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MattyC

Staffing drought - Where'd all the talent go?

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So this may be region specific, or it may be everywhere, but in my entire career, I've never seen such bleak times in trying to get staff - and not just talented and experienced staff, I mean *anyone*.

 

I live and work in the Boston area, and right now, I can't think of a single restaurant that isn't hard pressed for staff - FOH and BOH both, to the point where I routinely get texts from chef friends, reps, managers, asking if I can sub in for a line spot on __ night of the week. This isn't occasional either - I get these requests almost every weekend/week. My wife recently took control of a new restaurant from the group she works for, and with them it's bleak to the point where last week they were so short staffed I had to cancel my work plans to come cook for them, since aside from the dishwasher, she had *no* line staff on a Saturday night. When putting ads out for resumes this past week, she got 4, and the best one had maybe 4 years experience, most of which was in a school cafeteria. That's not just her place either, it's roughly the same all across town.

 

Now, I'm currently in the final month, maybe month and a half until my own place opens, and have started looking for staff, and it's rough, to put it lightly - I've gotten some response, but not nearly what I would be getting a year ago at this time. I did an interview with a reporter for a local paper today about the shortage of help because it's such a big deal where recent Beard winners, and incredibly well-known chefs and groups can't even hold enough staff, not just us little operations.

 

So I'm wondering - do others have this issue, or is this somehow Boston area specific? (which would surprise me). I know one of the reasons why Boston is getting hit hard by it is because so many chefs and resto owners are getting amazingly greedy - an incredible amount opening a 2nd, even a 3rd restaurant is as many years, flooding the market with yet another taco/burger/latest trend idea. Another reason I think, at least here why things are rough, is because inexperienced people are being promoted too early - I've had resumes pass through where they've been a 'sous' for the past year or two, when they have maybe 4 years *total* of kitchen experience - a lot of places are promoting people too fast just to hold on to people, so they don't get even more screwed, so the few people looking have no real experience or idea what they're doing.

 

Just curious as to what people think, especially if they're dealing with similar situations right now, or if they've had to deal with similar situations in the past, and how they dealt with them. I remember when I first moved to Boston, there were an incredible amount of people looking, and barely any jobs - I was very lucky at the time to land something right when I moved here. Now, every single restaurant is looking, and barely anyone to fill the most desperate of spots.

 

 

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I can think of several reasons that might be happening but here are two. I hope they are not too 'political' but I am pretty sure the restaurant industry is not the only one being affected.

1) Few people are satisfied with starting at the bottom any more. 'Entitlement' generation issue.

2) Often they can make more by not working than by working.

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Apparently Eater finally sees this as a problem as well, finally: 

http://www.eater.com/2015/8/10/9126169/restaurant-chef-shortage

 

I do agree Deryn, with the first one, quite a lot - personally I think a lot of the media has warped younger cooks into thinking they can pick up an isi canister, a chef coat, and launch a restaurant or at least a cdc position after only 3 years in a kitchen.

 

The article does touch up on the other obvious subjects as well, with the whole low pay thing and no health insurance - I don't see the no health as much these days, I've seen a lot of places try and do at least something, but yeah, pay still sucks.

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 "I know one of the reasons why Boston is getting hit hard by it is because so many chefs and resto owners are getting amazingly greedy - an incredible amount opening a 2nd, even a 3rd restaurant is as many years, flooding the market with yet another taco/burger/latest trend idea. Another reason I think, at least here why things are rough, is because inexperienced people are being promoted too early - I've had resumes pass through where they've been a 'sous' for the past year or two, when they have maybe 4 years *total* of kitchen experience - a lot of places are promoting people too fast just to hold on to people, so they don't get even more screwed, so the few people looking have no real experience or idea what they're doing."

 

I think this is a big part of it.  In Seattle,  two local restaurateurs have something like 20-25 restaurants between them, and many more chefs have opened 2-3 locations.  Plus, it seems like everyone who was ever a sous chef has opened their own place, and you have another fraction of the industry splitting off to start some other specialty food business.  I left a good pastry chef job to struggle as an independent chocolatier with the goal of having a little chocolate/pastry shop within a few years. 

 

I see the industry expanding more rapidly than the talent pool, and too many kids who went to cooking school but didn't learn how to WORK.  And yes, some of the entitlement that you & Deryn mentioned.  They love to talk about how passionate they are but fail to actually get the work done.  I like to talk about food, which is why I come here in my free time.  At work, I'm trying to get as much done as possible, not standing around talking about who I'm following on Instagram.

