Circumstances stifle Tex-Mex chain’s hiring plans

Restaurant veteran Russell Burns wanted to interview at least three candidates for every job he’s filling at the new Chuy’s in Hamilton Town Center.

But less than three weeks before pre-opening training begins, he’s had just 100 applicants for 140-150 positions at the Tex-Mex eatery. About half made the cut.

Now Burns is bracing himself for what he hopes is a last-minute rush of interest from prospective employees. With opening day set for April 8, the owner-operator is scrambling to fill his staff despite challenges presented by the harsh winter, nearby competition and Hamilton County’s low unemployment rate.

As IBJ reported March 1, the suburban county’s 4.5 percent January jobless rate is the lowest in central Indiana and among the lowest in the state. The shallow pool of candidates makes it hard for employers to fill entry-level jobs. Labor-intensive (and relatively low-paying) restaurants are particularly challenged.

Chuy’s Burns didn’t expect hiring to be easy, but he has been surprised by the slow start. So now he’s casting his net further south, into Marion County.

Among the factors complicating the process: Brazilian chain Tucano’s snapped up more than 100 employees for its Hamilton Town Center location, which opened this month. And Burns suspects some prospective workers are put off by the construction still in progress at Chuy’s. Crews shifted their work indoors during the worst of the winter weather, so the exterior of the restaurant is not yet finished.

Transportation is another potential sticking point, since the suburban lifestyle mall isn’t exactly on a bus line. Burns, a former regional operations director for O’Charley’s restaurants, said managers will help with scheduling if employees want to carpool.

Burns is working to fill out his roster by March 31, when Chuy’s weeklong intensive training starts. Because all the dishes are made from scratch, he needs an experienced kitchen crew in addition to a full complement of front-of-the-house workers.

“We’ll continue to hire if need be,” he said, “but I’d like to be at full staff.”

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