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Talent Roulette Restaurants, Hotels Losing Staff to Casino

September 24, 2007
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Upscale restaurants and hotels in metro Detroit believe they can compete for customers with incoming powerhouse casino restaurants created by celebrity chefs Wolfgang Puck and Michael Mina, but they are losing the talent war.

In preparation for its October 2 grand opening, MGM Grand Detroit Casino’s restaurants have lured talented chefs, managers and staff from some of Detroit’s best restaurants and hotels.

What’s more, they are doing it by offering wages for midlevel chefs that exceed market rates by 30 percent or more, according to Michael Lutes, executive chef at the Whitney in Detroit.

The Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn lost about 10 percent of its hospitality staff; Tribute, in Farmington Hills, lost executive chef Don Yamauchi; Seldom Blues, in Detroit, has lost about a half-dozen of its best wait staff; Andiamo has lost about a half-dozen chefs; and Morton’s, the Steakhouse in Troy lost its general manager, according to restaurant owners and hotel managers.

“My biggest complaint is because of their profit structure in the casinos, they are coming in and inflating the job market as far as what they are paying,” said Joe Vicari, CEO of Warren-based Andiamo Restaurant Group. “They've been targeting more of our high-end employees, like management and chefs.”

In March, MGM Grand began a highly publicized recruiting effort aimed at hiring 1,000 people.

“With economic growth comes opportunity,” MGM Grand said in a statement. “The opening of MGM Grand Detroit adds more than 1,000 jobs to our market, totaling nearly 3,000 jobs in all, and more than half of the employees filling these positions are from the city of Detroit. With these significant employment opportunities, there are bound to be shifts in the market.”

Mark Djozlija, executive chef for the Wolfgang Puck Grille at MGM, said the people filling the 200 jobs at his restaurant have sought out work.

“I never went to a restaurant to give someone my business card and say, “ ‘Hey, come work with us,’ ” he said. “Everyone we’ve hired applied at one of the job fairs or online. I have not solicited anybody.”

Restaurants in metro Detroit have struggled as the state’s economy has suffered along with the automotive industry and as regional and national chains have opened high-profile venues.

Statewide, restaurant sales were expected to lag national averages this year, according to the Washington-based National Restaurant Association.

The association projected Michigan restaurant sales would top $12.8 billion, up 3.7 percent, this year; while industry sales would top $537 billion, up 5 percent, nationwide.

In fact, Michigan and Indiana were the only states with sales growth projections below 4 percent for 2007.

Over the past two years, newcomers such as Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar of Tampa, Florida, and Ohio-based Cameron Mitchell Restaurants have entered metro Detroit, adding to the local competition.

Vicari, who operates 11 Andiamo restaurants in metro Detroit, said retaining talent as those competitors arrived or added locations in Detroit had very little effect on his staff.

“I’m not losing my staff or any of my employees to any other restaurant in metro Detroit because, I believe, we are paying pretty competitive for this market,” Vicari said.

Indeed, some top national chains have also experienced departures. At Morton’s in Troy, Todd Shepherd had been general manager since the location opened in March 2006.

Shepherd left because he was a longtime admirer of celebrity chef Michael Mina and his restaurants, said Andrea Aretakis, sales and marketing manager for Morton's Troy restaurant.

“It’s more of what he liked and the style,” Aretakis said. “For us, we have not had a problem retaining our people.”

Besides losing Yamauchi, Tribute also lost two sous chefs and a wine steward.

“It was a little unnerving there for a while,” said George Wyckhuyse, COO of Epoch Restaurant Group. “But we are big boys, and we will land on our feet.”

The Ritz-Carlton lost 20 staff members, or roughly 10 percent of the staff, general manager Tony Mira said.

Even the St. Regis Hotel in Detroit, which opened in August, has been affected, said Fadi Achour, general manager. The person he hired as the director of the front office was hired by MGM soon after the opening, he said.

“They’re throwing a lot of money at people and making it real hard to compete,” he said.

Even though the St. Regis held a job fair that drew 1,000 attendees, Achour said it was hard to fill 50 staff openings.

And, Townsend Hotel in Birmingham lost two managers, who saw the casino hotels as a way to take on more responsibility.

“It was almost a graduation for them,” general manager Peter Wilde said.

Filed by Brent Snavely and Daniel Duggan of Crain’s Detroit Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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