 

You're also right about chefs holding on to cooks because they are afraid of not being able to replace them.  That happened at my last restaurant job, the CDC who opened the new location left, a new CDC came on who I really liked but was kind of a hard ass on the cooks, the cooks all threatened to quit, new CDC got fired and the line cook who had been promoted to sous not long earlier was stuck running the place.  He didn't really want the job and wasn't cut out for it, but the cooks stayed.

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The Boston Globe has picked this up: Chef shortage leaves restaurants vying for help

 

One of the recruitment incentives mentioned is assistance with paying back student loans from culinary school.

 

MattyC, is that you who is quoted in the article?  Nice shout-out for the new restaurant, maybe it will help attract some staff. Best of luck!

 

 

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Ha yeah that's me, I didn't know they were going to have me as the closer, which I won't argue with - turn out the reporter will be moving this month to within a block from where I'm opening the place up, so she was personally pumped, so I think she wanted to give her own props to me using me a little more than the others.

 

Although with my case in particular, I told her the reason why I hadn't started hiring anyone yet was because interviews weren't scheduled until this week, but whatever helps the article I guess - the point still stands, it's bleak as hell, and saying I get about 6 per week isn't an exaggeration, that's actually how bad things are here. Sign on bonuses for *line cooks* are actually being offered at some of the larger places. That's how desperate people are.

 

I actually had someone yesterday offer to pay me money to delay my place from opening so I could come work for them and help them out because they weren't sure how they were going to start staffing their restaurants soon. Kind of insane.

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On an entirely different planet, Chefsfeed put an article up today as well about why nobody can staff up their restaurants, saying they polled a bunch of cooks, and say the reason is because the cooks have... self-esteem issues? http://sharing.chefsfeed.com/stories/227-what-cooks-want

 

I had to comment on the article because to me, this is ridiculous. Essentially the writeup talk about how cooks need to chefs to give them a self-esteem bump, make them feel good, and encourages cooks to look for the jobs that are only the most creative and envelope pushing.

 

So what I got from the article is that nobody, anywhere, can find enough talented staff, or just staff in general, because we aren't creative enough, and because we don't list 'emotional fluffer' next to our chef job descriptions. Not because there are too many restaurants opening, and that cooks and being promoted too fast. No.


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Here's the Washington Post on the subject.

 

Here in Phoenix, we have had a proliferation of food trucks and small places with owner-operators while at the same time seeing a decline in tourism due to national groups boycotting the state. There are 4 culinary schools in town, and we see a lot of graduates emerge from these schools every year, but the job market here is lagging behind the rest of the nation -we're leading the country in the number of underemployed (people forced to take part time work when they want FT) people. There's also the depressing truth that the Taco Bell near my house pays $11/hour and has some basic benefits, but I know the head pastry chef at one of the few 5-star places in town, he earns $9/hr and gets no benefits.

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I think the food channel is also partly to blame. So many of the shows make all the jobs in the restaurant business sound like they are just a step away from stardom.  Even the busboy can dream about a Guy, Rachael or Alton stopping in and being amazed by his sheer talent as he clears tables and sweep up crumbs.  Oh my, just who we have been looking for to be our next star in Busboys of the World.  

The nltty gritty side of working in a restaurant, front end or back is glossed over  Why settle for a mundane job, when fame and fortune await around the next table?  

 

I notice a trend to have shows staring second or third rate country music stars.  Each show features a "cast" or their friends and we are supposed to grovel in envy while watching them eat grits and jowls  So kids,while waiting for Alton to show up, you might want to learn a few basic cords on the guitar and buy some boots...ya just never know....In the meantime, keep that day job.

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Its certainly all of the above and a few more than have been listed here, but in the end its hard work and most people just don't want to do it.

Hard work, yes; I think for some people the bigger deal is that it's work at lousy hours when you'd rather be home with your family, and in many cases with minimal benefits.

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MelissaH

Oswego, NY

Chemist, writer, hired gun

Say this five times fast: "A big blue bucket of blue blueberries."

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My sense is that a lot of young people have left the workforce. To do what, I don't know.

 

When I post an ad for an entry-level job (in my non-food business) I get no young people applying. None under 30 years old or so.

 

There seems to be a lack of gumption, spunk, and stick-to-it-iveness in kids today. 

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It's no mystery to me, restaurant talent is leaving the industry because they have things like rent and food to pay for....

