America’s Hamburger Problem

Took the gang of hungry boys down the road to the Shake Shack last night, for what’s quickly becoming a convenient almost-weekly trip to feed the bottomless pits without my having to cook batalion-sized rations. Count us as die-hard Shack fans who really want to see our brandy-new Shack succeed as the first suburban location of the yummy burger-and-fries joint.

Problem is, the service and food is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes burgers come out quickly, correctly and piping hot. But more often, like last night, they come out not as ordered and cold. The previous week I had to wait 28 minutes for our order. Which came out wrong.

Now, I eat at other Shake Shacks and at Danny Meyer’s other outstanding restaurants often enough to know that this is not acceptable for a Union Square Hospitality Group operation. And so in an effort to save our local Shack from eventual demise, we have been forthcoming with our feedback for everyone from the kid at the counter to the COO of Shake Shack. Not complaints, mind you, constructive feedback.

But even from our place on the other side of the pick-up window, we managed to identify the issue, long before anyone from the Shack confirmed it to us: they just can’t find reliable, qualified people to hire.

Whattttt??? With nine-point-pick-your-favorite-digit percent unemployment, they can’t find people qualified to flip burgers, who are willing to show up reliably and get a paycheck? Mmmm-hmmm, that’s right. And it’s so very, very wrong.

More and more, I’m hearing the drumbeat of business-owners who say they can’t find qualified people to hire. They’re apologetic about the long wait or the fact that there’s no one to help me on the sales floor or that the register was unstaffed or that my order was wrong, and they go on to explain that they’ve got money to pay but there’s a shortage of reliable, qualified people willing to come to work. And the addendum—sometimes expressed with a subtle, frustrated eye-roll and sometimes actually whispered—is their observation that there’s a sizeable population of unemployed folks who prefer (pardon my frankness) to sit on their asses and collect a check from the government rather than show up to a job.

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying there aren’t hundreds of thousands of unfortunate people out there desperately looking for work and willing to do whatever will keep food on the table and a roof over their family’s heads. I’ll be the first to admit that not many things are more noble than doing whatever you need to do to get by, and even though it sucks in the short-term, wow, what an invaluable example to set for kids who will be our future leaders.

But when a place like Shake Shack can’t find qualified people who actually show up for their shift, I’m talking about a problem that’s quite different.

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