Sun, May 6, 2012
By Vikram Patel
While the total number of jobs in New York City declined by 0.5 percent between 2000 and 2010, Brooklyn added more than 50,000 jobs in that period, including more than 9,300 in the food service industry, according to a report from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. Figures released by the State Labor Department show that more than 21,600 jobs were added to the leisure and hospitality sector between January 2011 and January 2012. And in April, the national economy added 115,000 jobs, according to a report released Friday by the U.S. Labor Department.
Each of those jobs required an employer to make a difficult gamble on the future. One of those jobs—this one among those food service jobs in Brooklyn—is at Christie’s Jamaican Patties, an eatery that’s been a fixture of the Caribbean food scene in Prospect Heights for over 40 years. The owner, Paul Haye, recently replaced an employee who had left in October 2011, bringing his total staff back up to five. And, as in most hiring decisions, this one wasn’t easy.
Haye emerges from the back of the restaurant on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Flatbush in Prospect Heights wearing a white apron and a matching white hat. His large, burly hands have been stuffing, folding and baking Christie’s small meat-filled pastries since he took over his uncle’s operation more than a decade ago. It has hasn’t been easy. Late last year, Haye, like many small business owners, found himself struggling to get back on his feet following the financial crisis that paralyzed the country. Since 2008, when the crisis reached its tipping point, Christie’s has had a tough time making ends meet. In the midst of the Great Recession, the country saw fewer and fewer people eating out at restaurants. Haye was hit by this trend as well. He soon found himself unable to pay Christie’s rent, and the building owner decided to take him to court. His livelihood was at stake.
“It’s everything to me,” he said of Christie’s. “It’s like my baby.”
Luckily, following a series of meetings with the building owner, Haye worked out an amicable solution that allowed him keep his baby. Since then he’s faced another hurdle: the uptick in the economy has restored consumer confidence, but Haye could use a little more of it. His business still hasn’t been picking up as much he’d like it to. But one thing is certain: times are much better than they were in 2008.
Still, employers like Haye have to consider hiring new staff members to take care of business. A steady work force is not a given: Workers often leave their jobs because of family emergencies or quit unexpectedly. Hiring an employee is always a gamble— a fine balancing act. Other expenses, factors like rent, utilities, water bills, taxes, and supplies have to be taken into account when hiring a new employee.
“To be honest with you, the way the numbers line up, if you’re not very careful, the labor costs will throw everything off whack,” he said. “This wasn’t the case five years ago.” In those days, says Haye, even if a restaurateur felt overstaffed, he could err on the side of hiring another employee and hope that it would work out by squeezing another area in the balance sheet. Now, he says, the margins are too thin; even the slightest miscalculation can result in losses, especially since the price of food supplies has risen steadily since 2008.
Haye says he pays anywhere from $10 to $14 a box for cabbage that used to run under $9 before the recession. Prices for mixed vegetables have risen to $24.50 per case, up from $13. Though it may seem indirect, all of these prices come into consideration when deciding to hire a new person. Is it affordable? Is it wise? When it comes time to hire someone Haye—and many others like him—are forced to mull over such questions.
Amid the din of customers and the traffic coasting along Flatbush Avenue, Haye, a big but soft-spoken man, recounts Christie’s financial narrative with tempered optimism. He says that although the business began sinking as early as 2003, it began to fizzle in 2008. Slowly, his customer base started to dwindle as the recession forced consumers to abstain from luxuries like eating out. When this happened, he immediately started looking for ways to compensate. “Everybody had to chip in and do a little more,” he said. Ten-hours shifts became 14-hour shifts. Christie’s, a small restaurant in Brooklyn, was thus paralleling the national economy. Employers all over the country were trying to squeeze more work out of fewer people, to limit their exposure.
One factor near the heart of the drama, as Haye sees it, was a spike in food prices, and not just in Brooklyn. In 2008, the price of commodities, such as corn, wheat and rice, soared 70 percent in some areas of the world, including the U.S. Analysts say the rise may have been caused by a decrease in domestic production coupled with “panic buying,” during which consumers bought more than they needed for themselves. The surge in prices sparked riots in some countries, and the effects were felt in the United States as well. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization index released in March 2012, monthly prices for commodities such as cereals, dairy, meat and sugar are averaging 215.9 points—well over what it was in 2008. Haye says he was affected intimately by this seemingly distant phenomenon, and he now pays nearly 25 percent more for produce than he did in 2008.
Haye, a cautious man, did not want a reporter talking to his newest employee, or to any of his employees. But watching the restaurant during a busy cycle makes clear how every hand contributes to the overall mission. Through a small opening in the back wall, the aroma of beef patties and coconut pastries drifts in to the front of the restaurant, where customers trickle in after a long day of work. Employees work feverishly during the dinner rush, wiping down tables, washing dishes, bagging takeout orders. The clanging of pots and pans doesn’t faze Haye, who dishes out generous portions of curried goat and jerk chicken to eager customers. Like any good businessman, he takes the helm when needed.
Number crunching isn’t the only factor to think about in hiring a new person, of course. An employer must find the right employee. Hiring somebody is a gamble, and mistakes can get ugly. Haye had one ex-employee pull a gun on him, he says. In 2007, some money that was left in the register overnight had disappeared. Haye had become suspicious of one of his employees and, after catching him stealing cash on a surveillance video, he fired him. The culprit later robbed Christie’s and other businesses in the area, according to Haye, who says the man is serving a prison sentence for the offenses. The incident taught him to keep his guard up, which helps even in less dramatic situations.
Last year, two employees quit unexpectedly, leaving Haye with only four of his initial six employees. He replaced one of them with the recent hire, and now employs five workers, not including himself. This has increased his workload, forcing him to put in more hours at the restaurant. He works six days a week and his wife comes in on Sundays to help. Haye says that he can only do so much, given the odds. “We’re still in a tenuous position,” he says, adding that it just not possible to hire another person at the moment.
On any given day, scores of Brooklynites flock to Christies for Haye’s flaky delights, which have been lauded by some of the biggest food critics and publications in the city. His advice to other businessmen in his shoes is: “Be creative and innovative in managing the workload. If there is a machine that can do the work, go for the machine, because labor costs are no joke.”
This story is part of a series of stories that focuses on the less economically vibrant parts of Brooklyn. For more, check out the rest of our Under the Radar series.