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.
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?
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?
With weeks of lockdown still ahead for most of the U.S., we’re all yearning to return to “normal.” But until there is a COVID-19 vaccine or some kind of medical treatment available that helps people manage the worst effects of the virus, we are likely looking at continued social distancing in some form. Even if restrictions ease and people are no longer quarantined in their homes, it’s unlikely they will be gathering in large groups to do the kinds of socializing and celebrating that restaurants have, until recently, been able to accommodate. But can you envision a halfway point for your business? In order for businesses to participate in the gradual reopening of the economy, they will have to adopt new practices to help ensure the safety of their employees, suppliers and customers. Will you be able to create adequate space between tables in your dining room, between servers and customers, and between employees? If so, how might this affect the number of tables you turn and staff you employ during a shift? How can you adapt your usual methods of serving food and pouring wine to allow for distance? Can your employees safely get to and from work while maintaining social distancing? Can you adopt no-contact practices for accepting and inspecting deliveries? Is it possible for you to adopt all of these measures while continuing to employ any business-model shifts you are using now to help bring in business, such as selling meal kits and specialty ingredients or providing curbside pickup? Thinking through the possible scenarios now and developing a plan can prepare you to quickly ramp up business – and avoid having to make major decisions on the fly – in the months ahead.
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.
Amid the rise of restaurant technology, many restaurant industry leaders have held that while robots and other technology would progressively be used to handle repetitive tasks once completed by employees, the employment landscape would also change, not just eliminating jobs but creating new roles that require human skills and allow people to build longer-term careers in the industry. This could be the year when that shift becomes more visible. In a QSR Magazine article predicting 2020 trends, GJ Hart, the CEO of Torchy’s Tacos, predicts this year will bring increased efforts by operators to attract and retain talent, such as providing educational benefits and other programs that help employees climb the corporate ladder. Torchy’s, for one, has a managing partners program that allows restaurant managers to operate their own locations. Taco Bell is also raising the bar when it comes to employee incentives. A recent Bloomberg article reports that the brand will be testing a higher salary – $100,000 – for restaurant managers in select U.S. restaurants in the midwest and northeast. (Current salaries for general managers at company-owned stores fall between $50,000 and $80,000, the report says.) While other brands may not be able to afford to transition to this kind of model, brands that are making such changes stand to alter the competitive landscape when it comes to hiring – and perhaps shift the kind of worker restaurants are able to attract. This year, what actions can you take – large or small – to make your business attractive as a long-term career prospect for the people you hire?
Your restaurant is only as good as your staff – and at a time when labor is a key struggle for many if not most operators, attracting and retaining talent is critical. If you need to improve upon your staff recruitment and retention strategy, check out Upserve’s recent report, “Server Success: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need on Restaurant Staff.” The report indicates that overall, the best employees tend to be reliable, dedicated, amicable, cooperative and communicative, according to Upserve’s experience working with thousands of restaurants throughout the U.S. But to determine which people are the best fit for your restaurant, it helps to drill down and assess what has already worked well for your business. What traits do your best employees share? What kind of lifestyle do your best employees lead? What is your staff’s average level of experience? Your top performers likely have much in common when it comes to their demographics and career path. Play to those traits when recruiting new employees. There are a plethora of questions you can ask a potential employee during an interview, but Upserve says these three questions can help you glean some of the best insights you need about a potential hire: Can you give me an example of how you offered assistance to someone in need? What is your strategy for bringing back loyal guests? When you learn that a customer is a first-time guest, what do you suggest? Questions like these can provide insight into a person’s demeanor and personality, as well as how well they can strategize when it comes to bringing in business. Being approachable and attentive can encourage loyal guests to return, but what’s even better is knowing which dishes to suggest based on customer preferences, being aware of special events and upselling items that are likely to bring satisfaction to guests.
“We’re only as good as the people we employ and they’re only as good as their quality of life.” That’s what Mike Shaw of Boston-based Broadway Hospitality Group told Restaurant Business about the organization’s ongoing focus on employee health and wellness as it scales up. But unlike many other sectors, the restaurant industry poses a challenge when it comes to implementing employee wellness programs. The industry’s long hours, high stress and easy access to unhealthy food and drink can set the stage for poor physical and mental health. However, investing in employee wellness can have a multifaceted impact on your ability to operate your business effectively – and if you’re looking for ways to promote employee wellness, you don’t necessarily have to make a major investment. Consider Noodles & Company, which offers reimbursement toward health- and fitness-related items as hiking boots, yoga classes and gym memberships, in addition to offering paid time off. At Broadway Hospitality Group, managers organize group fitness classes and partner with local gyms and speciality fitness studios for discounts. Restaurant Business reports that in a similar vein, employees at the New York City seafood restaurant Seamore’s gather for Wednesday morning runs, yoga and bootcamp-style classes in the restaurant. (Employee morale and retention have increased as a result: The owner of Seamore’s reports that 85 percent of the restaurant’s original staff remain.)