Staff Reporter

Folks sipping cocktails at the ultra-hip Fenix restaurant at the Argyle Hotel Sunset Boulevard or at the trendy Sky Bar at the Mondrian Hotel are no longer limited to actors, models, aspiring actors, aspiring models and other assorted hangers-on.

These days, they might include a thief or two.

But instead of looking for a wallet or purse, these thieves are spying for cocktail waitresses, bartenders or headwaiters.

With a spate of trendy L.A.-area hotels either opening for the first time or reopening after major renovations and more to come over the next year competition has become fierce to attract top-notch employees, especially the ones who deal directly with customers.

General managers are increasingly resorting to a time-proven recruitment technique: poaching from the competition. The typical method involves discreet visits to competitors' restaurants and bars. They observe the employees and then subtly approach the most impressive ones.

"If I'm at a restaurant eating dinner, and I really like the waitperson, I have a little card that says, 'I think you're great,' and it has our human resources number on it," said Bob Gregson, director of sales for the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood. "It's an 'I think you're great, I'd like you to work for us' kind of card."

Armella Stepan, general manager of Santa Monica's Shutters on the Beach, said that given the small number of people looking for work, trolling for prospective employees has become a necessity.

"Everyone is looking for talent everywhere they can," said Stepan, who herself recently took a job at Shutters after serving as general manager of the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood. "You have to go out and see what is out there. If we're dining at a restaurant that's a competitor to ours, and if we see a server that's exceptional, we will say that we're looking (for new employees) at Shutters on the Beach."

Dina Defterios, a publicist with the Exline Agency, which specializes in the hospitality industry, said she recently went recruiting with Lesley A. Carey, general manager of the Argyle, at the Mondrian. Carey "saw somebody there she really, really liked. She said, 'I need a new night manager, do you know anyone?' He automatically knew where we were going with that, and he said, 'I am really comfortable with where I'm at now.' "

Said Carey: "I go out once a month to all my different restaurants in the area and the different hotels just to experience the service. And if I find someone really good, I'll just say, 'I'm from the Argyle.' It's not like I go and hand business cards to everybody."

Poaching, of course, is not exclusive to the hospitality industry. Accounting firms lure away one another's employees, as do law firms and companies in nearly every industry. But unlike recruiters for law or accounting firms, hotel managers can visit their competitors' restaurants and bars under the guise of being an ordinary customer. It gives them the opportunity to observe prospective hires without those workers knowing they're being watched.

The ones who interact gracefully with customers are considered prize assets because of the high service standards at the Mondrian, Argyle, Standard and other trendy spots in West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Customers of such hotels tend to be from the entertainment industry and they expect exceptional service.

"How (waiters and waitresses) approach your table is so important," Carey said. "That sets the tone for the whole restaurant whether they are smiling, knowledgeable of the menu, knowledgeable of the wine list, how they interact with other servers, how they interact with the table."

Cynics might note that much of this boils down to simple good looks a point denied by the poachers, but hard to dismiss when magazines and TV shows routinely note the attractiveness of servers and bartenders.

"Everybody says it's not what's going on, but everyone at the Sky Bar (at the Mondrian) is absolutely gorgeous," Defterios said. "All the girls are beautiful. All the guys are beautiful. All the people at the Fenix are beautiful too. What a coincidence that is. But no one's ever going to admit to you that there is any sort of favoritism going on toward beautiful people."

Others point out that employees at L.A.'s hippest hotels happen to be wannabe actors and models who are, by definition, very good-looking.

"I think that has to do with being in Los Angeles that we have more people that are in the music and movie industries and are seeking out restaurant work," said Paul Gilnone, a manager at Fenix who also has worked at Mondrian. "It's supply and demand. You are in Hollywood. This is the breeding ground for attractive, enthusiastic, energetic people."

Some L.A. hotels even schedule their employees' work schedules around their auditions.

While many hotel managers concede they have stepped up their poaching activities, others are trying to move away from the practice. One reason is that it can be economically unfeasible.

"If you have a swinging door in your hotel all the time, it gets very expensive," said Carey, adding that she is moving toward trying to find prospective employees through hospitality schools instead.

Jack Naderkhani, general manager of L'Ermitage Beverly Hills, said he, too, avoids luring employees away from his competitors and discourages his workers from taking a competitor's business card.

"I don't personally feel like it's a good common practice to do," Naderkhani said, adding that if an employee takes a job elsewhere after being recruited at his hotel, he is less likely to hire them in the future. "One day our paths may cross again, so make sure you do it right."

But with more upscale hotels coming online soon including Le Merigot Santa Monica Beach Hotel this month the practice of stealing employees is likely to continue.

"The hotel industry in general is one where staff changes frequently," said Brad Burlingame, president of the West Hollywood Convention and Visitors Bureau. "(The stealing of employees) is typical in hotels where they're more upscale and they're looking for people who bring a higher degree of experience."

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