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.
Labor attraction and retention isn’t getting any easier for restaurants. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in January, quit rates for the accommodation and foodservice industry increased from 4.8 percent to 6.9 percent over the previous year, a larger spike than any other sector listed. As the pandemic has amplified restaurants’ labor challenges, businesses across the industry have been taking a range of approaches to attract and retain staff. According to research from Black Box Intelligence, pay increases are only part of the solution. Offers of sick days, paid leave and variable pay are also on the increase in an effort to improve restaurant workers’ quality of life. Dig, the chain of approximately two dozen local, farm-sourced restaurants in the Northeast, has been taking cues from the pandemic-era offerings of corporations and giving their staff the option of a four-day work week. According to a Fast Company report, Dig experimented with the offering while they were running a smaller number of restaurants during Covid lockdowns. Staff were given the option of working one less day than they would normally, but the same number of hours across the week. As Dig offers a 40-hour work week, this has meant that participating staff work 10-hour shifts. While it may not work for every restaurant or every employee, Dig leaders say that the workers who have chosen to stick with the schedule have reported having better work-life balance and more time for responsibilities outside of work. (In fact, in an internal survey of 45 people who have participated in the changed work week so far, 87 percent said they would recommend the new schedule.) Looking at your shift schedule, staff needs and restaurant tasks, what might you adjust to offer better work-life balance to staff without sacrificing business needs? Even on a small scale, could you take any cues from businesses in other sectors that are known for strong attraction and retention of staff?
At this time last year, it would have been unthinkable: During the first three quarters of 2021, sales for DoorDash and Uber Eats have plateaued, after a steady rise in 2000. To be sure, off-premise solutions are still needed and not going anywhere – particularly after the lockdowns made restaurant takeout and delivery the only means of getting restaurant food. But even as consumers have been enjoying a gradual return to in-restaurant dining this year, the stagnation in sales for third-party delivery providers does demonstrate the need for restaurant operators to be nimble in response to fluctuating demand from different sources. When you are faced with changing conditions – be it the weather, supply hiccups, foot traffic outside your storefront or something else – how quickly can you adapt? Lean on forecasting tools and information on historic sales to schedule staff and predict traffic, along with a Kitchen Display System that can help you streamline and prioritize orders from different streams. On the lower-tech side, consider approaches including cross-training staff in a range of tasks and using more speed-scratch ingredients in the kitchen in order to free up staff to take on different tasks as demand requires.
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 recent months, the Covid vaccine has become political – and therefore a heated topic of conversation. Across the country, a restaurant’s (or a municipality’s) decision to mandate vaccines for employees and/or guests has resulted in some unpleasant confrontations – between operators and employees and between guests and employees – and all at a time when restaurants are already struggling to attract and retain staff. While some of these confrontations have been difficult to avoid, a restaurant can decrease the likelihood of conflict by taking steps to communicate clearly, and in advance, with employees about vaccine mandates. A recent report from Human Resource Executive provides some tips. It’s most critical to get out in front of the mandate by discussing it with employees, listening to their concerns and providing them with ample lead time to act. If people are resisting, understand their concerns and personalize your communications around them – they may need to hear the message from someone they can more easily relate to. Also appreciate that an employee may have a valid reason to not get a vaccine, so speak to your legal advisor about how to frame communication about that with staff. In advance of a mandate, determine the consequences of not complying – this goes for employees as well as guests – and find gentle ways to communicate about it. Again here, it helps to get out in front of the mandate and avoid surprising a person with a consequence wherever possible. Finally, while President Biden’s rule about vaccine mandates has made this a more urgent topic of conversation at restaurants, try to keep your conversations with employees politically neutral and focused on the well-being of your team, business and the industry overall.
Is it finally time for big changes when it comes to restaurant pay? After years of restaurants testing the waters with no-tipping policies and, in many parts of the country, having to adapt to new minimum-wage requirements, the pandemic (and the unruly diners it has brought with it) may be providing an industry-wide time of reckoning. Many operators are finding that making adjustments to the compensation they offer – whether through their hourly wage, tipping policy, or health benefits – has become a must at a time when the industry is losing workers to other professions. The operators who have found ways to make it work are reporting some early success: According to a recent New York Times report, operators who have changed their compensation structure to ensure a steady living wage – or even simply offering other quality-of-life benefits like flexible schedules, lower health premiums and student debt-reduction programs in its place – are attracting staff. Providing income and scheduling stability stands to help restaurants retain their staff too (and minimize the high costs of employee turnover). Of course, it takes a strong business model to make it work financially, and operators are making such money-saving moves as streamlining menus and adding a service fee to checks to make that possible. As you consider your operation’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to employee compensation, where are there opportunities for you to improve your staff’s quality of life in meaningful ways? If raising wages isn’t an option, are there ways for you to make your existing positions a better long-term fit with your staff’s personal lives – and minimize your turnover costs in the process?