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Wolfgang Puck on restaurant recovery: ’Waiters make $120,000 a year but I can’t find them’

Wolfgang Puck, Chef & Restaurateur, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss NYC and California relaxing COVID-19 guidelines, the impact on the restaurant industry, and Wolfgang Puck’s upcoming Disney+ documentary.

Video transcript

- Wolfgang Puck, he has a documentary coming out June 25 on Disney+ that is a candid look at his life and rise to stardom in the restaurant industry. And we are delighted to have Wolfgang with us right now. Always great to see you, and thanks for being here, Wolfgang. You know, I saw the trailer. I am super excited to watch this next week. But before we get into that, talk to us about what you're seeing at your restaurants as more things open up. And are you able to find the workers? We keep hearing about the restaurant industry having a hard time filling some jobs.

WOLFGANG PUCK: You know, you're exactly right. I have some restaurants I cannot even open, like Cartier in Beverly Hills. People get paid really well. Still, it's difficult to find people to work. At Chinois in Santa Monica it's the same thing. I cannot open for lunchtime. Or even at Spago in Beverly Hills, you know, where people, waiters, make $120,000 a year. But I cannot find them.

So it's really difficult to get back to normal business. The demand is definitely there. We get enough customers, but we cannot serve them. In an upscale environment you have to give people great food and great service. So it's difficult to find enough people.

- So I'm sorry. I am honestly stunned to hear you say $120,000 a year for some of these servers in some of your restaurants. Why is it, then, that you don't think that some of these workers want to get back to work? We're hearing some states right now are trying to essentially give bonuses to employees to get them to get back into the workforce. What more do you think is needed? Are you, perhaps, thinking of trying to lure folks in with bonuses or perhaps even higher salaries?

WOLFGANG PUCK: You know what, there is such a big problem that we always have with immigration. You know, we talk to people. I think the government really should loosen up and have cooks come, if it's from France or Italy or from South America or wherever, so we can get the workforce up to par. If they are professional, why not get jobs? And then they pay taxes, and everything will get better. But I think, right now, the way the government is set up, that they get unemployment and the federal money, they said, you know what, let's take another two months off. When it's finished, then we go back to work in September.

- Talk to us about some of the COVID protocols you're taking at restaurants that are open right now. I know like in New York City, where I am most of the time, they are still doing some temperature checks. But, you know, we're not six feet apart anymore because lots of restrictions have been lifted. What are you doing in your restaurants?

WOLFGANG PUCK: Well, I think a lot of restrictions have been lifted in California too. But we have restaurants all over the world. Like for example, in Bahrain we have CUT. It's still closed because after Ramadan the pandemic came back in force to the local population there. In Las Vegas it's totally open. You know, CUT and Spago in Las Vegas have record months really. You know, now that the bar is open, there's no more Plexiglas for separation and everything. So we are doing there really well.

But it's also difficult to get enough employees. And I hear from some people, like the Wynn Hotel, had the best months ever because the labor force is down by 25% or 35%.

- I'm curious to know if anything has really changed, do you think, permanently in the way that restaurants are going to be running their businesses going forward? I know throughout the pandemic a lot of restaurants that previously never did takeout, never did delivery, essentially started to. They had to in order to stay alive and stay afloat and are now considering making that permanent, now that the pandemic is over. What kind of changes do you think are going to happen in the restaurant industry, that are here to stay? And are your restaurants, perhaps, changing or permanently changed now because of the pandemic?

WOLFGANG PUCK: Well, we are thinking about setting up a ghost kitchen to do takeout and home delivery from there because our restaurants are really not equipped to handle both. Service in the restaurants, service the guests to takeout, so I cannot do both because it's too difficult to find space.

And I really believe by-- come September, after this summer, people will come back. People will have parties. People will go out like it used to be, with the pandemic, hopefully, not getting a setback, that we really start all over closing down. But I think enough people are vaccinated now that we actually can go back to a normal life. And then people can celebrate. They'll have holiday parties and everything.

So the takeout, I think, we minimalize it. Yes, for some good customer or regular customer we do it. But it is not our main business. Our main business is keeping the customer, making the customer happy in our restaurant, make them feel good, give them great food and great service.

- I want to spend some time talking about this documentary on Disney+ about your life and your rise to stardom within the restaurant industry, Wolfgang, because I learned a few things here, just from the trailer, that as a teenager you had this love of cooking in Austria. And you didn't have a great relationship with your stepfather. What was it like looking back and reflecting on all of that as you made this documentary?

WOLFGANG PUCK: You know, a lot of young people I talk to, they came from homes similar than mine, that maybe their mother was really great and the father often, you know, is drunk, or my stepfather was totally crazy, and he physically and mentally abused me and my sisters. But there are always adversaries where you have to overcome them. And hopefully, I think that my documentary is going to inspire a lot of young people, and they're going to say, wow, I didn't know Wolfgang came from such an environment where at 14 he was thinking jumping in the river and killing himself instead of going on with life.

But I think adversity, it sometimes makes you stronger. And I think for me, it probably happened. And I really believe that it's interesting to see the life before I became well known, you know. Obviously, the last 20 years are not even in the picture, but to get from Austria to open Spago and became this major success in the restaurant world, I think that's really an interesting story. And hopefully a lot of young people will get inspired by it.

- All right, we're going to have to leave it there. I think you're right. A lot of people are going to be inspired by this. Wolfgang Puck, thank you so much, and best of luck to you in the opening of the restaurants.