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?
Restaurant culture is a frequent news maker right now, and as evidenced by the popularity of the drama series The Bear, it’s a source of entertainment too. Against the backdrop of workplaces of all kinds being reinvented to suit employees, restaurants – and their reputations as high-pressure environments that can be tough on employees – are coming under increased scrutiny. Changing the industry’s reputation for the better can start with individual restaurants making decisions that support career longevity so you can retain the staff you currently have. As we approach the time of the year when seasonal illness begins to ramp up and holiday gatherings are being planned – both of which put additional strain on restaurants – give your culture a health check. Take care of your team by regularly giving them an outlet to share feedback and ask for support or help without judgment. Make sure they have time and space to rest between shifts. Review your policies for sick leave and overtime so you can anticipate challenges and make fair decisions. Train staff regularly to keep them motivated and engaged. Get to know them as people. As part of your daily conversations, ask what they’d like to learn and encourage them to set written goals to prepare them for positions of increasing responsibility in your business. Give them incentives to keep going by rewarding the stand-out performance of individuals and teams. Then make it worth their while to stay – through a bonus or other benefit for those who stay past a certain period of time.
Remember when the public was just coming out of lockdowns and happily shrugged off restaurants’ limited hours, restricted seating, and unpredictable menus if it meant they could still enjoy a meal from their favorite establishments? You may have noticed that sentiment has faded a bit as consumers have lost patience with the ongoing pandemic. For many customers, the pre-pandemic mentality that “the customer is always right” has returned. They aren’t afraid to voice their dissatisfaction with a restaurant meal – or simply offer unsolicited comments about how the operator could improve the experience. This is despite operators’ ongoing challenges in recruiting and retaining staff, sourcing supplies, and paying larger bills for everything from ingredients to fuel. (A recent Eater report detailed the account of a much-lauded California restaurant that launched early in the pandemic but couldn’t continue operating amid the many demands it faced in the current economy.) Times are far from normal and a looming recession adds to existing pressures, so consider running your business with the same rigor as you did early in the pandemic. That means focusing on the basics of why you’re in business – know what values you stand for, who your ideal customer is, where you are (and aren’t) willing to compromise, what core things you want to make sure you execute well right now, and how many staff members are needed to help you accomplish them. Then don’t be afraid to stand your ground if guests ask for more.
Is your labor pool feeling a bit shallow? You’re far from alone. In the National Restaurant Association’s May 2022 tracking survey, 58 percent of operators said recruiting and retaining employees is the top challenge currently facing their business. Some tactics to improve your ability to attract and retain staff: Weed out dangerous or dirty tasks – try to either automate them or improve them. Incorporate more tools and appliances that don’t require skilled labor to use. Embrace speed-scratch and other ready-to-go ingredients that cut down on labor. Put your training on autopilot so your managers and staff can spend more time with guests or on food preparation. Finally, leave tempers at the door.
Record-setting inflation and ongoing food supply problems have transformed menus – but chefs are finding that the transformation can be for the better. As Fortune reported recently, food inflation’s effect on the price of many popular kinds of seafood has resulted in chefs serving up lesser-known, exotic alternatives. One example: the snakehead fish available on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It’s a frightening-looking cross between a catfish and an eel that happens to be a delicious crowd pleaser – and even better, only $6 for a whole fish. Other operators have needed to remove much-loved signature items from their menu because the costs just don’t add up. The owners of Chicago’s Parachute removed their signature bing bread from their menu, not only because of the 63-cent profit it generated for the restaurant but also because lower-cost substitute ingredients weren’t cutting it and there was a significant amount of labor required to produce it. They wanted to move toward a more equitable system that compensates staff better, and the bread wasn’t helping them get there. Looking across your menu, are there items that drag down your profits, overall food quality or staff compensation? In a recent interview, Chef Kathleen Hoffman, senior culinary manager for U.S. Foods, said in the current climate, she is focusing on helping chefs create scaled-down menus that address all of those challenges: “We help them winnow their menu down so they do five things really well instead of 10 things just okay,” she said. “The days of the 20-page menu are over.” For chefs, this often means making the call to remove menu items that guests love and have come to expect. Just trust that doing so can actually help you protect your business for the longer term.
