Startup Qwick aims to shift Atlanta restaurants into the gig economy

Source: Atlanta Business Chronicle

Dealing with frequent staff turnover has long been a challenge for chefs and restaurateurs. A new industry of on-demand job platforms is attempting to solve the problem.

One of the latest is Qwick Inc., a Phoenix-based startup that began operating in Atlanta Feb. 27. Qwick launched in February 2018 and now serves seven markets in the United States: Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami, New York City, Phoenix and San Diego. The company hopes to be in 12 U.S. cities by the end of 2020, co-founder and chief executive officer Jamie Baxter told Phoenix Business Journal last October.

Qwick and its competitors, such as Instawork and Pared, take traditional hospitality jobs — line cooks, servers, bartenders and the like — and move them to the gig economy. Restaurants and other hospitality venues that partner with Qwick can post shifts on the company's hiring platform, and prospective employees can search the platform for immediate work. Qwick says it fills 98% of posted shifts and averages a six-minute response time for postings.

Qwick already has more than 70 businesses and 1,000 workers on its platform in Atlanta. Catering company Proof of the Pudding is among the local businesses partnering with the company. Ford Fry restaurants St. Cecelia, King + Duke and Marcel are on board as well.

For restaurant owners, this concept is meant to fill the gaps when employees leave their positions with little-to-no notice. Qwick says its business model is enticing for workers because it allows flexibility and generates higher pay than on-staff jobs. The company claims its professionals make an average of $13.15 per hour. Businesses using Qwick set the pay rates for shifts and offer competitive compensation because workers on the platform are subject to interviews, knowledge tests and background checks before they are allowed on the platform. Approximately 20% of applicants make the cut.

Qwick has raised $4.8 million in two rounds of funding. The company makes money by charging businesses markups on the pay rates attached to posted shifts. This markup is typically 40%.

"The company itself was created based off of the common pain point in the hospitality arena," Frank Quartararo, general manager of Qwick's Atlanta office, told Atlanta Business Chronicle. "Everyone I've spoken to, not only in the Atlanta market, but nationwide, probably worldwide, in the hospitality business, the number one pain point is staffing. We have provided — hopefully — a more efficient, real-time, easy-to-use, flexible solution to that. "

Qwick is partnering with the Georgia Restaurant Association, a lobbying group that advocates on behalf of restaurant owners. Karen Bremer, the GRA's chief executive officer, says the group is working with Qwick because of the standard the company sets for hospitality employees on its platform.

“More companies are putting together plans and programs, and we are supporting the ones that are ensuring employees are having background checks and trained in proper sanitation methods,” Bremer told the Chronicle.

A representative for the Atlanta office of the UNITE HERE Local 23 hospitality workers union did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment for this story.

The turnover rate at restaurants is a key factor in why the business is so risky, because a lack of continuity among staff equates to a lack of stability. From September 2018 to January 2019, monthly job openings in the hospitality industry across the U.S. for the first time surpassed the number of monthly hires, according to seasonally adjusted Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers compiled by the National Restaurant Association lobbying group.

Whether startups such as Qwick can actually solve the problem of restaurant staffing remains to be seen. Deborah VanTrece, owner of Westside's Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, says in four years of business, she has never had a full staff. VanTrece typically employs 20-to-25 workers at a time, but at the end of the year, she is sending out in excess of 100 W-2s.

"It's a constant revolving door," she told the Chronicle.

VanTrece says she has a core group of loyal employees who stick around, but she has "tried everything" from word of mouth to social media to hiring platforms to keep Twisted Soul running smoothly. She is aware of the new startups such as Qwick, and while she has not previously used an on-demand staffing platform, she is looking into the concept. Still, she is wary of employees who do not have a stake in her business but will ultimately impact its reputation.

"You worry about the quality of your product," VanTrece said. "You’re just bringing in anyone. It’s a hired gun, basically, so you’re putting your whole business on the line for someone who will be there one or two days, and then they’re on to the next one. ... To put it in the hands of someone who just hops from one place to another without any type of commitment is a scary thought."

As things stand, VanTrece is able to operate a successful business even with the instability on staff. If necessary, she can go to work on the line and keep her kitchen on schedule. If she were to expand with a second restaurant, she believes the staffing problem would be insurmountable. That being the case, growth is not an option.

"It’s something that I constantly think about, and it has definitely prohibited me from taking another jump, because I can’t get the place that I have stable when it comes to employees," VanTrece said. "I cannot get it stable. The idea of, 'let’s move on to the next one,' it’s always getting put on hold.

"The first one, we’re doing well. We’re doing great. But if I had the issues I have with staffing now — that, doubled — I think it would just put me over the edge. Now, the big backup is I’m still able to go into the kitchen myself and work like two or three people. We’re always OK, but you’d like to be secure and not just, 'we’re OK.'”