NEW YORK – Imagine you’re a restaurant manager and you check your phone to discover that your dishwasher, line cook and head bartender all have called in sick. No need to panic. There’s an app for that.
A handful of startups including Staffy, Shiftgig, Pared and Jitjatjo are supplying staff on demand to restaurants, caterers and cafeterias in New York City.
Think of it as Uber for restaurant workers.
These outfits are growing fast. Jitjatjo, which launched in 2016, employs a pool of 5,000 workers in New York taking shifts at more than 1,000 client locations ranging from fancy restaurants to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Some clients use the service to fill last-minute call-outs, says Jitjatjo co-founder and executive chairman Ron McCulloch. Others book in advance to cover employee vacations and busy periods.
Prospects apply to join the Jitjatjo labor pool by downloading the company’s “talent app,” providing a work history and taking a multiple-choice test for positions such as bartender or pastry cook.
I’ve done some waitressing, so I recently took the test for servers. It included questions such as, “What is the best time to present the dessert menu?”
I failed, scoring 47 percent. The average score, according to Jitjatjo, is 70-80 percent – high enough to qualify one for an in-person interview at Jitjatjo’s Manhattan office. Roughly 10 percent of applicants make it into the pool, the company notes.
Because I was writing a story, Jitjatjo agreed to add me to the pool anyhow, as a dishwasher. After using the app to indicate my availability, I started receiving notices for opportunities around the city.
They typically offered $14.50 an hour – Jitjatjo’s rate for an “outstanding” dishwasher. Hourly pay ranges from $13.50 for a “solid” dishwasher to $35 for an “epic” bartender,” says Jitjatjo’s head of marketing, Justin Melia. Jitjatjo, meanwhile, charges clients $21 an hour for a dishwasher and $50 an hour for a top bartender.
I accepted a Friday-afternoon gig at the Brooklyn location of Mulberry & Vine, a local mini-chain with the tagline “Live Dirty, Eat Clean.” The app provided instructions on what to wear, where to go and who to report to.
Mulberry & Vine director of operations Luis Reyes says he’s been using Jitjatjo to cover four to 12 shifts a week, typically when dishwashers and prep cooks call out at the last minute.
The service largely is reliable. But Reyes says that on rare occasions, a replacement Jitjatjo worker failed to show, adding to his woes.
And while it’s relatively expensive, the convenience is worth it. “It used to be a catastrophic nightmare to figure out,” he says of efforts to find last-minute help. “With Jitjatjo, it’s not so bad.”
My contact at the cafe was Thomas Jones, a Harlem man who ranks among the top 10 percent of all Jitjatjo dishwashers. He took me under his wing, introducing me to the three-compartment sink. “This is my weapon of choice,” he said, wielding a shiny scrubber. “The steel wool!”
Jones, who is 47 years old, joined the service after the failure of his car-service business, Urban Horses.
“You can always fall back on washing dishes,” he said. While many Jitjatjo employees work one or two shifts a week, Jones said he usually works 40 to 50 hours a week, earning $600 to $700.
It’s hard to encounter a new kitchen with every shift. “Every day is your first day,” he said. “You’re like a stranger in someone’s territory.” It takes time to figure out where the chef wants the pans stored, and whether his dishwashing partner is left- or right-handed.
But he enjoys seeing kitchens all over the city and the people he meets, including “Grandmaster Pema,” a dishwasher at the Columbia University cafeteria.
“He’s the best dishwasher in the world,” Jones says. “He has a system. I’m studying under him now.”
We donned gloves and the dishes started coming – plates, baking sheets, mixing bowls and cutting boards. I scraped and scrubbed while Jones rinsed and sanitized.
I was no Grandmaster Pema. I sprayed water all over the kitchen, lost my scrubber and nearly overflowed the sink. I asked Jones if I was the worst dishwasher ever.
“No, you’re not,” he said kindly. “I’ve seen bad.”
The four-hour shift flew by and the work was fun, perhaps because I’ll probably never have to do it again. Jones, meanwhile, said he was next heading uptown to work another shift washing dishes until 3 am.
We’ll likely see more people like Jones getting by on last-minute shift work. Jitjatjo says that the retail sector – also characterized by jobs with a simple learning curve and a high rate of last-minute call-outs – might be its next prospect.
While some may find the trend alarming, Jones says that for him, it’s a blessing. “You don’t have to stress,” he says. “I’m always going to have a job.”