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.
At a time when restaurant operators are scrambling to find staff like never before – and perhaps lowering standards to do so – Chipotle managed to attract nearly 24,000 applicants through an online job fair recently. This occurred a week after the brand announced it was raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour. It’s no coincidence: Restaurant workers are demanding greater financial stability. While not every restaurant has the resources to raise hourly wages, it’s still a good time to scrutinize labor expenses and address weak points. Even before the pandemic, the turnover rate in the hospitality sector was higher than the turnover rate in nearly all other sectors. According to The Restaurant Technology Guys even an $8-per-hour employee can end up costing a company around $3500 in direct and indirect turnover costs. The more you invest in recruiting and retention up front can minimize your costs in recovering after an employee leaves. Even if you’re unable to raise wages, taking steps to prevent payment inaccuracies and ensure employees can access their wages and tips right away can boost morale and retention. Restaurant Dive report says, 31 percent of financially insecure workers have quit a job because of a lack of financial wellness. On the flip side, more financially stable employees (87 percent) are likely to remain in their job in the next year, as opposed to workers who are financially unstable (58 percent). Every little thing you can do to promote financial stability can help you keep the people you hire.
At a time when labor challenges are at an all-time high in the restaurant industry, a number of brands are taking a look at the experience of restaurant work and improving the aspects that need help. One of the areas moving to the forefront right now is employees’ mental health, which has been hit hard during the pandemic. Historically, the restaurant industry has not been known for its focus on employees’ mental health needs – and to be sure, mental health has been a growing concern for employers across industries during the pandemic – but now a number of restaurant brands are trying to change that as a means of attracting and retaining staff. Last fall, Noodles & Company added free in-person and online counseling sessions to its benefits plan. In May, Chipotle, which already offers in-person, phone or virtual visits with a licensed counselor for employees and their families, announced it was also bolstering its support of mental health via a new virtual platform called Strive. A Restaurant Business report says the Strive platform provides one-on-one coaching and support, and according to Chipotle, “gamifies each employee’s wellness experience” by giving them an opportunity to win gift cards and save money on health insurance, among other benefits. While such benefits aren’t widespread across the industry, they may gain momentum as restaurants vie for staff and need to think of creative ways to enhance the working environment for employees. Further, mental health benefits aren’t the only ways restaurants can improve upon a culture that needs a boost. As this Restaurant Dive report indicates, restaurants that have simply communicated clearly and considered employees’ home situations and financial concerns throughout the pandemic have had an easier time retaining people.
Even before the pandemic, labor recruitment and retention was a major challenge for restaurant operators. Now that we’re in a position where business is suddenly ramping back up and all restaurants are looking for staff at once, that challenge has ballooned. It’s causing operators to create new talent pipelines, rethink roles and find ways to automate more tasks. Along those lines, the fast-casual chicken chain PDQ is expanding upon its relationship with Best Buddies International, a nonprofit organization that seeks to create opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that the chain has set a goal of hiring at least one person from the organization to each of its 45 locations in Florida. Wage increases aren’t feasible for all restaurants, but some brands are trying that too, in addition to taking steps to recast restaurant jobs as careers: Chipotle, for one, is raising its hourly wage to $15 and also creating a new career path for aspiring restaurateurs that allows managers to earn salaries of $100,000 in as little as three and a half years. Finally, operators are assessing ways to speed up or automate tasks so they are less reliant on labor fluctuations. Robin Gagnon, co-founder of We Sell Restaurants, told Modern Restaurant Management that robotics are being tested at every position at a restaurant, ranging from cooks to table service, and that we’ll see more ordering via app and kiosk now that consumers have grown accustomed to it. In the kitchen, Gagnon predicts that more concepts will look to get food out more efficiently by preparing items in advance and assembling them rather than offering full service.
As restaurants reopen again in a big way, they are facing yet another unprecedented challenge, though one that probably would have been welcome last spring: having to hire new staff to handle a steep rise in business at the same time as all of the other restaurants in the area. Not only are restaurants having to make themselves appealing to customers beginning to venture out again right now, but they are also having to put their best foot forward for potential foodservice employees who can have their pick of employers. As a recent New York Times report suggests, at a time when an extra dollar or two could mean the difference between attracting an employee and not, it’s important to understand what your competitors are paying. Is there room for you to partner with other restaurants in your area to exchange ideas, share staff or pool resources that could drive interest in your businesses? Consider paying referral bonuses to existing employees who recommend another staff member once that person has been on your team for a set period of time. Take another look at your needs – could you hire someone inexperienced but eager and train them instead of holding out for a more experienced person who meets a longer list of criteria? Also assess the benefits (financial and non) that you’re able to offer, from meals to career development opportunities to loyalty bonuses for employees who stick with you for a while.
You may have decided by now that you don’t need to hire new hosts or waitstaff as you prepare your restaurant for post-pandemic service – but what about staff whose expertise is in technology? A recent report from Hospitality Tech references the southeastern U.S. restaurant brand Sonny’s BBQ, which relies on the skills of two full-time, highly skilled data analysts. These analysts synthesize industry data, sales and profits, marketing statistics and other data to develop and fine-tune strategies for data analytics, customer relationship management and personalized guest experiences. Strengthening your business and brand in these difficult times is about harnessing information – about elements ranging from your market and customers to each item and promotion on your menu. That may require you to rethink how you manage your business and what expertise you need most. Doing so can help prepare your business for future bumps – and bring some needed predictability to your business in 2021.
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?