and even surpassing the average earnings of executive chefs in the same city ($73,333). With the ostentatious, theatrical sugar art, avant garde desserts and decadent chocolate creations that can dominate the Vegas pastry scene, these ostensibly counterintuitive figures are actually indicative of the Sin City’s taste for skilled, and flamboyant, pastry talent.
Pastry chefs don’t fare as well in Chicago, where a thriving restaurant environment is realizing itself through the notable achievements of its savory chefs. Line cooks and pastry chefs do about the same there ($25,990 and $26,000 respectively). Executive chefs in Chicago earn the nation’s second highest average salary ($85,454), behind New York ($88,947), meaning the journey from line cook to executive chef can yield a lucrative career, where the cost of living is significantly lower than in New York.— Salary By Region— Who You Are According to our survey, all chefs in America have a computer and Internet access. No, not really, but you get the joke. The truth is that restaurants employ a very diverse group in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, geographical origin and education. The truth, however, is also that most high ranking chefs are men, and most of those men are white. Women have more of a presence in the pastry kitchen, where they comprise 68% of the workforce. And respondents of Hispanic/Latino descent work not only as line cooks and prep cooks, where many assume they do, but also comprise 9% of Executive Chefs surveyed and 5% of both Sous Chefs and Pastry Chefs. The largest percentage of African American respondents are line cooks, but many also work in pastry, constituting 7% of the pastry kitchen and 8% of all line cooks. 6% of all line cooks surveyed listed themselves as Asian and 5% considered themselves Native American, Caribbean or, simply, other. While the playing field is not, evidently, level, organizations like WCR, coupled with the media exposure of many chefs of oft marginalized ethnic background or gender can only help to inspire an increasingly diverse work environment for front and back of house alike. — Who took the 2006 Salary Survey— What Goes Around Comes Around Take a glance at the bar graph below and you’ll probably notice the huge white column. That represents the average number of jobs waitstaff respondents have held in the last 5 years, 8.37 to be exact. The good news, if you’re a waiter, is there’s probably another restaurant around the corner willing to hire you on the spot when your Norma Rae-esque diatribe on the management’s fallacious policies doesn’t go over so well. The bad news is you might go on this hunt several times a year. Of those polled, managers enjoy the lowest turnover rate, working at 1.64 restaurants in 5 years; and, while turnover rate does not job security indicate, it’s reasonable to conclude at least many managers can feel comfortable in holding a single job for several years. Of course, not everyone wants to stay in the same job forever, especially ambitious upper-level chefs, many of whom want to learn as much as possible, as many places as possible. Executive Chefs polled work 1.64 jobs in 5 years, where Sous Chefs work 2.42. It would seem that, reaching the top, Executive Chefs stay where they are a little longer, while Sous Chefs play the field. — Restaurant Turnover by Occupation — Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me, When I'm 64? While we didn’t receive adequate responses from restaurant professionals over 60 to actually answer that question (if you’re reading, seniors, we’d really love to hear from you next year), the thousands that did reply show conclusively that you can expect to make more money as you get older. That's probably as it should be – and it’s nice when things are as they should be. The largest jump in salary occurs for Executive Chefs when they say goodbye to their angsty, idealistic twenties and hello to their more responsibility-laden thirties. The mean change in income is from $58,017 in the 20-29 age group to $71,488 in the 30-39 age group, or an increase of 23%. Concurrently, restaurant managers experience a 30% increase in salary, impressively moving from $42,949 to $55,711. The salary increase for Sous Chefs and Pastry Chefs is not as drastic (from $36,999 to $40,338 for Sous Chefs, $36,409 to $45,590 for Pastry Chefs), but as in the sometimes delicate, tedious world of baking, slow and steady can win the race. Both groups make more money in their thirties than their twenties, and the curves for executive chefs and managers would suggest a slight slowing down in percentage of salary increase in their forties, but a continued increase nonetheless. — Age and Salary— Work For Your Health Working harder and longer will get you more money over time, which is a good thing since you’ll probably be paying for some, most, or all of your health insurance on your own, if you have it. Waiters are the least likely group to receive health insurance through their employer, and the least likely to have it at all. A little more than half (58%) of waiters surveyed have health insurance, but 67% of those that do have it pay for it completely on their own. With an average salary of $41,059, some can afford insurance but many either cannot or choose not to. There is a clear correlation between income and health insurance status, as the average income across restaurant occupations of those with health insurance is $52,865, while for those without insurance it’s a significantly lower $36,828. This would seem to be true for two reasons: first, the more prestige and money attached to a position, the more likely a person is to have insurance; second, if insurance isn’t provided by an employer, or is done so to a limited degree, a greater income provides for a greater ability to pay on one’s own. This is evidenced by the fact that a virtually unbelievable 100% of executive chefs surveyed have health insurance, covered at least in part by their employers. When, according to the 2005 US Census, 46.6 million Americans have no health insurance whatsoever, it’s no small victory that restaurants are finding a way to offer insurance to so many. But they certainly haven’t found a way to offer it to everyone – only 56% of line cooks get their insurance through their employers and only 69% have health insurance at all. — Health Insurance — Making It It’s often asked how to make it in the restaurant business, and answers are often anecdotally conjectured. Should one go to culinary school, stage, work abroad, or even study philosophy only to feign (or endure) a sudden change of heart leading to a career in food? The anecdotal answers often given make sense, because so much of the business is – like other industries that rely on luck, talent, connections and circumstance – unique to one chef’s experience. That said, our survey offers a more left-brained response to these questions, hard facts to aggrandize your opinions at the next industry-only cocktail party. Reductively, the numbers say this: Executive Chefs make greater salaries when they: A) complete a stage, B) work in a restaurant outside of the US and C) receive a non-culinary degree. They make less money when they go to culinary school, on average, than chefs who did not go to culinary school. Now, these conclusions are correlative, based on isolating two variables from a slew of others certain to impact the final equation. What’s interesting, though, and what this group together implies, is that kitchen experience and diversity of experience is the greatest precursor for financial success as a chef. Those that worked for nothing (staged), probably under the tutelage of someone very talented and important, earn more than those who didn’t. Chefs that staged, but did not attend culinary school, earned more than those who staged and attended culinary school ($65,068 and $63,236 respectively). Working in a restaurant outside the US helps too, and getting a degree in something other than the culinary arts adds dollars as well. The point is not that going to culinary school is a bad idea, but that, as many chefs offer anecdotally: restaurant experience, reading a good book once in awhile, traveling – these things matter, maybe even more than classroom experience and the proverbial piece of paper that goes with it. — Work Experience, Education and Salary: Executive Chefs —