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.
Even for an industry used to having to adapt to change, the past several months have forced restaurants to take a crash course in being flexible: Offer curb-side pickup. Adapt your online systems to accommodate curb-side pickups and deliveries. Offer delivery but avoid having to pay steep third-party delivery fees. Create an outdoor dining area. Adapt your indoor dining area. Train your staff on rapidly developing regulations. Adjust your menu to align with people’s changing daily routines and fluctuations in the supply chain. In a Nation’s Restaurant News report, the supervisor of restaurant operations for the south Florida casual dining chain Flanagan’s credits cross-training, as well as data monitoring, with the restaurant’s ability to adapt to the rapidly changing environment in the state. The restaurant has been able to keep many of its employees working by training them to package and deliver food and take phone orders, as well as serve customers arriving for curb-side pickup. As regulations have changed, Flanagan’s has relied on data to help determine how many employees they will need where – if regulations call for their dining room to serve at 25 percent capacity, for example, they can look back at their data and assess how they managed staff and service the last time they were at 25 percent capacity. What are your top tools and practices that help you shift gears when needed?
COVID-19 has turned the employee training rulebook on its head – and it’s a major area of investment among restaurant operators right now. A June survey of senior executives in retail and hospitality found that for 75 percent of respondents, employee training was their highest priority – well above even contactless payment (48 percent). At a time when fluctuations in COVID-19 cases are causing mandates to change at the state and local levels, it’s critical to be able to contact your team (and have them take appropriate precautions) before they even walk through your doors. Can you connect with your staff at a moment’s notice? Before flu season adds to the strains of the past several months, now is the time to assess weaknesses in your communication protocols and ensure everyone on your staff receives alerts about important operational changes promptly – and understands how to adjust to new mandates as needed.
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?
Whether we’re talking about seniors isolated at home in recent months or businesses trying to navigate the challenges of lockdowns and a strained economy, it’s clearer than ever that our relationships with other people and organisations can provide a lifeline. To support one another, businesses – particularly those with complementary needs – are creatively stretching the traditional boundaries we have grown accustomed to in an effort to keep the economy going. For example, a recent Foodservice Impact Monitor from Technomic said that to protect employees threatened with job cuts, McDonald’s and the grocery store chain Aldi created an employee-sharing partnership in Germany. The agreement allows workers from McDonald’s to sign up for temporary work at Aldi. It helps Aldi to manage the surge in business it has been experiencing and helps McDonald’s to manage its reduced staffing needs at the moment – all while keeping people employed. Looking at your operation and how your need for staff and support likely ebbs and flows, how can you make the best use of the resources you have? You may have expertise, tools, staff or inventory that can benefit other businesses and organizations in your community. Whether you compete directly or not with those organizations, you collectively contribute to what makes your community appealing to consumers. Consider what you can offer and then tap into your local network to pool resources.
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?
While the news headlines may be gloomy, don’t lose hope – there actually are foodservice operators who are managing to make lemonade from a whole lot of lemons right now. The ones forging a way through these stressful times are getting creative: Wingstop, which is experiencing an uptick in sales right now, is tapping into an oversupply of chicken and offering a free delivery promotion that is driving sales. Farmers Restaurant Group has shifted to a bodega concept that sells meal kits customers can schedule for pickup using OpenTable. Another operation that has nimbly shifted its approach is Front Burner Restaurants, which operates eight restaurant brands in six cities in the southern U.S. At the start of the pandemic, Front Burner had to furlough 4,000 employees, but it quickly shifted gears to create Furlough Kitchen, a non-profit concept that offers one free meal kit a day from its restaurants to hospitality workers who have been furloughed as a result of COVID-19. Through the support of community donations and anticipated federal stimulus funding, the company rehired employees working in its catering operation, as well as some of its hourly employees who take orders, post on social media and carry food out to customers for curbside pickup. Regular customers, suppliers, vendors and others in the community have been generous with donations and other support, and tips are collected into a pool that is distributed on the pay cards of furloughed employees. Furlough Kitchens currently has two locations and expects to open five additional locations from its existing restaurants soon. In a recent Restaurant Business podcast, Front Burner CEO Randy Dewitt said they are currently funded through the next 60 to 90 days. He thinks that finding a way to keep his restaurants open – even if they’re not profiting right now – should help with their eventual recovery. The community goodwill he is building in the meantime won’t hurt.
As the coronavirus has spread and restaurants have had to transition to a takeout-only model, what are restaurants to do to protect themselves and the customers they serve – and to somehow keep business coming in? Despite the many tech advances that have swept the industry, restaurants – until very recently – have been social places where people are on the front lines. A recent Restaurant Business report, which includes advice from a law firm specializing in employment issues, advises clear communication with employees in several areas: share your plan with them (and make sure it covers employee concerns such as your sick leave policy and your plan of operation during school closures) and provide training to ensure everyone knows what procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are diagnosed with it. Day to day, increase your efforts to sanitize door handles and kitchen and bathroom surfaces more often. Some operators are placing hand sanitizer at their building entrances, as well as outside the restroom and at stations in the back of the house. And while delivery was once considered a nice-to-have service, it’s now critical. Even if you don’t currently offer mobile ordering tech, now is the time to adjust your menu and offer a simple takeout menu that can be picked up outside of your establishment or dropped off outside a customer’s door for contactless delivery. Right now food delivery is considered a public service for people who are elderly, vulnerable and isolated, so promote on social media and to neighborhood news groups that you are open and ready to help, and provide your menu and contact information. Finally, encourage people to pick up the phone and call you – it’s old-fashioned but people are missing the social connections that restaurants have long been able to provide. You can provide a valuable way for people maintain those community ties as the industry pulls through this time of uncertainty.
When it comes to restaurant food delivery, the numbers don’t often add up – for the operator, the customer or even the third-party delivery company. A recent New York Times report found in a survey of GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats – the four largest third-party delivery apps in the U.S. – that customers were paying as much as 91 percent more for food delivered via these apps. In the meantime, operators are trying to carve out razor-thin profits from delivery orders and delivery companies are struggling to make money in a sea of competition. But since off-premise demand continues to climb and restaurants are adjusting their sales models and even their physical structures to accommodate it, how can operators make the costs easier to swallow for both customers and themselves? Offering delivery by hiring in-house couriers can help, though it isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone. A Restaurant Dive report says industry analysts predict restaurants will adjust prices, use virtual kitchens, adopt their own branded platforms or renegotiate their commission rates with third-party delivery companies in an effort to get ahead. Renegotiation may come in the form of changes in sales structure too: Technomic says a key way that providers are evolving right now is by offering delivery subscriptions – all-inclusive delivery for a monthly fee, as well as delivery discounts for loyal customers – incentives that can come directly from restaurants too.