Rush of applicants at D.C.'s new IHOP illustrates distress of a stalled economy

Some of the 120 hires at the new IHOP in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of D.C. say they waited two years to land their new jobs.
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 7:30 PM

In hundreds of applications for jobs at the District's new IHOP, candidate after candidate reels off impressive work histories: One woman was a clerk at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, another assisted clients at a tax prep firm, and another spent the summer canvassing for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's reelection campaign. "I speak Spanish well," wrote one woman, noting that she was also a choreographer at a dance school.

Last week's opening of an IHOP in fast-gentrifying Columbia Heights - home to Target, Best Buy and a gastropub featuring $7 pints of British draft beer - offers a glimpse into a stalled economy that has produced a vast pool of experienced job seekers, some of whom are desperate for work, yet quite conscious of having to aim lower than they might in better times.

Many of the IHOP's new employees, who spent last week memorizing the differences between, say, the Viva La French Toast Combo and the Stuffed French Toast Combo, said they were rejects from other major chain stores. Many had been seeking work for six months to more than a year. In the "reasons left" section of their IHOP applications, they boiled their career moves down to telegraphic phrases: "company layoff," "terrible mgnt," "maternity leave."

But even a buyer's market - in which employers have the luxury of sorting through hundreds of hopefuls - poses challenges. In a city with 10 percent unemployment, where more than a quarter of students don't graduate from high school, finding people who know what's expected of them in a workplace can still be difficult.

In the hectic days before the grand opening, IHOP trainers struggled to teach the rookies the menu and computer system - and how to hold their tempers. Veteran employees and managers treated the newbies like high-schoolers, chastising them for peeking at their cellphones, chatting with friends during instruction and running late to class.

One morning, when it emerged that hardly anyone had studied the menu the night before, the restaurant's director of operations, Stephen Bennett, boomed, "This is really disappointing! Disappointing! Disappointing!"

"They got a bit of a tongue-lashing," said Tyoka Jackson, a retired NFL defensive lineman for four teams who now owns the IHOP franchise with his father, a retired D.C. public library supervisor, and brother, a D.C. police officer. "I was worried. How were they going to respond to the pressure?"

The restaurant's 120 employees were chosen from more than 500 applicants, he said.

"The labor market is flush with people," said Jackson, whose family built the city's first IHOP in Southeast Washington - the first sit-down franchise restaurant in Ward 8. The nonprofit Anacostia Economic Development Corp. is a minority stakeholder in the new outlet. "It's a sad story on one side, but it's been a benefit to us. We were looking for people with hearts, people who smiled. You can't teach that. I can teach how you to properly take an order. This isn't Microsoft or Intel."

The IHOP applications read like a diary of the recession, as young people still searching for their first job compete with those who have been excessed from one position after another. Applicants earnestly, if clumsily, tout their abilities ("I am very savy with cash register. Have a great sence of honor . . ."), word processing skills ("type 25 wpm, Microsoft word . . ."), availability ("A.S.A.P."), and legal transgressions ("Open for discussion").

The IHOP's owners shared the applications with The Post on condition that applicants' names be withheld.

A comparison of two piles of applications - one containing 140 winners evaluated by Jackson family members, the other with 78 entries under a blue "Rejects" note - shows that the owners prized personality over education or work background. (More than 200 other applicants were weeded out earlier in the process by local job-training centers.)

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