Hard Rock Cafe hiring in tough Anchorage market

Sean Doogan

Looking to land one of the 150 jobs being offered by the soon-to-open Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage, job seekers flooded the Egan Center downtown last week. The restaurant, the next stop on Hard Rock's international itinerary of restaurants, hotels and casinos, is expected to open this summer. The company is hoping its well-known brand and musical allure will draw in prospective workers.

But the company is facing stiff competition for employees in an Anchorage market that enjoys low unemployment. Anchorage is seeing huge growth among restaurants and retailers, two drivers of a local surge in service-industry job openings. The recent opening of Cabela's and the planned Bass Pro Shop, along with a new Olive Garden Restaurant, have helped the city add more than 400 retail jobs in the last year.

"The interesting thing is that we have such low unemployment that there aren't that many people in the job pool," said John Bittner, vice president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. "We like to say it's a labor puddle."

Bittner said that in April, when Anchorage's unemployment rate dropped to 5 percent -- considerably below the statewide rate of 6.5 percent and the national average of 5.9 percent.

Bittner said when a city experiences growth in its service industry and retail jobs, it's an indication local residents have disposable income. People don't go out to eat or spend extra money at the store when they are strapped for cash. That means there are a lot of retail openings in Anchorage these days, even if there aren't a lot of job seekers to fill them.

But Hard Rock managers claimed they aren't too worried about filling their Anchorage ranks.

"With us being music- related and known for great service, I think we will do really well in getting employees," said Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage manager Scott Brokaw.

Music, and the cool factor that comes with it, are big parts of the Hard Rock's draw to both customers and employees.

Flore Lekanof II, 44, who was hired Thursday as the new receiving clerk, is also a musician.

"To have that name (Hard Rock Cafe) on your shirt every day -- are you kidding?" Lekanof said. "Get out of here. It might as well say 'Guitar Center.' "

But it isn't just the music theme attracting local job seekers. Many want to work their way up in the chain that offers transfers to other locations and is known for promoting from within. The restaurant's West Coast director of operations, Scott Ponchetti, for example, started at Hard Rock Cafe 25 years ago as a busser.

"I want to work at the Hard Rock so I can grow in company and eventually become a manager," said 19-year-old Kaitlin Lewis, who was at the job fair Thursday.

Hard Rock officials declined to explain the pay structure or benefits offered to most employees. But Brokaw did say some of the jobs -- especially server positions -- would be paid at minimum wage. Servers and bartenders often make most of their income in tips from customers.

The Hard Rock Cafe makes a good portion of its earnings from sales of T-shirts and other logo items. Hard Rock Cafe swag is collected around the globe, and the company said it has already heard from people who want to book a trip to Alaska just to be among the first people to get the Anchorage-specific stuff.

The Anchorage location -- which is being built in the now-closed Rumrunners Bar and Grill on Fourth Avenue -- will be decorated with music memorabilia, including items from Alaska-related artists. After it opens this summer, the restaurant likely will have a grand-opening celebration.

Hard Rock managers said the chain usually books a prominent national musical act for all of its openings, but they declined to say who might come to Anchorage.