When Elizabeth Kong took over Pacific Cafe Hong Kong Kitchen in Chinatown–International District in late 2018, friends who owned other restaurants in the neighborhood warned her: It’s harder than ever to find staff these days, since would-be line cooks or dishwashers have left for jobs in marijuana.
The former co-owner of a nearby dumpling restaurant was no stranger to the challenges of hiring in a town with a well-known shortage of kitchen labor. But she was still surprised how few workable candidates responded to her newspaper and social media posts. Since Pacific Cafe reopened under new leadership, Kong and her partners have put in shifts cooking, on top of managerial duties like inventory or bookkeeping.
“They know a kitchen job is not easy,” she says of some former cooks who now cultivate pot plants. “They’re doing something easier and it makes more money.”
Statistics don’t really exist on how many kitchen workers have traded shifts over a hot range for positions in growing or processing marijuana. The federal government doesn’t track the industry’s employment, since it remains illegal in its eyes, but restaurateurs like Kong exchange anecdotal evidence of a trend she says extends across neighborhoods and ethnicities.
When Washington voters legalized marijuana in 2012, they created (or codified) an entirely new industry. Those cultivators and processors have to come from somewhere. And it doesn’t take much to squeeze the town’s kitchen labor pool, already tenuous from the glut of new restaurants and a cost of living that drives potential cooks out of the industry—or out of town. Lisa Leinberger of the Seattle Restaurant Alliance says the labor shortage remains a top concern for its members.
If pot is cannibalizing the restaurant hiring pool, it’s not intentional, says Joby Sewell, owner of cannabis processing company Seattle Bubble Works and himself a former member of the restaurant industry, though he worked front of house.
People employed in marijuana come from all over, he says—other states, or Washington’s erstwhile black market—but that definitely includes kitchens. Which makes sense, Sewell allows. These newly minted jobs do not require a particular skill set, and the relative tedium of, say, hand-trimming a pound of cannabis buds sure still beats the on-your-feet demands of kitchen life.
Working in marijuana has also been known to foster creativity.
No, not like that.
Capitol Hill pizzeria Dino’s “used to employ a lot of dudes in bands who are now choosing cannabis,” says owner Brandon Pettit, because those daytime hours give them more time to play.