 

As a comparison, a few years before I went to Switzerland, (early'80's) the entire hospitality industry was going through a turmoil.  The hospitality industry was wondering where all the cook, baker, and server apprentices were, and they knew if they couldn't figure out why, there would be no new talent in the pipelines for years to come.  The  answer came back, future apprentices were going into other fields where a 5 day week was the norm--the hospitality industry insisted on a 6 day week.  Hotel owners frothed and fumed at the mouth, but eventually had to give in and offer a 5 day week--albeit  5 days of split shifts, but still a 5 day week. This was in 1982....     Ironically, when I left Singapore in '97, the hospitality industry there still insisted on a 6 day week, and were busy cursing the local work force and trying to recruit staff from neighboring Malyasia, Indonasia, and the Philippines.

 

 

 

The N. American hospitality industry, I feel, has dug their own grave, and below I will list my reasons why:

 

-There is no definition of what a cook actually should be capable of, or what body of knowledge s/he should posess.  How then, do you design a culinary school curriculum?  How do you then design a "living wage"?

 

-There is no definition of what a server shuld be capable of, or what body of knowledge they should posess.  Oh, and let's not get into the whole tipping issue.......

 

-The culinary schools as I have said before, have no benchmark or qualification to base a curriculum on, but more importantly, have no criteria of what a prospective student should posess.  The biggest problem employers have, are culinary school graduates who need to pay huge school debts, but have no practical working experience within the industry prior to culinary school.   This problem is a clear responsiblity of the culinary schools, and they won't own the problem.

 

-There are no standards or qualifications for restaurant owners.  Basically anyone with cash and who can pass the health inspection can open a place.  The failure rate of restaurants  within the first year is...well, let's just say that 99% of the financial instutions won't lend money for a venture unless the applicant has a prior succesful business under their belt.  A poorly run and financed business will pay the absolute minimum for staff, and this does nothing to raise the standards for the hospitality industry, and yet there are too many poorly run restaurants.

 

-The hospitality industry relies on various gov'ts to set minimum wages, and then they base wages on this.  If the industry wants future cooks and servers in the pipeline for the next 50 years they need to figure out their own minimum wages.  This requires a series of benchmarks and/or qualifications, but there aren't any.  Anyone brave enough to want a Gov't to do this?  Or should the hospitality industry actually take ownership of this conundrum?

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Matty, I think Chefsfeed has a point.  Young cooks want to be creative and contribute, they don't want to put in the time taking direction from someone else, making someone else's food.  It's nice that the industry has become somewhat kinder, gentler, and less sexist, but its still not about making friends, its about getting the job done.

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Edw J, good analysis.

 

The restaurant industry could learn from another sector of hospitality...golf. Hours are long and pay isn't great at the low levels, but the PGA has defined what the qualifications for a golf pro are and what the steps are to get there.  Big golf companies eg Club Corp (and many others) have in house training and are good for a whole career.

 

There needs to be a cooking equivalent of the PGA (which developed in response to a lack of standards and respect for golf pros).

 

One of the definitions of "professional" includes self-governance and setting of standards. Cooks ought to militate for such an organization.

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In partial response to Edward J, and some others, I often find myself as an ACF member, in an odd spot. (I am also a culinary school grad and former culinary instructor.) I agree that overall the industry needs a detailed benchmark system. The ACF has one, with weaknesses, but it has one. That said, I have gone through some hoops and passed some benchmarks. Sure, I only have a low level certification, but, I have renewed faithfully, gotten my CE credits, taken the ACF specific university level classes (in sanitation, management, and nutrition), read the magazine, attend events, mentor, etc. It's been really discouraging for me having employers not know anything about the ACF, and not value industry experience. Of course, all of those employers were themselves people with no industry experience.

 

I think a lot of this is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. -Like the Amy's Baking Company episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares; civilian owners who actively mock time-tested procedures, methods, formulae, and anyone experienced in them. So many people think they can just open a restaurant without experience, maybe even take it easy in retirement and run a place as a way to relax! I cannot think of another industry where people just assume they could dive in and do well with no training or experience.

 

Those employers with experience, people who worked their way up the ladder, are a rare breed now and often run much smaller kitchens than comparable chefs did in the past. With so many food trucks, and farmer's market stalls and such, a lot of trained chefs now have a couple of employees instead of a brigade.

 

I also think the rise of chains (at all levels) has done away with a lot of opportunity. So many chains just use boil-in-bag food and pre-prepped produce now, they don't train anyone to really cook. It's all checking temps and tearing open bags. So, fewer 'cooks' now perform much simpler tasks. Even places like McDonald's and Burger King have evolved to minimize actual cooking done on site. On the baking side, very few grocery store bakeries actually bake anything. Most just assemble premade cake layers, that ship to the store frozen, with filling you just add water to, and icing that comes in tubs. I was at a pastry chef convention and a Food Network famous cake decorator, when asked for her cake recipe, just shrugged and said she uses cake mixes so she doesn't have to 'worry if it's good or not'. (she makes wedding cakes for Hollywood stars who pay big bucks!) Dunkin Donuts thaws pre-made out doughnuts now, just like Einstein Bros thaws out their bagels -and unbags pre-sliced produce and meats for sandwiches. So, despite there being more restaurants than ever, the actual cooking being done is very, very little.

