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Wolfgang Puck on restaurant industry staffing hurdle: ‘Wages are not the issue’

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Wolfgang Puck, Chef & Restaurateur, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the CUT NYC’s new outdoor dining space 'The CUT Terrace' at Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown, outlook on staffing in the restaurant industry, and NYC”s vaccine mandate for restaurants.

Video Transcript

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AKIKO FUJITA: Michelin-starred chef Wolfgang Puck is introducing a new outdoor dining experience here in New York City, opening his doors to the CUT Terrace at the Four Seasons Hotel downtown. His latest venture comes as restaurants struggle to hire new workers, even with higher wages. Let's bring in the chef himself. Wolfgang Puck joining us this hour. It's always good to talk to you. Last time you were on the show, you mentioned the challenges you were facing at your restaurants, even those that had pretty high wages, about $120,000 a year. How much has that problem been alleviated? What have you seen?

WOLFGANG PUCK: I'm going to say it's a little better now. You know, we get more people now applying for jobs. I think the government doesn't subsidize the people staying home anymore, so I think that helped a little bit. But, you know, a lot of people, I think, walked away from this profession and do other things now because, you know, the restaurant business, it's every night when it's busy. If it's Mother's Day or New Year's Eve, you have to work.

So some people went after other opportunities. So I think we have two faces. Some people don't want to go back to work, and some people left the restaurant industry and find other job opportunities, which, you know, it's good for them too. But I think we will get back to it. It just takes a little longer than we all expected.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, that's something that we've heard from a lot of restaurants who say, we have a feeling some of these workers just aren't coming back to the industry. How do you try to entice new workers to come in through the door if the wages themselves aren't the issue?

WOLFGANG PUCK: Well, I think the wages are not the issue. We have to really figure out a way for people, especially young people, to see how can they grow in our industry. How can they grow up and start as a waiter or a chef, maybe become a manager, or maybe run a hotel, whatever it is? I think we have to show them the opportunities we have in our industry clearer.

So that way, they know-- they don't want to be a line cook all their life. If they do well, if they are talented, if they work hard, there are great opportunities. Like, for example, our company, you know, we get young chefs going to the Middle East, and they love it there. We're going to open in Saudi Arabia, and young chefs think it's a great opportunity. So I think we have to figure out and really get opportunities for the young people.

AKIKO FUJITA: We've seen the vaccine mandate here in New York City go into effect a few weeks ago. I've seen the lines outside restaurants where people are checking the app to make sure you have the vaccine card. What has that meant for your restaurants? Are you seeing more foot traffic? Are people feeling a little more comfortable dining in knowing that everybody in the restaurant has been vaccinated?

WOLFGANG PUCK: You know, I really think it's perfect and that everybody should get the card. Maybe we should put it on the phone or whatever. I was in Paris a week ago. And, you know, every restaurant, when you walk in, they ask you, do you have your vaccination card, or did you bring a COVID test? So you need to do that. I think we want our customers to feel safe and our employees feel safe.

And sooner or later, people are going to have to get vaccinated. You know, there is always a few who thinks, oh, no, no, it's too dangerous. But, you know, if they think about how many people really died because they did not get vaccinated over the last six months, when the vaccination was possible, I think they should look at that and really think twice, you know, about not getting vaccinated.

But for us, it's really great because, for example, in New York and other cities too, we changed and added a whole new venue to restaurants, which means they're outdoor dining, you know? At CUT in New York, for example, we built this beautiful terrace outside. Not only does it make the building better looking now with somebody out in front, with people sitting, maybe having a coffee in the afternoon, it is great for the neighborhood.

They know it's like a neighborhood cafe maybe for them too, without thinking they have to go into a fancy restaurant. So I think, to me, it's really the curb appeal is great. The neighbors are really happy with our terrace. And hopefully, you know, we can have terraces everywhere. So I think we love walking by and seeing people, and I think it gives it a more human scale.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, let's talk more about the CUT. This is the restaurant that-- or the outdoor dining experience, we should say, that you've launched here in New York. I can't help but wonder that we've really seen, while restaurants have struggled during the pandemic, this outdoor dining experience really evolve in the city. How has the prolonged pandemic changed the way you think about the dining experience and some of the concepts that you pursue now?

WOLFGANG PUCK: Well, I think the outdoor dining experience, people don't have to be vaccinated, but indoor you have to be vaccinated, though I still say people should ask if they're vaccinated or have proof about the COVID test. I think that's really an important part, because if I'm a customer, I want to feel safe. If I work with the customers, I want to feel safe. So I think it's a good thing. But I really believe, like for CUT, the terrace is beautiful on Barclay Street there. Across the street is St. Peter's Church. It's really nice. You can see the Oculus. Instead of being enclosed, you really smell the air of New York. And most of the time, it smells actually pretty good.

AKIKO FUJITA: You've got me thinking about my weekend dinner plans already, Chef. Always good to talk to you. Chef Wolfgang--

WOLFGANG PUCK: Thank you.

AKIKO FUJITA: --Puck joining us there on his new concept. Coming.

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