Stepping up to the plate: Restaurant industry is filling out lineup of workers with nontraditional sources, Halvorsen says

Marilou Halvorsen acts as a delegate for the state’s restaurant and hospitality industries, collectively New Jersey’s largest private sector employer.

And, if there’s one thing these employers always ask for, she said, it’s more people to employ. 

“One of the top needs I hear from my members is more qualified staff,” Halvorsen said. “Right now, especially given low unemployment rates in the state, that’s huge.”

Halvorsen is the president of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, the Trenton-based trade association that oversees a $12 billion industry.

She said that business force of nature is struggling to keep up with other industries competing for new hires among the state’s moderate- to low-skill workforce. But the Garden State’s restaurant and hospitality sector is starting to find that missing ingredient where others aren’t looking.

Halvorsen’s organization has been working with other community-based groups involved with at-risk populations, such as former inmates reentering society. 

“And, for those coming out of prison, the restaurant industry is a great place for second chances,” Halvorsen said. 

The New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association offers education programs that can get individuals — from nontraditional sources, as Halvorsen terms it — certified and credentialed to work in a kitchen.

“It’s helpful in getting these people a leg up in getting a good job in this industry,” she said. “Our work with these groups is providing an employment stream for us and it has really become a major priority.”

One of the top needs I hear from my members is more qualified staff. Right now, especially given low unemployment rates in the state, that’s huge.

The initiative fits into the trade group’s overall emphasis on refilling the industry’s labor pool with workforce development initiatives. It has put a lot of time and effort into programs such as ProStart, a two-year program that prepares high school students for culinary careers.

“But we’re not just looking at hiring your typical recent graduate in this industry,” she said, adding that hiring strategies today should instead invite the participation of often overlooked populations.

To that end, Halvorsen said her organization’s members have also gotten involved with programs that find career paths for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

“We have (a member of our organization) who has an individual work for her that just started by polishing silver and glasses and has now been elevated to being in the kitchen and making raviolis for restaurants,” Halvorsen said.

One of the unsung heroes is this initiative is the Restaurant & Hospitality Association’s own chairman, Craig Kunisch. 

The fourth-generation owner of Allendale Bar and Grill and the Mahwah Bar and Grill works closely with the REED Academy, a nonprofit school for children and teens with autism spectrum disorders. He offers his business as somewhere that teens with autism can learn vocational skills.

Halvorsen is proud to say that restaurant and hospitality businesses are ahead of the game on these hiring and workforce development practices.

“Because this is an approach that can affect many lives,” she said.

Number crunch

Marilou Halvorsen and her organization fight tooth and nail for legislation that’s friendly to restaurants and hospitality businesses.

An issue they face is that the gargantuan labor pool of the sector doesn’t square well with the way small businesses are defined purely by the number of employees.

“That’s not reliable in really determining the size of a business,” she said. “You can have a tech company making a million dollars a year in profit with three employees, but for a restaurant or hospitality business to make that, you’d need 60 or 70 employees.”

Halvorsen added that the labor-intensive domain of restaurants and hospitality companies, unlike other sectors, almost always hires within a 5- to 10-mile radius.

“So, when you have labor mandates or legislation that hurts small business, it’s not just hurting the businesses themselves,” she said, “it’s hurting the community.”

Conversation Starter

Reach the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association at: or 609-599-3316.