 

Those who go to school generally come out with a lot of debt and pretty quickly find out that starting out on the bottom means not being able to make their payments. (I had a job a couple years ago where the owner yelled at me every day I worked because he was paying me $10/hour PT and I was the highest paid employee and my 12 hours a week was apparently bankrupting him.) And, yes, most schools should require longer internships, externships, apprenticeships, etc. I know of owners who won't hire students or graduates because of bad experiences, although when pressed, they admit they didn't give a pre-employment market basket or knife skills test either. (when I was in school, there were 'students' who did almost nothing but show up the minimum number of days required and were drunk/stoned all the time -and some who applied themselves and practiced knife skills daily, etc. -you gotta figure out which type of student you're hiring, sadly enough, they all got diplomas)

 

So, I don't have a solution. But, I think for a long time places like the US leaned on imitating systems from places like France. We used to use some of their systems but, we never set up the fundamentals the way they did. So, we don't have professionally educated servers, we're stuck with a weird tipping system, we don't have eleven year old apprentices becoming true master chefs at age 30, and the public at large doesn't respect the work. (if they did, would anyone eat at a place that only serves boil-in-bag food, like Chili's? would anyone watch the American MasterChef show?)

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I'm not in the business but ...

 

low pay, lousy benefits, crummy hours, high pressure, uncomfortable working conditions, often hostile work environment, lack of affordable housing, and yeah - hard work.

 

Guess I'm only surprised the crunch didn't come sooner. Maybe raise prices and compensation until the workload and staff retention balance out.

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It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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I think the food channel is also partly to blame. So many of the shows make all the jobs in the restaurant business sound like they are just a step away from stardom.  Even the busboy can dream about a Guy, Rachael or Alton stopping in and being amazed by his sheer talent as he clears tables and sweep up crumbs.  Oh my, just who we have been looking for to be our next star in Busboys of the World.  

The nltty gritty side of working in a restaurant, front end or back is glossed over  Why settle for a mundane job, when fame and fortune await around the next table?  

 

I notice a trend to have shows staring second or third rate country music stars.  Each show features a "cast" or their friends and we are supposed to grovel in envy while watching them eat grits and jowls  So kids,while waiting for Alton to show up, you might want to learn a few basic cords on the guitar and buy some boots...ya just never know....In the meantime, keep that day job.

Have you seen Michel Roux's show about 'service'? In England, he took high school dropouts from the poorest areas of London (I think they were all from there) and spent many weeks teaching them to try to make them into at least adequate servers for fine dining restaurants. At times it is sad, at times it is hilarious. Their attitudes stunk for the most part. And when attitudes stink, little gets learned. He ultimately did manage to 'improve' upon the raw product somewhat (there was nowhere to go but up, mind you) in the end but I am not sure even the best was really a candidate for a busboy job even then.

He had to teach them the basics - showing up on time, being dressed appropriately, hair/makeup, how to carry a plate, how to smile, when it is not ok to have a tantrum in public. These are things most people learn in kindergarten. :(


Edited by Deryn (log)
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Matty, I think Chefsfeed has a point.  Young cooks want to be creative and contribute, they don't want to put in the time taking direction from someone else, making someone else's food.  It's nice that the industry has become somewhat kinder, gentler, and less sexist, but its still not about making friends, its about getting the job done.

Yes and no - to me, being given more freedom, and a chance to be creative, come later, and for me, have more to do with staff retention, than actually getting them in the door. I know I went off on them a bit, but I (think?) I tried to say that I didn't think that these were bad things to instill in cooks, but to list this as a reasons why people weren't even applying in the first place were silly, not to mention that as a requirement of bringing someone on, I'd have to fluff up their self esteem for them? Nope.

 

So, after interviewing, and listening to other chef friends in the industry hire over the course of the week, I'm even more certain that it's these two primary things: Too many restaurants, and the media glitzing everything up. Here's why I think that, and almost nothing to do with shitty pay (which has always been there):

 

First, pay is always being listed as 'to be determined' with not just myself, but a lot of good restaurants around here - I would think if pay were one of the main issues, people would at least apply, and inquire as to what they would get paid if they were to get it, before even not showing/cancelling/etc. Only the much larger places even list right in the ad what they would pay, still get almost no responses - even the places paying well with sign on bonuses, health plans off the bat, etc. Just doesn't seem like compensation is any more of a factor than it was before - I actually almost believe maybe they just all think even if they start off getting paid like this, they'll make it 'big', so in the end won't matter.

