Aldo Sanchez is a line cook at Venga Empandas at 433 Valencia St. Photo by Laura Waxmann

As many San Francisco restaurateurs say that they are having difficulties filling positions in their establishments, some are turning to tech for solutions.

A new startup seeking to match job seekers with openings in their neighborhood aims to address a hiring gap that has left many restaurants understaffed. By promising to connect the two within a 24-hour period, the online hiring platform Instawork has steadily gained clients in the Mission District.

“We are trying to make it easy for small businesses to find someone so they don’t have to put a sign up in the window,” said Instawork’s CEO, Sumir Meghani, adding that a streamlined recruiting service for blue collar workers is a niche that needs to be more effectively explored.

“There are tools that are great for white collar workers and professionals — but if you are a line cook in a taqueria, or a cashier, you might be on Facebook but you’re probably not on Linkedin,” said Meghani. “If you are a small business owner, you don’t have the time to go through stacks of resumes and cold call people. In 2016, we thought, there’s got to be a better way.”

Using automated technology to match job applicants with available jobs based on location, scheduling preferences and experience, the company aims to speed up and simplify traditional ways in which most restaurants hire, including worker referrals, walk-ins, and paper resumes.

And although the desktop app digitizes the entire hiring process, paper flyers advertising the new service in Spanish and English could be spotted around the Mission in recent months — where a growing number of restaurants and retailers point to serious recruitment troubles for “back of the house” positions like cooks and dishwashers.

Too Few Cooks in the Kitchen

Meghani launched Instawork last summer with co-founder Saureen Shah after receiving $120,000 in funding from Y-combinator, a startup incubator in Mountain View.

Though not a recruiting agency, Meghani compares Instawork to websites like Airbnb in that job seekers must create an online profile. The user can then select from a handful of restaurants with posted job openings, and resumes are filtered based on keywords and location preferences.

“We give both sides as much information as possible about the other,” he said. “What do your references have to say about you? Where do you live?”

Julio Herencia, manager at Hog and Rocks at 3431 19th St., confirmed that the jobs are there, but the workers are not.

Herencia found himself suddenly having to fill seven positions after he was forced to “clean house” at the restaurant a few months ago.

“I was frazzled,” said Herencia. “I knew it would take me hours to write 4-5 different ads, it’s so time consuming. Having to take on the additional work of covering shifts while looking for a whole new crew is impossible.”

Though the application process is free for job seekers, businesses are charged $100 for every successful hire. For Herencia, the investment was worthwhile. He said he not only received help crafting his ads, but was also assisted in scheduling interviews with a pool of interested applicants.

Gayle Pirie, a chef and one of the owners of Foreign Cinema at 2534 Mission Street, said she has also struggled recently with finding qualified staff and has enlisted Instawork for help, though the service proved less successful for her business.  

“We have bottles of wine that need to be represented correctly. People who can do this usually target us, they come in with really great resumes on their own,” she said. She explained that the online hiring process does not prevent unqualified candidates from applying for specialized positions.

“We like the idea of Instawork and will tap into every type of possibility that’s out there,” Pirie said, “but ultimately it’s about getting lucky.”

Case Study: The Mission

With a bustling restaurant and bar scene, Meghani said the need for blue collar workers is especially high in the Mission, and a high cost of living makes attracting low-wage workers tricky.

“The labor pool available for hourly, part-time work is shrinking based on the cost of living in the neighborhood,” said Meghani. “There are cooks who’ve told us they’d rather make 60 cents less an hour and work close to home so they can see their families.”

Instawork’s creators first began testing the system with local restaurants in the Mission.

Manuel Godina, who owns Venga Empanadas at 433 Mission St., hired one employee a year ago using the service, and another four months ago. He’s hoping to hire more.

Godina said he’s lost much of his staff over the last year due to the cost of living and transportation, and the lack of trained hands is crippling the restaurant’s small kitchen.

“A large percentage of my workers now work and live in Oakland. If they live outside of the city they spend too much coming here, it’s not worth it for them,” said Godina. “The cost of labor is escalating for me because we cannot find good cooks.”

Aldo Sanchez is a new Mission resident and one of Godina’s recent Instawork hires. After relocating to San Francisco a year and a half ago, the trained cook said that despite being new to town, he wasn’t struggling to find work.

“I’ve worked in four different restaurants this year and I can quit this job right now and find a new one tomorrow,” said Sanchez. Just like his employer, Sanchez said that Instawork has supplied him with on-demand options. 

“I filled out my application on a Friday, and by Sunday I had an interview,” he said. “It’s convenient. You are not searching, they are. They do all the work for you and you just have to show up, basically.”

An employee at Puerto Alegre at 546 Valencia St. agreed that “the roles have reversed.”

“Before, you’d have a stack of resumes on hand to choose from. Now, so many new restaurants are opening the workers have the choice of where to go,” said the woman, who decline to give her name.

Businesses Struggle

Throughout the neighborhood, restaurant owners are struggling to stay staffed.

The Roosevelt Tamale Parlor on 24th Street recently closed shop after more than 90 years of service — its owners blamed a climbing minimum wage and an exodus of blue-collar workers. Many more restaurants and coffee shops along Valencia Street display “now hiring” signs in their storefronts, including Brasserie Saint James at 742 Valencia St. The Reno, Nev. based brewery and restaurant is opening its second location in the former Abbott’s Cellar space.

“Normally when you open a restaurant, you’d see an influx of significantly more resumes than we are seeing now,” said head chef Don Duncan. He estimates he’s gotten only about 20 to 25 percent of the amount of applications that he’d typically choose from since moving onto Valencia Street last year. “It’s a new challenge that I haven’t faced before.”

A sign outside of the restaurant’s entrance clearly states that the owners are looking to hire locally. Duncan said the business currently uses Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram to attract potential workers, but wouldn’t rule out any service that could help him attract a solid staff.

“It’s the horse thats been beat over and over — with housing costs what they are you can only expect to have X amount within the demographic of people who are making that hourly wage,” said Duncan. “There are only so many people who can afford to work in this industry and live anywhere near here — we want to find them.”

Instawork’s concept is not necessarily new. Other startups such as Poached, based in Portland, assist restaurant and bar employers in storing hiring files online and eliminating unfit candidates, and is expanding to markets nationally. Craigslist is the slightly outdated forerunner in online services that facilitate the job search, having long placed “help wanted” ads online.

Sanchez, the cook, said he’s skeptical of internet services after he responded to two different Craigslist ads and was hired for jobs that left him without pay at the end of the day. Instawork, he said, is “safe.”

“We are using technology to connect people fast and efficiently to create economic opportunity,” said Meghani. “There is local talent here, and there is opportunity. We are helping them find each other.”

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