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

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.)

About 14 percent of IHOP's hires have college diplomas, trade certificates or vocational degrees, compared with about 21 percent of those in the rejected pool. Among the hires, 85 percent had work experience, versus 92 percent of those who were passed over. Hires were slightly more likely to have high school diplomas or GEDs - 86 percent compared with about 80 percent among those rejected.

And a smaller portion of the winners - just one in 10 - had committed crimes, compared with 15 percent of those turned down. Some accepted applicants wrote that they "will explain in interview" about their brushes with the law, but others detailed arrests for drug use, gun possession and solicitation. The rejects tended to list more serious offenses. One person wrote with unfortunate honesty: "I was a metro bus driver. I had a pedestrian accident . . . that caused fatality."

Those who were hired often arrived with a sense that although they needed the paycheck, they were meant to do better things.

On the first day of IHOP's training, scores of hires, mostly women in their 20s and early 30s, slid into burnt-orange dining booths and got ready for menu-memorizing boot camp. Surrounded by paintings of syrup bottles and pancakes, the class of future hostesses and servers was fidgety and chatty.

Kathy Stencel, a training team coordinator, told the class that it's their personalities that will put tips in your pockets, not the pancakes: "We're no different from anybody else out there on the street, especially now, the way the economy is. People don't eat out the way they used to. Now they make choices. Do we serve anything different from other places? Are our eggs any different from the guy down the street's eggs? Not at all. Are our burgers that much different from across the street at Five Guys?"

The class muttered back: "No."

Rules were announced: Hair must be up and netted. One earring, up to nickel size, per ear. No shirts with variations of the phrase "Eat Me." And most important: No cellphones. Leave them in the car or purse. Trainees squinted in disbelief.

Soon, they were poring over their textbook: an 11-page menu listing more than 100 items. Uniqua Kittrell, who has drifted from Ruby Tuesday's to Starbucks to a local steakhouse, and Kiana Murphy, 24, a laid-off nursing assistant, tried to grasp the concept of a "Denver mix," a green-pepper-and-onion concoction that goes with hash browns or eggs. But they seemed distracted by their own ambitions.

"I don't know what they're going to do with me when I go back to school," said Kittrell, who has two small children. "I am not working overtime."

"Yeah, it's too hard with a child," said Murphy, who has a 5-year-old. "I'm going to have my own business."

Murphy plans to begin training for her real estate license soon. "They're giving career seminars in December," she said. "If I am selling two or three houses a year, I'll be good."

Murphy fixated on her menu. A life of pancakes and $3.32 an hour plus tips was hitting her. "This is starting to depress me," she said. "Green peppers and onions. This is what you have to learn."

"You'll do it every day - it'll come naturally," said Sandra Redding, 30, another server trainee, who has an associate's degree in marketing and worked most recently assisting tax preparers at Jackson & Hewitt.

Murphy asked what people wanted to do before they died.

"I want to travel to Costa Rica," she said in answer to her own question. "I watched my father die, and he didn't see anything. It's not no sin to want more out of life."

The trainers, struggling to teach the menu and how to pronounce the word "crepe," made everyone switch seats so students would sit next to strangers and be quiet.

"There is no excuse for mistakes," yelled Chad Dunlap, the assistant manager. "You all need to listen. You're not going to make it. You'll be sent home. We're not going to deal with drama."

On opening day for the Columbia Heights IHOP - the chain's 1,500th - Mayor Fenty showed up. Even though it wasn't her day to work, Murphy came, too. She wanted to know what to expect later in the week.

"I'm grateful to be here," she said. "When I get frustrated, it's this sense I want something bigger. I want vacations. And vacation homes and a house connected to the ocean. I keep thinking, will I ever reach that?"

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