Even restaurant operators with the best of intentions struggle when it comes to building and maintaining a healthy, supportive employee culture. Will COVID-19 change that? While it may seem like an impossible time for restaurants to invest in better pay and benefits for staff, some believe the current climate will create a bigger opportunity for operators who already have the building blocks of a strong team culture in place – and create yet another obstacle for those who don’t. For instance, restaurants with a strong existing employee culture have not had difficulty rehiring staff – even at a time when many workers are not seeing the benefit of coming off of unemployment. In a Forbes report, owner of the Cincinnati restaurant MashedRoots said, “I think it has become apparent that the way the industry is structured does not create healthy, stable work environments that are able to absorb disruptions and quickly adapt to changes.” As a result, he is changing the way he runs his business and develops staff. Has the pandemic brought to light any aspects of your restaurant culture that, with some adjustments, could fortify your business to survive challenges in the long term?
Longtime restaurant workers learn a wide range of hard and soft skills that can apply widely within the foodservice industry and outside of it – from team leadership to supply chain oversight to customer care. A new AI-based service called Talent Exchange is helping workers impacted by COVID-19 to quickly find jobs that align with their skillset. Backed by McKinsey & Company, the company counts Starbucks, Mondelez International and Pizza Hut among its participating companies. It may be worth considering if you’re an operator helping a longtime team member find a temporary job or if you’re scaling your staff back up. Restaurant Business reports that companies can upload a list of information about their furloughed or laid-off employees, then AI can suggest candidates to hiring businesses based on how well they are likely to match a role. Managers can also keep track of where furloughed employees landed so they can reconnect with them down the line.
The need for many U.S. states to revert to tightening safety procedures due to rising COVID-19 infection rates has added yet another challenge to the list of obstacles restaurant operators are managing right now: How to manage fluctuating labor needs. At a time when many operators were rehiring – both to meet consumer demand and the requirements of the Paycheck Protection Program – the closure of dining rooms and renewed consumer wariness about the safety of eating out have made it necessary for operators to pull back on hiring once again. It raises the question of how restaurant operators and the industry overall can hang on to their top talent. Your practices around employee engagement and development can help you differentiate yourself. Focus on relationships. The co-owners of the a Baltimore based restaurant group told Restaurant Dive that during the temporary closure of 14 of its 15 restaurants, they called their hourly workers every week to check in, raised money (and matched it) for gift cards for those employees, and held weekly grocery giveaways for workers. Another operator assisted with employee transport via Lyft and also increased wages to demonstrate a willingness to invest in employees in not only good times but also in difficult times too. Of course, providing financial rewards isn’t possible for everyone right now, so finding ways to make the work meaningful continues to be important. In a recent Eater report, a Miami restaurant manager said she is trying to take her current service model – which is basically that of a food fulfillment center that bags food and sends it out the door – and make it a meaningful one for employees who are used to making the in-restaurant experience memorable for guests. How can you make your current restaurant experience a meaningful one for your team?
In 2019, the annual employee turnover rate in the restaurant industry reached 75 percent – an all-time high. Labor challenges – whether in finding and hiring talent, providing training, allocating resources to pay and reward staff, or some combination of the above – are a key concern for the vast majority of restaurant operators. COVID-19 has added yet another wrinkle to those challenges. If labor is a challenge for you, you might learn something from Susan Reilly-Salgado, a former doctoral student who, more than 20 years ago, wanted to write her dissertation on the successful hospitality culture that restaurateur Danny Meyer had developed. She approached Meyer, agreed to work in his restaurant for six months, and then partnered with him to create the Hospitality Quotient (HQ) – a set of six soft skills they thought a high-performing employee in Meyer’s restaurants should possess. These skills – curiosity, empathy, integrity, kindness, self-awareness and work ethic – comprise just over half of the skills an employee should possess to do their job well, they believed, with the remaining skills being the technical skills needed to do a specific job. Even if your restaurant offers very different food or serves a different clientele, these qualities should translate. An empathetic employee will make an effort to ensure a guest with a severe food allergy receives the correct dish – and will be mindful of their safety as we emerge from the pandemic. A curious employee will take an interest in learning new skills on the job and will likely spark the kinds of new ideas you need to operate successfully in the current environment. As you look to bring employees back on board or even hire new staff, consider it an opportunity to elevate your service. When you screen applicants, what questions can you ask that will bring HQ qualities to the surface – or demonstrate that a person lacks those qualities?
Amid the rise of restaurant technology, many restaurant industry leaders have held that while robots and other technology would progressively be used to handle repetitive tasks once completed by employees, the employment landscape would also change, not just eliminating jobs but creating new roles that require human skills and allow people to build longer-term careers in the industry. This could be the year when that shift becomes more visible. In a QSR Magazine article predicting 2020 trends, GJ Hart, the CEO of Torchy’s Tacos, predicts this year will bring increased efforts by operators to attract and retain talent, such as providing educational benefits and other programs that help employees climb the corporate ladder. Torchy’s, for one, has a managing partners program that allows restaurant managers to operate their own locations. Taco Bell is also raising the bar when it comes to employee incentives. A recent Bloomberg article reports that the brand will be testing a higher salary – $100,000 – for restaurant managers in select U.S. restaurants in the midwest and northeast. (Current salaries for general managers at company-owned stores fall between $50,000 and $80,000, the report says.) While other brands may not be able to afford to transition to this kind of model, brands that are making such changes stand to alter the competitive landscape when it comes to hiring – and perhaps shift the kind of worker restaurants are able to attract. This year, what actions can you take – large or small – to make your business attractive as a long-term career prospect for the people you hire?
