In-Depth

Houston Restaurants Turn To Immigrants Amidst Worker Shortage

Over the next decade, industry experts expect the restaurant labor shortage to worsen as the workforce under age 25 declines. That’s why many are looking to immigrants to fill the growing labor gap. 

Cooks at Hugo’s in Houston prepare for the lunch shift.

The food in Houston is from all over the world — and so are the workers.

A third of Houston's food and entertainment workers are immigrants, according to the local think-tank Center for Houston's Future. Around half of those workers are undocumented.

Even at a national level, restaurants have a higher concentration of foreign-born workers than the U.S. economy in general, representing 24% of workers, the National Restaurant Association reported.

This population works jobs at every level in the industry — many at the highest levels. Forty-three percent of chefs are immigrants as well as 24% of restaurant managers.

Some of those chefs have risen to the very top, like Houston Chef Hugo Ortega.

Chef Hugo Ortega’s American Dream

“I think food brings people together in many ways and also it's where you share the table with other people and you learn about other cultures and people around the world,” said Ortega.

Ortega’s touted restaurants, which include Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi serve up authentic regional Mexican cuisine.

Ortega learned to cook with his grandmother in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with the help of smugglers in the 1980s.

His American Dream began with him earning $3.75 an hour as a restaurant janitor, he said. Now, Ortega is a James Beard award-winner and one of Houston's most celebrated chefs. He said he owes a lot to his wife, restaurateur Tracy Vaught, and President Ronald Reagan, whose amnesty program gave him a path to citizenship.

Executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association Melissa Stewart said Chef Ortega is one of many local chefs who bring flavors from their home country to Houston.

“We have fantastic West African restaurants, Filipino restaurants, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Korean,” Stewart said.

“Within a one-mile radius I can explore the world,” she said. But even with the multi-layer contributions of immigrants, she said restaurants still face hiring challenges.

The growing labor gap

The restaurant business has been expanding for decades, and continues to grow in step with demand.

The National Restaurant Association reported that the restaurant business will add 1.6 million jobs to the labor market by 2030, including more than 204,000 in Texas.

“It's becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified labor and that's mostly due to the amount of competition and just the volume of restaurants that have opened in the past decade,” said Houston restaurateur Jonathan Horowitz, who runs the Legacy Restaurant Group.

An employee at Hugo’s in Houston prepares for the lunch rush.

In 2018, the local restaurant industry generated more than 18 billion dollars in sales, according to the local think-tank Greater Houston Partnership.

They also anticipate adding 5,200 new restaurant jobs in 2020.

Filling those jobs could be tricky — and maintaining that labor force could be even harder.

“The turnover can be costly and put a strain on labor costs,” said Horowitz.

A sign outside of a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant advertises a need for employees in Houston, Texas.

As demand for workers grows, restaurants will have fewer young workers to hire from, according to National Restaurant Association projections. They estimate that in the next eight years, the national workforce will lose more than a million workers under age 25.

“The decline in having people from 16 to 24 joining the workforce just increases our labor force issues,” Stewart said.

That age group represents 40% of the restaurant industry's current workforce. That's why many industry leaders are advocating for immigration reform.

Fast-food eateries seek employees in Houston.

A call for reform

“Restaurateurs for years have been talking to elected officials at a national, state and local level about the importance of the immigrant and foreign-born worker to our industry,” Stewart said.

Industry leaders at a local and national level are pushing for a more permanent immigration status for Dreamers and those with Temporary Protected Status. They also would like a temporary worker visa program for the service sector, said Stewart.

For now, the winds of immigration reform seem to be blowing in the opposite direction.

The Trump administration is challenging Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status for some countries. (Houston is home to almost 100,000 DACA-eligible young people.)

But, while immigration reform remains a non-starter, Stewart said there are some things restaurants are doing to attract workers: offering flexible work hours, overtime, in-house training and better wages.

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Elizabeth Trovall

Elizabeth Trovall

Immigration Reporter

Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall's work has been featured on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, Latino...

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