 

Another occasion, I actually had a person 'need' to change an interview date on me because '3 of his favorite restaurants were expanding again', and he wanted to set up a time with them ASAP - aside from how stupid that was, I don't remember the last time in my career I heard that 3 places I loved were getting new locations all at the same time, let alone one really. I remember just being happy that <restaurant> was awesome, not hearing that <restaurant> was now trying to open it's 3rd location in 3 years. They need to stop being greedy. Another example being the week we announced that my place was opening, and where, we were the only 'new' place talked about that whole week on Eater and other media sites - every other single bit of opening or hiring news was another local restaurant expanding. It's nuts.

 

Concerning how I feel the media has been fucking things up, I've had I think 2 people stand out with this in particular. One, when I called to just *set up* the interview, actually told me one of his best skills was making fluid gels  - not talking about management skills, nothing about knife work, what stations he's worked/familiar with, even a dish he's been proud of, etc etc. Just out of the blue, 'Hire me because I can make purple gel'. I still ended up interviewing him, and at least giving him a stage (he didn't seem like a complete idiot) - turns out, he had only worked at 'modern' restaurants out in chicago and here, and literally had no idea how to do almost any of the basics. He was almost my age and had no idea how to properly sear something. It was a disaster, and flubbed almost all of the food he made for the stage. And yes, he made me gel. Meyer lemon I believe it was. You know what position he had interviewed for? Sous. I wouldn't even give him line cook with how he treated some of that product.

 

Another, after an 'ok' interview, ended up turning the position down (a prep cook, mind you), because we'll be wearing restaurant shirts, and having nice aprons made for the staff, not long sleeve chef coats. This was the deal breaker. Not the food, pay, schedule, but the fact that we weren't going to 'look like chefs'.

 

Now granted, these were the two extremes - most people were normal, and I ended up already hiring at least 2 people, and have plenty of interviews over the course of the weekend, but come on. There was one other that was just as ridiculous, I just didn't even interview him - his resume actually listed 'restaurant instagram manager' to his job skills.

 

Maybe this isn't a lot of wackos, but it's two more than I got last year with claims and skills as stupid as these. 

 

I originally asked because I honestly don't know how to fix this, as it doesn't seem like one or two issues, it's a million - but I do think media and number of people expanding are the two largest factors. As long as restos are opening at this rate, I just don't see it getting any better, and I think the other reasons people are listing and reading about are more about staff retention, which honestly most people aren't even getting to.

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Another, after an 'ok' interview, ended up turning the position down (a prep cook, mind you), because we'll be wearing restaurant shirts, and having nice aprons made for the staff, not long sleeve chef coats. This was the deal breaker. Not the food, pay, schedule, but the fact that we weren't going to 'look like chefs'.

 

 

Ha! I hate chef coats! 

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Ha! I hate chef coats! 

I know right? I can't stand those things. Uncomfortable, and you know what, people still can look professional without whites, and I'd rather have people judge me for my food rather than how carefully folded my sleeves are. Plus a good apron just looks nicer, although I suppose that's more just personal preference to style.

 

Just too many wannabe chefs and caterers think buying an Egyptian cotton chef coat for 80 bucks automatically gives you talent. Irks me.

 

Off topic, I know, but it's one of the few things that really get under my skin when I work with people who 'need' a coat to feel validated.

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Maybe the solution is to grow your own cooks.

 

Get a relationship with the local community college and let them rotate through your kitchen. 

 

You'll have a list of trusted people after a while.

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I'm not in the business but ...

 

low pay, lousy benefits, crummy hours, high pressure, uncomfortable working conditions, often hostile work environment, lack of affordable housing, and yeah - hard work.

 

Guess I'm only surprised the crunch didn't come sooner. Maybe raise prices and compensation until the workload and staff retention balance out.

This. There's no incentive to work hard if you can't eventually buy a place to live.

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Chris Taylor

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I've never met an animal I didn't enjoy with salt and pepper.

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This. There's no incentive to work hard if you can't eventually buy a place to live.

 

Do cooks think if they open their own place they'll be more financially stable?  I'll admit I have dreams of grandeur and hope that chocolate will make me enough money to retire in 15-20 years.


Edited by pastrygirl (log)
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