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Is Legal Weed Hurting the Restaurant Industry?

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Colorado’s restaurants are feeling the pinch

David Ramos/Getty Images

Numerous major cities across the U.S. have suffered from a shortage of cooks in recent years: From Austin to Madison, San Francisco to Denver, the boom of new restaurant openings has outpaced the number of qualified applicants available to staff them.

The primary contributing factor fueling all this seems to be the industry’s notoriously low wages. In big cities like Seattle and SF, it can be tough to afford rent on a cook’s salary, leading many to look to other industries — including the burgeoning legal marijuana industry, Bloomberg reports.

In Denver, where weed has been legal for recreational use since 2012, chefs say their workforce is being lured away to higher-paying, lower-demand jobs in the cannabis industry. Bobby Stuckey of the acclaimed Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder tells Bloomberg that “Colorado’s restaurant labor market is in Defcon 5 right now, because of weed facilities.”

Colorado’s legal pot industry is currently valued at around $1 billion, and it takes a lot of labor to fuel that, from “budtenders” (the weed gurus who serve on the front lines at dispensaries) to trimmers and even pastry chefs, who help produce edibles like brownies and candy. While starting pay for budtenders hovers around $10 to $12, growers and trimmers can make around $20, sometimes with full benefits — and restaurants simply can’t match that.

Contributing to the labor shortage isn’t the only way legal pot is affecting restaurants: Some chefs also say they’re seeing a drop in alcohol sales — as much as four percent — which they attribute to patrons coming in already buzzed from weed or edibles.

But while Colorado restaurants may be feeling the pinch as cooks depart to the weed industry for higher pay, that may not be the case everywhere: In Oregon, where recreational pot sales didn’t really get going until mid-2016, the weed industry is still dominated by low-paying jobs, with a 2016 study finding that dispensary workers only earn $21,000 a year on average.

Legal pot sales in North America totaled $6.7 billion last year, and the U.S. marijuana industry now employs an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people, a number that could triple in the next few years. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all approved recreational cannabis at the ballot box last November, meaning lots more weed jobs are on the way — and what exactly that will mean for restaurants will remain to be seen.

Denver Restaurants Feel Unexpected Sting From Pot Tourism [Bloomberg]
Help Wanted: Denver’s Staffing Scramble Challenges Restaurants [Eater Denver]
Pot Edibles Are All Grown Up [E]

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