As so many restaurant operators struggle to recruit and retain employees, it may help to consider tapping into alternative sources for potential staff. For a growing number of operators, that has involved hiring people who have been through the justice system and are reliant on their work as a bridge to an independent life. Recently, 50 representatives from around the country joined the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the success of the Foundation's HOPES (Hospitality Opportunities for People (Re)Entering Society) program, which has enrolled more than 700 people who have been through the justice system and were subsequently connected with career opportunities in the restaurant, foodservice, and hospitality industry. The program, which launched in 2019, is a collaborative effort across seven states to identify, train, employ, and ultimately advance people who have been through the justice system and are seeking a career path in the restaurant industry. It facilitates work-readiness and restaurant industry-specific training through its network of state Departments of Corrections, state restaurant associations, and 13 community-based organizations. Following their training, participants are connected with opportunities through its network of local and national employer partners, including MOD Pizza, Inspire Brands, and Dave's Killer Bread Foundation. Chooserestaurants.org provides more information about the program, its results and how to get involved.
In September, the restaurant industry added 60,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the industry is still 4.5 percent below pre-pandemic staffing levels, the data represent a healthy jump in employment for a sector hit hard by the pandemic. While the majority of operators expect economic conditions to deteriorate in the coming months, according to a National Restaurant Association survey, such an environment may shift the dynamics of the labor market, bringing a fresh infusion of people looking for employment and a continued uptick in hiring. For restaurants, this represents an opportunity to attract and retain talent – but doing so relies on having the kind of culture in which staff can thrive. In a recent podcast, Brant Menswar, an author and speaker who helps organizations navigate change and improve culture, shared several components of high-performing cultures. He said top cultures offer connection – a sense of purpose, belonging and partnership with others toward reaching a common goal. They provide safe spaces where people can contribute without fear of ridicule and be their authentic selves. These cultures offer opportunities for personal growth – and that could be through professional opportunities and responsibilities and/or opportunities for personal improvement. Finally, employees need to be given the freedom and authority to make decisions and find creative solutions to problems. If and when the dynamics of the labor force shift, will your restaurant provide the kind of culture in which people can thrive?
Labor needs have been soaring at restaurants, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at enrollment in culinary schools. According to a recent Washington Post report, the Culinary Institute of America now accepts 97 percent of all who apply, up from 36 percent two decades ago. Over the same time frame, the percentage of students who ended up enrolling dropped from 91 percent to 33 percent. To be sure, the low pay in the sector relative to the cost of culinary education, the strains of the pandemic on the industry, and increased prioritization of flexible work schedules, paid sick leave and health insurance haven’t helped those results. The industry’s labor challenges are expected to persist: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the need for chefs will climb 25 percent from 2020 to 2030 as compared to an 8 percent average projected growth rate for all occupations. All that said, there is a silver lining for those looking to enter the industry – and for restaurants looking for motivated staff. The current conditions may provide aspiring chefs with the opportunity to get on a faster track to higher-level positions in the industry. One restaurant manager quoted in the Post report said jobs that once required a person to pay their dues over 10 years or more might now be achievable within three to five years. Candidates for these jobs may not come from the country’s top culinary schools but from high school culinary programs or other alternative programs that give students a taste of restaurant work and may spark some motivation for developing a career in the industry. Restaurant operators may have to mine for talent in new places and develop more in-depth training programs that provide education on the job in exchange for work provided. But at the same time, these efforts may also help transform how restaurant employment is perceived by the workforce, elevating restaurants as places in which a person can build a long-term career.
