Labor Shortage Leads to Big Promotion For North Texas 19-Year-Old

Jason Cabrera is the general manager of Layne's Chicken Fingers in Allen

NBCUniversal, Inc.

The ongoing labor shortage is giving way to big opportunities for the youngest employees at Texas fast-food chain, Layne's Chicken Fingers.

The title of "general manager’" is traditionally reserved for older, more experienced individuals.

Not anymore.

“My name is Jason Cabrera, I’m the GM of Allen and I’m 19 years old,” he said with a smile.

You read that right.

Jason Cabrera, 19, is the general manager of Layne’s in Allen.

NBC 5 met the teen at the chain’s Frisco location.

He started out as a "toast boy" at 16 years old and was later approached by upper management about training to lead a franchise. He’s been in the position since late 2020.

“I was expecting it to come by early 20s or mid-20s, but I’m glad I’m here now,” Cabrera said. “I love having the pressure of running a whole store.”

Layne's CEO Garrett Reed has looked to his youngest, brightest employees to help the business expand amid a labor shortage.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get people in the door to interview, so when that dried up, we started to look around and said we need general managers. I’m sitting here talking to the kids and I’m like, 'Why am I not making you a general manager?' And they’re like, 'Uh, I don’t know.' And I’m like, 'Let’s do it,'” he exclaimed. “People call me crazy for promoting these kids, but they haven’t proven me wrong yet.”

Reed, by the way, said he refers to all his employees as "kids" because he feels they are a family.

The fast-food chain started in College Station and has added locations across the state. It expects to add four more locations in North texas by the end of the year -- Arlington, Celina, Cross Roads and Southlake -- if they can find 120 employees.

There are currently locations in Allen Frisco, Lewisville and Roanoke.

“We have multiple projects that we have working in DFW right now, and the biggest barrier is not real estate. It’s not cost. It’s employees," Reed said. "It’s getting people in the door to work for us. The hard part isn’t getting them to join once they come in. The hard part is getting them in the door.”

The company has added a bonus for current employees who refer a family member or friend.

Dallas College professor of economics Carlos Martinez said fast-food companies will have to innovate to survive in a post-pandemic economy.

“They’re going to have to compete for that age group of 16 to 24,” Martinez said. “For a long time, fast food chains have profited off of young or unskilled labor to get as much as they could out of them at low wages and people have too many options now.”

He also cautioned companies that such promotions can be risky and a huge load to place on young, inexperienced employees.

Reed said they’re losing out on employees to gas stations, Walmart and companies like Amazon with bigger purchasing power, able to pay around $15 per hour.

“We’re a small company,” he said. “It’s tough for us to compete with the other ‘big boys’ out there.”

Increasing wages could also threaten their expansion, Reed added.

“To get someone entry-level at $15 an hour, we would have to charge more for our food,” he said.

The restaurant industry is also struggling with a supply chain shortage that has led to rising prices for products, from chicken to paper goods.

“In the restaurant industry, we work on thin margins,” Reed said. “So it’s not just employees, but it’s all the costs across the board.”

Despite the challenges, Reed said he was confident Layne's will meet its goal and open four additional locations by the end of the year.

The company also plans to continue to offer weekly "Layne’s University" classes, teaching aspiring leaders how to run a business.

So far, three DFW franchises are run by people under 20 years old, he said.

Asked if their salaries match their title and not their experience, Reed said yes.

The GMs are making approximately $50,000 a year.

Cabrera said his duties are "crazy" and include everything from greeting customers to scheduling and ordering inventory.

“It’s a lot but it only took me a couple of weeks to get it all in and it’s been easy since then,” he said.

He said his family and friends, some still in college, have been impressed by his fast ascension at work.

“They’re like, 'Wow,'” Cabrera said. “They just don’t expect it. I guess I’m too young to be in this position, but you know I think I’ve earned the spot and I’ve done a good job.”

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