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Back of the House

Paul MacCormack

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There has been a theory forming in my mind for a while now. It’s one of those connections that I have been subtly observing for a while now, but it wasn’t until this spring that it has emerged fully formed. The idea explores the overlay and the similarities between turf departments and restaurant kitchens. It may seem like an odd theme for a blog post but bear with me.

Over the last couple of months our kitchen staff has suffered tremendously. We have been dealing with devastating personal issues, addictions, management woes, and huge staffing challenges. It would not be an understatement to say that this has been one of the most trying starts to a season I’ve ever encountered, and it has nothing to do with turf at all. Most of our management team’s energy has gone towards helping, guiding, filling gaps and generally trying to keep the ship afloat; and it has taken a considerable toll on us all.

Collectively as a culture we have known about the crisis in the restaurant industry for a while now. Our own food & beverage at the course I manage had always been leased out to a third party, but we still dealt with many of the problems first hand. Then last year we decided to take control of the department ourselves, and it has been a real struggle ever since. We now see up close how difficult it is to hire and retain solid employees. This initial glimpse has also solidified my original theory that golf course turf departments and restaurant kitchens across the continent are currently facing many of the same problems, it’s just that theirs are worse.

...golf course turf departments and restaurant kitchens across the continent are currently facing many of the same problems, it’s just that theirs are worse.

Let’s analyze some of the similarities:

  • Staffing Crises – Low wages, subpar working conditions and, most importantly, the seasonal nature of most food establishments tend to breed low morale and disinterest. Restaurant kitchens struggle constantly to find qualified, dependable mid-range workers, most particularly line cooks, sous chefs and entry level managers. This is much the same as the struggle for key foremen/women, assistant superintendents or equipment technicians. This lack of qualified staff puts more workload and pressure on the existing staff, and inevitably leads to folks simply walking away from the business.
     
  • Resume Building – Kitchens also suffer from the same malady as many low- to mid-range golf facilities. Students want to head for the high-end facilities in order to build their resumes and cv’s. Food Network shows and PGA golf events have young people chasing a reality that simply isn’t sustainable. It leaves the rest of us ninety five percent scrambling to attract young people and creates a huge vacuum in the industries.

Food Network shows and PGA golf events have young people chasing a reality that simply isn’t sustainable.

  • Expectations – It’s no secret that the turf industry has been dealing with increasing expectations that border on the ridiculous by times. The restaurant industry is no different. Razor thin margins, intense competition, and a discerning food culture have driven kitchens to produce food at levels that would have been unthinkable for the average facility twenty years ago.
     
  • Judgment – We are usually judged by the conditions of the last round. Never mind how good things were a month ago, it’s now that matters…no matter what the cost. Kitchens are much the same. They are only as good as the last plate served, and when that plate is coming from a stressed environment to begin with it can be a tough burden to bear. Many of our customers simply don’t see the toll that these conditions take on those providing the service for them.
     
  • Stress – I was shocked to learn how most chefs and cooks operate on a daily basis. Long hours, subpar conditions and equipment, and unpredictable staffing leave most back-house departments operating in a proverbial pressure cooker. When coupled with the aforementioned expectations and scrutiny, this workplace stress leads to unhealthy choices and lifestyles. We in the turf industry aren’t much different in many ways, and if we aren’t careful we can quickly follow the same path.
     
  • Mental Health – The stressful environments of many restaurant kitchens have led to a whole host of mental health issues. Addictions, burn out, and mental illness are but a few of the problems that are the inevitable result of poor working environments. Sadly, most employees just accept these situations as reality and resign themselves to working through it.

Unfortunately, within the restaurant industry this is where things get worse. High profile suicides like that of Anthony Bourdain have shone a harsh light into some dark places. Thankfully our industry hasn’t gotten to this level of tragedy as of yet, but we would be fools not to heed the warning signs.

Thankfully our industry hasn’t gotten to this level of tragedy as of yet, but we would be fools not to heed the warning signs.

So, how do both industries begin to move forward and turn the tide? Fortunately, within the food industry many leading chefs and industry people have begun to talk about the issues I’ve just mentioned. (Chefs Speak Out on Mental Health in The Restaurant Industry;  Anthony Bourdain Day on PEI). I like to think that we are starting to wake up and see the need for sharing our stories, and talking about these issues as well. Blogs like this one, conversations in social media, and high-profile Superintendents not being afraid of showing vulnerability are helping immensely.

Building a new culture of respect that gives food workers and greens staff a reasonable wage, fair working conditions, and leadership is paramount. Educating customers about reasonable expectations, and the true cost of high end conditions can create space within both industries for improved success. And dare I say it once again… we must promote self care as one of the most important skills that young people learn in both turf and culinary school. If a new generation of Chefs and Superintendents learn to take better care of themselves first, then they can’t help but take better care of others as well. 

Thanks so much for reading.



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Beautiful perspective. I grew up in the restaurant environment. I get it so much. My dad was a recovering alcoholic and often old me that so many cooks were full on addicts because of the stress of it all. 

This is important conversation.  Thank you. 

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I currently work in the restaurant biz and have been working on the course for years. The struggle is real.  

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The similarities are spooky. But the need for real change in their industry mirrors our in many ways. We can all do better. 

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I have a high amount of respect for the kitchen staff at the club.  Our club serves daily lunch to the entire employee base at the club. So daily I see the work they put in.  Ever walk into the kitchen during a club function?  It doesn't matter if it's a party of 10 or 350, they are busting their ass.  If I think for a second we operate at a high pace, all I have to do it look at what they are doing and the pace they operate at, it's crazy!  

Great analogy Paul.  Chef's, Golf Pro's, Superintendent's, we all deal with the same members, thus the same pressures.  Substance abuse, anxiety, depression, yes the similarities are spooky.  Just had this conversation with our Pro.  

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