The National Restaurant Association has said that employee turnover in the restaurant industry is nearly 75 percent, compared to about 49 percent for the total private sector. So as painful as the Great Resignation has been for the US economy overall, restaurant operators have felt it especially severely. Restaurant companies that are succeeding at recruitment and retention right now are taking steps to be as proactive as possible at bringing in potential staff and then giving them the career options and stability they need to stay. In a recent webinar, “The Future of Food: The Role of Technology in Restaurant Recruitment and Retention," presented by SmartBrief, Jamie Starner of Bartaco mentioned that every one of their applicants is likely applying for seven other jobs at the same time, so it’s critical to make it easy for people to apply for open positions and then respond to their inquiry promptly. To make that happen, the company uses QR codes to connect people to their open positions, sends applicants a text in response, and uses the Calendly app to encourage applicants to schedule their interview on the spot. Keeping staff happy, according to the restaurant leaders on the webinar, has been about showing them potential career paths at the company, polling them regularly to better understand what they need, and offering the stability and flexibility that comes with offering a salary and other benefits. Instead of accepting tips, some incentivize good service through bonuses provided in exchange for high online reviews each month. For Kelly Phillips of Destination Unknown Restaurants, being able to provide a salary and a career path more akin to what someone might find in other parts of the private sector has been about operating as leanly as possible – using handheld POS devices has helped the company slim down the number of staff needed, for example, so the company has the resources to take good care of the ones on hand. As a result, she says, she doesn’t often have server openings, doesn’t have the ongoing expense of recruitment, and some former servers have stayed to become partners in the company.
While the leisure and hospitality sector added 67,000 jobs in the latest report from the Labor Department, indicating the ongoing rebound of the sector, the demand for restaurant food is continuing to stretch labor. In other words, it’s more important than ever for the people restaurants do successfully hire to stick around. Have you adapted your recruitment and retainment approaches to fit the current candidate’s market? Focus on finding the right fit from the start. In a recent report from QSR Magazine, the head of client success at Harver, a recruitment partner for McDonald’s and Chili’s, shared that it helps to identify the key skills you need from a person by giving them situational judgment tests. These include a series of scenarios that relate to the role and ask a candidate how they would respond. Much like considering the experience of a guest, streamline the application process and remove obstacles that could get in the way of their understanding the role accurately. Be crystal clear about the requirements of a job by avoiding jargon and providing examples of the kinds of situations a team member is likely to have to manage on the job. Think about your business as a launching pad for hires – what opportunities do you offer to help people develop new skills that help them progress in your business or can transfer to other industries? Where are there opportunities for you to offer flexibility? Finally, while your perks and benefits may get a person in the door, they won’t earn their loyalty if there isn’t a strong workplace culture in place. Focus on building and sustaining a close, supportive team.
Labor – specifically, the recruitment and retention of staff – is among the top challenges restaurant operators say they are facing this year, according to recent surveys from the National Restaurant Association. The pandemic has amplified operators’ need for staff and also increased already-high quit rates in the industry. But on the positive side, it has also motivated many foodservice brands across the industry to creatively transform restaurant jobs into longterm careers. Two executives from Los Angeles-based Everytable landed on Nation’s Restaurant News’ 2022 Power List for developing a program to do just that – and it reflects Everytable’s values to make healthy food more available in food deserts. In a recent webinar with Nation’s Restaurant News, Everytable’s Christine Hasircoglu and Bryce Fluellen discussed the company’s new social equity franchising program, which includes elements that other brands might repurpose. They said that while women and minority groups are often the people working on the front lines of restaurants, their numbers dwindle at higher levels of restaurant leadership. Everytable set out to create new paths for leadership and ownership at their company by committing to hiring and promoting staff from within their company and their community – and also making franchise ownership a more achievable goal for these staff. To do so, Everytable partnered with philanthropic organizations to develop a program that guides candidates through a year-long, paid apprenticeship. It includes management and leadership courses, assessments and a final interview that, if successful, culminates in a franchise agreement for the person – and the seeds of a longer-term career in the industry. There are no up-front costs for the person upon the opening of the franchise (access to capital is often a major barrier to franchise ownership for marginalized groups), and the person signs an agreement to repay costs over a five-year period.
