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Waiters Reject Signing Bonuses, Hobbling an $860 Billion Industry

From Chipotle to your neighborhood cafe, owners are raising pay to attract people to cook, serve, and wash dishes.

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Illustration: Patrick Edell for Bloomberg Businessweek

Chef Dan Jacobs’s restaurants have long been fixtures on best-of-Milwaukee lists. One of his latest, called EsterEv, offers an eclectic mix of gourmet and comfort food: The $65, five-course menu features caviar tater tots and schmaltz-and-poppy-seed focaccia with hot mustard butter. But while diners may be eager to return, Jacobs can’t find enough workers to get his place back up and running.

He’s offering $40,000-a-year salaries and $20 an hour for part-timers. He’s begging on Craigslist. He’s even scouting people who’ve served time in prison. No luck. “It’s a coin flip,” Jacobs says of the chances that EsterEv and his other two restaurants will survive. “I have to be realistic and realize there is a distinct chance this will not work.”