By Sam Haas, city editor

Years before Rahul Sharma thought about starting a company, the Northeastern University graduate student worked behind the counter at a Starbucks, where he experienced firsthand the chaos and unpredictably of working part-time in the service industry.

Now, Sharma is running a new mobile platform called Jobletics intended to address short-term staffing problems in restaurants. Managers with suddenly-empty positions can post alerts via the mobile app. People with prior restaurant experience, vetted and approved by Sharma’s company ahead of time, will see the posting and can choose to cover the shift within an hour.

“We’re creating something [that] allows managers to hire who they need when they’re in a crunch,” Sharma said. “The industry is very transient and very volatile when it comes to staffing.”

Sharma, whose startup has received funding and support from on-campus venture accelerator IDEA, first tried to mitigate service industry staffing problems via an online job board he put together in the Bay Area. However, the people hired through the site were leaving after very short periods of time, reflective of the 30 percent turnover rate in restaurants and food service jobs. Sharma chose to change track to focus on staffing crunches.

“For businesses and clients, you should never feel like you can’t handle volume and can’t handle shortage,” Sharma said. “If there’s a system out there like ours being your safety net of sorts… you can almost hand off all the worry you have to us.”

In addition to serving a need for restaurants, the platform will empower workers seeking more control over their jobs, according to Sharma.

“The ability to be autonomous and have control of your life at the end of the day, your ability to work whenever and wherever, is very powerful,” he said. “Then you combine that with the fact that ‘Hey, I’m not at the mercy of these employers.’”

Autonomy is appealing to service industry workers because it allows them to work as much as they want, according to Kenan Verna, a Joblete – the team’s term for its on-demand workers – and lead brand ambassador for the company. While Verna hasn’t filled an on-demand shift through the app yet, he said he looks forward to the choices it may offer him in the future.

“I tend to work three or four jobs at a time,” Verna said. “[Flexibility] is better for us in the service industry because I feel like I’m on demand and I know I can always get work – or rather, if I have free time I can choose something.”

Jobletics also appeals to workers because it puts them on equal terms with managers, where they have the choice to accept or decline a shift, Verna added.

“Because of the short staff, if you’re working in the restaurants you tend to be unable to call out or do anything,” Verna said. “In some instances if you call out while the restaurant is short-staffed, you can’t come back… Having that flexibility is very important to me.”

Currently, Jobletics is conducting pre-beta testing with a small pool of employees, focusing mostly on the app’s functionality and the interaction with restaurant staff. In January, the company intends to launch a larger closed-beta testing period spanning at least four months and involving more Jobletes and several Boston-area restaurants.

One of those is La Morra, a casual fine-dining restaurant located in Brookline.

“There’s no reason not to join,” Emily Vena, chef-de-cuisine, said. “If I do find myself in a bind, I can check the app.”

While the platform could help fill open stations at the last minute, its usefulness may be limited by the nature of some restaurant jobs, according to Vena.

“For a restaurant like La Morra, realistically, [Jobletics] can only fill a few positions, like busser or dishwasher… or even prep cook,” Vena said. “Unless they continually work with us through Jobletics, they aren’t going to show up and fill the grill station.”

Vena also said that should such a worker come along, she would attempt to hire them directly as an employee instead of going through the app. While that may happen in some instances, the nature of Jobletics means it will attract people who are looking to control their own shifts instead of signing on with one restaurant, according to Sharma.

In the end, Jobletics aims to help experienced service industry employees find work on their own terms, filling a need for restaurants in the process.

“The real vision here for the company [is] to really be able to give people who have skills and are mobile the ability to work wherever and whenever they want,” Sharma said. “There’s no reason if you’re skilled and have the ability to do work, you shouldn’t do it.”

Photo courtesy Rahul Sharma