Rachael Wright had culinary training, a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and a dream of putting her education to work. After a couple of years waiting tables and trying to launch her career, Wright finally went where the jobs are: quick-service food.
In September, she started at Protein Bar, a Chicago-based eatery specializing in low-sugar, high-fiber menus. The company says it seeks to marry fresh ingredients with convenience: Food is served in easy-to-carry bowls so customers can nosh while they walk. After multiple interviews, Wright landed an assistant manager job at the company’s new store in Washington.
“I was looking for something in product development,” said Wright, 26. “Even if that doesn’t happen, having this background in the healthful food industry should help me along the right path instead of going from restaurant to restaurant.”
Restaurants and bars are heading toward their strongest year of job growth since 2004, according to the National Restaurant Association, a Washington-based trade group, led by a proliferation of fast-food and quick-service outlets. Food services accounted for nearly 30 percent of the 96,000 jobs created in August, which also marked 19 consecutive months of growth for the sector, according to the Labor Department.
Fast-food chains including Wendy’s Co., snack-and-beverage shops such as Starbucks Corp., and a newer crop of eateries like Protein Bar and Nando’s Peri-Peri, which offer made-to-order meals, are leading the growth.
Such outlets are flourishing even as total restaurant traffic remains stuck below pre-recession levels. Americans stepped out to eat 61 billion times in the 12 months ending July 31, down from 62 billion visits four years ago, according to market researcher NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y.
“Overall, the market’s relatively flat,” NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs said. “There are segments that are doing well. A lot of that growth is coming within the fast-casual segment and QSR.”
Because food service is built on low-wage, unskilled workers, it has the flexibility to respond quickly to economic change, especially when it comes to staffing.
With unemployment stalled above 8 percent since February, 2009, restaurants can afford to be selective. Protein Bar, part of PB Restaurants LLC in Chicago, had about 600 applicants for the 60 openings at its Washington location, drawing would-be workers from all walks of life, CEO Matt Matros said in an interview.
“We’ve benefited from a lot of humanities majors who can’t find a job in their associated fields,” Matros said. “All we can do is present the best possible place to work and give them a choice.”
Wright, who earned her degrees at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, said she was competing with legions of experienced food workers, not just those with college degrees or formal training.
Last month, Wright moved from Danville, N.J., to the Washington area to start her training at Protein Bar. She’ll earn about $40,000 a year plus health benefits and paid holidays.
“I’m thrilled,” she said. “It’s exciting to be part of a new trend.” •