To be sure, finding and keeping labor is a top challenge for most restaurant operators. But some have managed to retain staff – and turn a good profit. A recent report from The Counter shares how in June 2020, when restaurants were closing doors and worry about the pandemic was just setting in, California restaurateurs Greg and Daisy Ryan doubled down on their investment in employees. Backed by a Paycheck Protection Program loan, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, some private funding and down-to-the-penny cost analysis with a Google spreadsheet, they increased wages to an average of $27 an hour and added new perks, including fully paid health care coverage and 80 hours of paid time off. At the time it probably seemed crazy to many, but the plan has worked: In 2019, the restaurant was making $1 million a year. In 2021, that figure has jumped to $3 million and employee retention has been above 95 percent. It can be a difficult thing to focus on in a fast-moving business with dueling priorities but finding ways to invest in employee satisfaction pays off – and can protect your business for the long term. Some efforts are completely free – thanking staff for their efforts, recognizing them in team meetings, or promoting them on social media. Beyond that, take a look at the tedious tasks no one wants to do and consider how you might automate them and make an employee’s shift more enjoyable as a result. If you can’t improve insurance benefits (Oyster Sunday may be able to help you do this affordably), make sure you’re showing you care about employees’ mental and physical health by providing regular breaks and check-ins. Your training program should weave these principles into it as well. Steve McKee, co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled companies, prefers the term “immersion” to “onboarding” to help encourage employee retention. It should be a gradual but continuous process that goes beyond sharing policies and is more about embracing the culture and vision of the business – while also not hiding its flaws.
The Great Resignation continues across the hospitality industry. Figures recently released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that 6 percent of employees in restaurants and hotels quit their jobs in the previous month, a quit rate higher than virtually every other sector. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way at your restaurant. In fact, if you are experiencing this, take the current environment as an opportunity to revamp your approach to hiring and retaining staff. Start with your brand and envision the kinds of people you’d like representing it. The hospitality coach Matt Rolfe advises operators to first zero in on how to clearly communicate your vision, your goals for the business, and who you serve. That will help you ensure you are attracting employees who are not just there for the pay and benefits but who have also bought into the plans for the business and the experience you’re offering to guests. Make your job posting about serving others (how you develop employees and treat guests, for example) as opposed to emphasizing what you need. Then get specific about your business, brand and vision so your ad doesn’t blend in with the many others out there now -- and be honest about your expectations. Finally, ensure that all of those elements flow through your operation day to day. If and when good people leave, ask for an exit interview to help you understand the reasons why – and if it’s due to a lack of opportunity or a cultural problem within your restaurant, proactively make changes.
Restaurants are facing a retention crisis as much as a hiring one, according to a recent report from QSR Magazine. Specifically, it mentioned how a study from messaging platform Medallia Zingle found that 68 percent of U.S. hospitality workers said their organization was working with fewer staff today than before the pandemic. Further, it found that 38 percent of hospitality workers were considering, or already had plans to, leave the industry within months. Hiring and onboarding staff consumes resources that operators lack right now – so what are the best ways to retain the people you hire? To be sure, compensation is part of it, but other factors are just as important. The pandemic is demonstrating the need for restaurants to offer opportunities to build longer-term careers. Within your operation, are you helping your staff cross-train and gain new valuable skills? Do you have a practice of trying to promote from within? Considering how the pandemic has magnified the need for flexibility, can you identify any ways in which you can bend a little bit in response to staff needs? Finally, employees who feel listened to feel more valued – so survey them formally and informally on a regular basis. If and when someone valuable to your team resigns, ask for a casual exit interview so you can understand why the person is leaving – and try to implement some changes based on their feedback. Who knows? You may even be able to retain them as a result of asking for their feedback
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.