Are you using old-school techniques to attract potential hires? Like so much else in the industry right now, tech tools can help you reach the right people. If you’re already harnessing data to target your best customers and predict what they will want to buy, you can use the same approach to find staff. A recent report from QSR Magazine suggests taking the profile data of your best staff and setting out to find others with similar characteristics by creating “look-alike audiences.” Is there anything you are doing to attract and retain customers that can be adapted to potential employees?
Restaurant work, reinvented
As with so many other aspects of the restaurant business throughout the course of the pandemic, restaurant work is experiencing a period of reinvention – and it’s not all about raising wages. At its heart is the need to manage the work involved in the business so restaurants can offer meaningful roles and flexibly respond to turnover. A recent New York Times report describes how at a number of restaurants around the country, the kitchen hierarchy is being scrapped in favor of a more egalitarian system. This is playing out in a range of ways: At some restaurants, long-time employees are being given profit-sharing opportunities or even a stake in ownership so they have more incentive to commit to the business and help it thrive. At others, responsibilities are being shared more evenly, with employees being cross-trained in functions ranging from events to finance to food preparation – and being given opportunities to contribute ideas regardless of their rank. These steps – which many restaurants took during the pandemic in an effort to survive – are actually good long-term strategies that may make it easier for these businesses to roll with the challenges that come. This will make restaurant teams look different in the future – a smaller crew of higher-skilled employees who can recreate a recipe, manage incoming orders, interact with guests and make financially sound decisions, vs. a larger, more hierarchical team with different skillsets. By elevating the skills of its team, a restaurant can spread its risk more thinly – it won’t buckle if one employee leaves (though employees with meaningful roles are less likely to leave in the first place). Looking at your current staffing approach across your business, have you reverted to pre-pandemic approaches that need to be refreshed? Are there any roles that could be recast for improved post-pandemic resilience?
In a recent legislative update from Washington, Sean Kennedy, the National Restaurant Association’s executive vice president of public affairs, said the restaurant industry had lost 45,000 jobs at the end of August. Further, new vaccine and testing mandates at businesses with a certain threshold of employees on staff could also make already-challenging staffing conditions even more difficult. To be sure, this is not exactly the Covid-19 recovery that restaurant operators had in mind – but there are efforts underway to try and change that. Industry advocates are urging lawmakers to continue to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF), though Kennedy says it appears that members of Congress don’t want to add any Covid-recovery measures to the $3.5 trillion infrastructure spending plan in process, which is focused largely on climate initiatives, paid leave, childcare, education and healthcare. Because funding the spending plan will impact businesses in the restaurant industry, however, Kennedy is urging operators to add their names to Restaurants Act, a grassroots organization for the restaurant industry that is looking to generate broad support from the restaurant industry in order to urge lawmakers to continue to fund the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. (The fund closed to new applicants in May and according to a recent announcement from the Independent Restaurant Coalition, 82 percent of independent restaurants are concerned they may close permanently if the fund is not replenished.) You can join or learn more about the effort to refill the fund at Restaurantsact.com.
The restaurant industry is still trying to climb its way back to pre-pandemic employment levels. According to research from the National Restaurant Association, the industry is still about one million jobs shy of the 12.3 million jobs it offered before Covid-19 hit. Throughout the pandemic, many news stories have said the high rate of restaurant employee turnover was due to staffers’ unemployment benefits surpassing their restaurant earnings. But according to a recent report from Restaurant Dive, the reality is more complicated than that, and a combination of factors are responsible for escalating employee turnover: Among them are a shift of workers into other professions, a shortage of people with cooking skills and increasing reports of abuse on the job. But there are steps restaurant operators can take to help mitigate some of those problems at their own businesses. Restaurant Dive suggests adopting tech tools like on-demand pay apps, which tend to offer more flexibility on pay schedules. Further, it advises operators to be clear in job postings about wages, schedules, benefits, room for advancement, and incentives such as employee referral bonuses. Overall, put yourself in the shoes of a potential employee, who wants to work in a safe environment, understand their responsibilities on the job, be paid on time for shifts completed, and be granted some flexibility if and when their personal lives require it.