Just when Covid-19 was becoming more manageable for restaurants, the war in Ukraine is intensifying inflationary pressures on everything from wages to food supplies to equipment. No doubt, these are trying times for operators – and economists expect them to continue into next year. But these times can also provide opportunities to fix operational processes that have long needed attention and can no longer be ignored. As Keith Anderkin, chief supply chain officer for the fast-casual chicken chain Zaxby’s, recently said in a podcast for Restaurant Business, “never waste a good crisis.” Imagine how your business will be in a position to thrive in better times if you can get a handle on any weak points now. So what might you do to ensure you’re operating as efficiently as you can? Fine-tune your communication with your marketing team so you’re able to adjust your calendar of promotions in sync with your changing supply. That may mean focusing more on core menu items that are easier to source, then weaving in limited-time offers as needed to ease the pressure when supplies become scarce. Or it could mean strengthening your pipeline of menu items in development so you have a deeper bench to lean on when a key player isn’t available. You might assess your current and future equipment needs and find out where a substitute piece of equipment may be acceptable – and get a jump on ordering something that is critical but comes with a long waiting period. It may mean taking a closer look at your labor and identifying how to ensure you’re using it wisely in both front-of-house and back-of-house tasks. It’s rare to be operating at a time when so many challenges are colliding. Making sure you’re in close connection with all areas of your operation can help you understand any areas where you might find some relief.
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.
Even in the best of times, restaurant margins are thin. Challenges related to the pandemic, labor, food prices and the supply chain only place additional strain on them. But the good news is that there are a number of steps operators can take to cut costs without taking anything away from the guest experience. First, ease supply chain-strains by ensuring your inventory goes as far as possible. Encourage precise ingredient measurement across your menu – Modern Restaurant Management advises operators to measure ingredients in grams vs. ounces for a more precise result. Take stock of your energy use and find ways to use it more efficiently – by turning equipment on only at the time it is needed, using energy-efficient lighting, and adopting technology to monitor your appliances so you can be alerted and act quickly if something isn’t working as it should. Be just as mindful of food waste. To avoid having usable food scraps tossed out, Restaurantowner.com suggests eliminating trash cans in the kitchen and giving each kitchen employee a clear box with their name on it where they can place food scraps so managers can minimize food waste being generated from the kitchen. Where possible, consolidate purchases with a single supplier to gain leverage in purchasing agreements. Finally, make the most of the staff you have by scheduling people in accordance with your anticipated sales and traffic each week – your schedule should not be on autopilot
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.
Consumers are expecting things to be a bit different as a result of the pandemic – and at a time when supplies continue to be short, labor is difficult to find and customer traffic is unreliable, restaurants can use this expectation to their advantage. Many restaurants already are: Take Michelin-rated Eleven Madison Park, which announced it would be reopening as an entirely plant-based restaurant after its closure during the pandemic. As you have managed your restaurant throughout the course of the pandemic, have you come to conclusions about major aspects of your business that need to change in order to preserve the longevity of your restaurant? Would you be better able to stabilize your menu by making it entirely plant-based? Have you always relied on a dine-in customer base but believe this can no longer be your main source (or even a small source) of sales? Do you think you should serve a different demographic of customers than you did before? Are you too reliant on labor shifts – and burdened by the need to provide higher wages and benefits? Now is a good time for reinvention. Identify your primary pain points when it comes to your supplies, staffing, marketing and day-to-day operations management. By changing things that may have needed changing for a long time, you can give yourself a new story to tell customers, refresh your brand and generate renewed interest in it as we emerge from the pandemic.
The pandemic has been a time of reckoning for restaurant employees – and, since labor is scarce, also a time of empowerment. Bit by bit across the country, more restaurant workers are taking steps to unionize, whether in an effort to improve the current working environment at their restaurant or to normalize and spread the employee-friendly culture they already experience at their restaurant. It’s a trend that industry analysts expect to continue. In the U.S., just 1.2 percent of the estimated 11.9 million people working in restaurants and foodservice belongs to a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That makes the industry one of the least unionized of any employment sector, despite its reputation – fairly or unfairly – for instability, low benefits and pay, and abuse from managers and guests. Many new efforts at unionization, such as those at Pavement Cooffeehouse in Boston, have been employee-led. In other cases, restaurant operators are going so far as to encourage the unionization of their business at the outset. In Rochester, N.Y., Meghesh Pansari, the owner of the Indian restaurant Nani’s Kitchen, encouraged his employees’ decision to unionize – perhaps because his restaurant already has an employee-friendly culture that he would like to serve as a model for other operators. Workers there share tips, make $15 an hour, get a week of paid sick leave annually, and the company covers half of the monthly payment for the health care package it offers full-time workers through the Healthy New York EPO plan, according to the Rochester City Newspaper. One shift leader said, “We had to unionize at Nani’s because we already had very good conditions, and we think that it’s important to kind of try to start pushing this and encouraging other restaurants to unionize.”
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.
We’ve all heard the stories about how difficult it is for restaurant operators to hire staff right now. But as we emerge from the pandemic, the operators that have survived have learned lessons that can also help them thrive – and attract creative people who want to be part of that. Even though it may be tempting to return to pre-pandemic ways of restaurant management, the landscape has changed – and restaurant roles can (and perhaps should) change too. In a recent Eater report, New York restaurant operator Michael Schall said he was able to retain his staff last winter – even as people abandoned both the city and the industry – by rethinking the roles of staff he couldn’t lose and guaranteeing their income for a set period of time. Kitchen staff were kept busy through the quiet months with his restaurant’s newly created grocery and meal kit programs, and with odd jobs like painting. As restaurant life begins to feel closer to normal, consider how you can help your team build careers with you for the longer term. Can you use their help in extending the new income streams you created to keep going during the pandemic? Could you use your space and staff for new purposes – and at new times – now that so many potential guests have adjusted their work schedules? Could you create new multifunctional roles that involve technology or social media marketing now that we have seen the need for strong off-premise sales structures? As we return to somewhat-normal conditions, now is a good time to decide what lessons of the past year are worth applying permanently.
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.