Storytelling is “the new strategic imperative of business,” according to a report in Forbes. A brand with a strong narrative is a powerful brand – and science backs up the power that stories can bring to a business. Studies have found that by telling stories, the brains of the storyteller and listener synchronize, creating a shared experience. The brand consultancy Buffer suggests three ways you can use storytelling to help your business as it relates to employees, vendors and customers: First, instead of offering suggestions to get people on board with your ideas, tell a story that has the outcome you’re hoping the suggestion would have achieved. Use persuasive language – bringing in quotes or stories from outside experts as needed – and simple, heartfelt words to get your message across. Then apply those actions to a challenge you’re facing using the communication vehicles you have at your disposal. Need to get your team to improve its waste management or food safety practices? Weave real-life stories into their training sessions. Want to make sure your guests know about your efforts to buy from local suppliers and support the community? Integrate language into your menu that describes the origins of your ingredients and make sure your marketing materials and social media communications tell stories about your local connections.
Your restaurant is only as good as your staff – and at a time when labor is a key struggle for many if not most operators, attracting and retaining talent is critical. If you need to improve upon your staff recruitment and retention strategy, check out Upserve’s recent report, “Server Success: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need on Restaurant Staff.” The report indicates that overall, the best employees tend to be reliable, dedicated, amicable, cooperative and communicative, according to Upserve’s experience working with thousands of restaurants throughout the U.S. But to determine which people are the best fit for your restaurant, it helps to drill down and assess what has already worked well for your business. What traits do your best employees share? What kind of lifestyle do your best employees lead? What is your staff’s average level of experience? Your top performers likely have much in common when it comes to their demographics and career path. Play to those traits when recruiting new employees. There are a plethora of questions you can ask a potential employee during an interview, but Upserve says these three questions can help you glean some of the best insights you need about a potential hire: Can you give me an example of how you offered assistance to someone in need? What is your strategy for bringing back loyal guests? When you learn that a customer is a first-time guest, what do you suggest? Questions like these can provide insight into a person’s demeanor and personality, as well as how well they can strategize when it comes to bringing in business. Being approachable and attentive can encourage loyal guests to return, but what’s even better is knowing which dishes to suggest based on customer preferences, being aware of special events and upselling items that are likely to bring satisfaction to guests.
“We’re only as good as the people we employ and they’re only as good as their quality of life.” That’s what Mike Shaw of Boston-based Broadway Hospitality Group told Restaurant Business about the organization’s ongoing focus on employee health and wellness as it scales up. But unlike many other sectors, the restaurant industry poses a challenge when it comes to implementing employee wellness programs. The industry’s long hours, high stress and easy access to unhealthy food and drink can set the stage for poor physical and mental health. However, investing in employee wellness can have a multifaceted impact on your ability to operate your business effectively – and if you’re looking for ways to promote employee wellness, you don’t necessarily have to make a major investment. Consider Noodles & Company, which offers reimbursement toward health- and fitness-related items as hiking boots, yoga classes and gym memberships, in addition to offering paid time off. At Broadway Hospitality Group, managers organize group fitness classes and partner with local gyms and speciality fitness studios for discounts. Restaurant Business reports that in a similar vein, employees at the New York City seafood restaurant Seamore’s gather for Wednesday morning runs, yoga and bootcamp-style classes in the restaurant. (Employee morale and retention have increased as a result: The owner of Seamore’s reports that 85 percent of the restaurant’s original staff remain.)
For many restaurant operators around the country, 2019 has been the year of the rising wage. As the restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates reports, 21 states announced increases for 2019, and several states that already had high minimum wage rates saw major rises. California and Massachusetts saw increases above 9 percent and Maine experienced a 10 percent climb. Further increases are coming in 2020. Can your menu prices alone accommodate these sorts of increases in your labor spending? It’s not likely. To help your restaurant thrive amid labor challenges, Aaron Allen suggests operators assemble a plan that involves strategies for menu development, marketing, labor optimization, brand relevance and rejuvenation, technology adoption and even robotics. For instance, crafting a well-developed menu can lift check totals, increase party size and help you identify opportunities for limited-time offers, upsells and new profit lines. Conducting an audit of your brand and what sets it apart, as well as of your past, current and future marketing activity, can help you fine tune your strategy and avoid overspending. Similarly, if you audit how tasks are completed in your restaurant and what you’re spending on the labor required to complete each one, you might identify ways to adjust your service model or uncover tasks that can be eliminated or handled by technology. Speaking of tech, what processes can you make more efficient and guest-friendly through the use of technology? Could a tech-based solution help you minimize ongoing labor challenges? You may not need to take action in every area but knowing where you stand in these aspects of your business can help you pinpoint weaknesses that can lead to financial challenges down the line – and help you identify and build upon your greatest strengths.
As the holidays approach, you and many other restaurant operators are likely holding your collective breath and hoping to avoid staff turnover. After all, if you have stretched your operation to accommodate a higher-than-normal rate of holiday traffic, catering orders and events, having your best staff on hand is all the more critical to delivering great service to your guests. But historically, annual employee turnover rates in the hospitality industry have far outpaced those of the private sector, with turnover in the restaurants and accommodations sector surpassing 66 percent compared to 44 percent in the private sector, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If your efforts to retain staff could use some fine tuning, consider recent research from Upserve. The company studied server performance across 3000 restaurants in the U.S. and suggests several tips for retaining staff based on that research. First, measure the average tenure of each position on your staff and design your milestones for incentives around that timeframe and beyond. When staff quit, conduct an exit interview to determine why they are leaving in case it provides insight about how you can keep the employees who remain. On that note, also conduct “stay” interviews with your long-time staff to determine why they stay and how you can keep them. At regular intervals, check in with your staff as a whole to get a realistic sense of the stressors or pain points that make their jobs more difficult and how you can help. Finally, encourage open communication with your staff so they feel comfortable sharing their input about schedules, training and development opportunities.