As he wrapped up a brunch shift at the Australian cafe Two Hands in the Little Italy section of Manhattan, Christopher Mortenson saw his phone light up. All afternoon, he had been waiting for the notification: ABC Cocina, an upscale Latin American restaurant in the Flatiron district, needed a line cook. He had an hour to get there.
When the shift ended, Mr. Mortenson started sprinting uptown. On his way to the restaurant, he ducked into a supply store to pick up a white chef’s jacket, which he threw over his T-shirt. He arrived at ABC Cocina just before 5 and spent the evening charring peppers with a blowtorch and stuffing pork into pillowy tortillas.
In December, Mr. Mortenson, tired of working 50 hours a week for low pay, quit his job as a cook at a vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan and became a full-time member of the gig economy. Now he races around New York, working shifts at a rotating cast of restaurants that use the hospitality staffing app Pared. So far, he has cooked in more than 70 kitchens, including Osteria Morini in Soho and Riverpark in Kips Bay.
“I have to turn the notifications off at night — I can’t sleep,” said Mr. Mortenson, 51, who has worked full time at restaurants in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Austin, Tex. “They send me so many jobs I can’t even look at my app right now without 10 jobs being on there.”
Gig workers are nothing new in the restaurant world. Every day, contractors on bikes and scooters deliver food for Uber Eats and DoorDash. But in a growing number of kitchens, contract workers now make the food, too.
With the restaurant industry facing its worst labor shortage in decades, Pared and a rival app, Instawork, are filling a growing void, as managers who have struggled to recruit permanent employees turn to the on-demand services for workers trained as dishwashers, servers, line cooks and even oyster shuckers.
As the apps become more established, some workers are exchanging the stability of traditional hospitality jobs for the flexibility of temporary employment. Others are using the apps to make a quick buck on the side. The development has raised concerns among some labor advocates, who argue that the same pay and equity problems that have emerged in other parts of the gig economy, like ride-hailing and delivery, could come to the restaurant kitchen.
“The workers don’t have access to a union. They don’t have access to collective bargaining,” said Ifeoma Ajunwa, a labor and employment law expert at Cornell University. “They basically are powerless to whatever the platform decides are the rules.”
Founded in San Francisco in 2015, Pared has more than 100,000 people signed up on its platform, along with several thousand restaurants in the Bay Area and New York. The company said it planned to expand to Washington, Boston and Philadelphia in the coming months.
Instawork, also founded in San Francisco, operates in 11 markets. A little under half a million people have signed up with Instawork. Pared has raised $13 million in venture capital, while Instawork has raised $28 million.
“The times are changing,” said Will Pacio, a co-founder of Pared. “Businesses need to evolve with the culture of the work force.”
Restaurants pay the apps for a worker’s completed shift. The apps then deduct a portion of that fee for themselves and give the worker the rest. Neither service would reveal revenue figures or its valuation.
Hourly wages vary based on a range of factors, including the location of a gig (a high-end restaurant in the Hamptons would pay more than a mom-and-pop eatery in Queens) and when the posting appears on the app (workers earn more for taking shifts that become available at the last minute).
In 2018, Pared’s gig workers made an average of $19.66 an hour, the company said. Instawork contractors earn an average of $22.77 an hour in the Bay Area and $19.37 in greater Los Angeles, according to Sumir Meghani, one of the company’s founders.
“We try our best not to talk about money in front of other employees that are employed full time at the restaurant,” said Zia Sheikh, a New York chef who picks up gigs through Pared. “You don’t want to go up to a line cook making $17 an hour and say, ‘Hey, I’m here doing a shift for $25.’ That’s not good for them.”
One frequent Pared customer is Jean-Georges Management, an upscale restaurant group based in New York that includes ABC Cocina. On July 4, more than 600 people gathered for a waterfront dinner party at the company’s new seafood location, the Fulton, where the guests dined on sashimi, caviar, and fish and chips.
“Hundreds and hundreds of pounds of fish were butchered that day,” said Gregory Brainin, the director of culinary development at Jean-Georges Management.
A few days before the event, Mr. Brainin had realized he didn’t have enough cooks to prepare all that fish. So he called Dave Lu, one of Pared’s founders.
“I told him, ‘I need eight guys for the Fourth of July, and these are the levels I need, and these are the specialists I need,’” Mr. Brainin said. “And he got it done.”
Though Pared and Instawork feel akin to the ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, or a platform like Wonolo, used by gig workers in various industries like retailing, manufacturing and hospitality, Mr. Lu likens it to the social platform LinkedIn.
“As they work on our platform, they gain skills and experience,” he said. “They get exposed to better and nicer and nicer restaurants, different environments and different cuisines.”
For chefs hoping to advance their careers, however, short stints through Instawork and Pared may not provide the kind of sustained experience they will ultimately need.
“I worry about hireability and the accumulation of skills over time,” said Mr. Brainin, the Jean-Georges director. “The person that temps for two years as their job — I don’t know how hirable that person then becomes when they do want to buckle down and get serious.”
Career development is not the only issue. Like Uber drivers, workers who use the hospitality apps are classified as independent contractors rather than employees, meaning they’re not entitled to benefits like health care, paid time off or unemployment insurance. Gig workers can buy occupational accident insurance through Pared and Instawork in exchange for a small slice of their wages.
“These apps are attractive in that they present a quick fix to finding work and finding labor,” said Ms. Ajunwa, the law professor at Cornell University. “But they’re also dangerous in that they can doom workers who use them to a lifetime of precarious work.”
Still, with unemployment low and restaurants struggling, the apps seem poised to grow, potentially exacerbating the shortage of full-time employees. A recent report by the research firm TDn2K found that 93 percent of restaurant chains said their kitchens were often understaffed. Across the country, restaurants have tried a variety of strategies to recruit new employees, including quarterly bonuses and a partnership with AARP.
“Not only is turnover high,” said Victor Fernandez, an industry analyst at TDn2K, “but employees are quickly deciding that there are better options somewhere else and taking those options.”
Among them is Mr. Mortenson, who said he could not imagine going back to a full-time restaurant job. “I’m making more money than I have ever made in this industry,” he said. “This is crazy.”
Part of the appeal, he said, is that the app exposes him to new experiences, whether icing gingerbread cookies at Bouchon Bakery or cooking short ribs for Twitter employees at the cafe in the company’s New York office.
“It doesn’t make me a better cook,” he said. “But it’s so amazing to go into a new restaurant every day.”