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?
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.
Restaurant businesses have required some radical reinvention in 2020. Everything ranging from menus to service models to hours has required some assessment and adjustment – often with little advance notice. The same may be true of your staffing plan. As we approach the winter months – and the added challenge of flu season – labor is yet another wild card restaurant operators must be able to manage. Now and in the longer term, it will help you to find way to accomplish more (e.g. orders and prep tasks) with less (e.g. workers and kitchen space). If you had to operate with a skeleton crew today, what would it look like? How many staff would you need to accept and prepare delivery orders? What technology or systems could be made more efficient? Has COVID-19 made any new staffing positions necessary or existing positions obsolete? To what extent have you cross-trained staff to help with kitchen, customer service, delivery or even back-office tasks in specific cases? Could you automate any tasks that people currently oversee? Before you need it, fine-tune your crisis management strategy with an updated staffing plan – and test it to determine where it works well and where it needs further adjustment. While this year has been full of challenges, it has also rewarded operators who have been able to pivot to new ways of working. The steps you take now can help you minimize the hurdles you may face in the months ahead.
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?
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.
Storytelling is “the new strategic imperative of business,” according to a report in Forbes. A brand with a strong narrative is a powerful brand – and science backs up the power that stories can bring to a business. Studies have found that by telling stories, the brains of the storyteller and listener synchronize, creating a shared experience. The brand consultancy Buffer suggests three ways you can use storytelling to help your business as it relates to employees, vendors and customers: First, instead of offering suggestions to get people on board with your ideas, tell a story that has the outcome you’re hoping the suggestion would have achieved. Use persuasive language – bringing in quotes or stories from outside experts as needed – and simple, heartfelt words to get your message across. Then apply those actions to a challenge you’re facing using the communication vehicles you have at your disposal. Need to get your team to improve its waste management or food safety practices? Weave real-life stories into their training sessions. Want to make sure your guests know about your efforts to buy from local suppliers and support the community? Integrate language into your menu that describes the origins of your ingredients and make sure your marketing materials and social media communications tell stories about your local connections.
As the holidays approach, you and many other restaurant operators are likely holding your collective breath and hoping to avoid staff turnover. After all, if you have stretched your operation to accommodate a higher-than-normal rate of holiday traffic, catering orders and events, having your best staff on hand is all the more critical to delivering great service to your guests. But historically, annual employee turnover rates in the hospitality industry have far outpaced those of the private sector, with turnover in the restaurants and accommodations sector surpassing 66 percent compared to 44 percent in the private sector, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If your efforts to retain staff could use some fine tuning, consider recent research from Upserve. The company studied server performance across 3000 restaurants in the U.S. and suggests several tips for retaining staff based on that research. First, measure the average tenure of each position on your staff and design your milestones for incentives around that timeframe and beyond. When staff quit, conduct an exit interview to determine why they are leaving in case it provides insight about how you can keep the employees who remain. On that note, also conduct “stay” interviews with your long-time staff to determine why they stay and how you can keep them. At regular intervals, check in with your staff as a whole to get a realistic sense of the stressors or pain points that make their jobs more difficult and how you can help. Finally, encourage open communication with your staff so they feel comfortable sharing their input about schedules, training and development opportunities.
Talk to any restaurant operator and it’s likely to be the top challenge at work: labor and the difficulty of delivering great service in an environment of near-constant turnover. Joni Thomas Doolin, founder and chair of restaurant consultancy TDn2K, thinks a lot about this. Her firm publishes a quarterly workforce index, the latest of which indicated that at fast-casual and quick-service restaurants, vacancies at the back of house were near 80 percent. In that scenario, it’s difficult for a restaurant to do anything beyond keeping the doors open. So how can restaurants operate to change that? Thomas Doolin shared several strategies on a recent Restaurant Business podcast with Jonathan Maze. First, she advised, focus on creating an environment in which you can engage, retain and offer stability to your general managers. She said that across the industry, many brands have focused resources at the employee level while general-manager-level compensation and benefits have remained flat or even declined in the past decade. She cited research that found that in the restaurant industry in the U.S., 35 percent of general managers were engaged in their work, as compared to 61 percent of general managers across industries. Keep them interested by offering development – not training – that will help them handle more complex tasks and manage employees from multiple generations. You can also offer some flexibility – and that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer hours but it might mean allowing a person a couple of hours to catch his child’s baseball games each week. Brands are succeeding with other retention strategies too: Chick-fil-a employee retention remains high due, in part, to its policy that keeps stores closed on Sundays, giving employees a built-in day off. Others have shown they’re invested in the community. MOD Pizza, for example, has a history of hiring people with backgrounds of incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction and mental disability, then paying a higher wage and offering benefits such as a 401(k) – a stance that has kept employees engaged and turnover low while appealing to guests too.
Did you know that one of the most common reasons restaurant employees leave a position is lack of training? According to research from Cake, for 62 percent of restaurant workers, not getting proper on-the-job guidance can influence their decision to move on. A recent survey of 2,000 restaurant employees by the scheduling software program 7shifts also found that 50 percent of respondents rated training as a 4 out of 5 on the scale of how impactful the factor was for restaurant employees on the job. Even if your staff does not feel that they need training, your training program is a sure-fire way to build their engagement and investment in your business. As Toast suggests, the first day of a new worker’s job is prime time to impart your restaurant’s values and demonstrate you care about the person’s role in the business, which helps build a person’s pride in (and dedication to) their work. If you devote 30 minutes at the start of the person’s shift to conduct training, you’ll set yourself apart from most restaurants. As you train the person in various responsibilities of the job, first explain why a task should be done in a certain way, explain how to complete the task, demonstrate the task, do the task together, and finally have the person complete the task alone to demonstrate his understanding of it. Provide a handbook of items that can be referenced later, like manager contact information and locations of cleaning supplies. Finally, appoint a mentor or point person who can answer questions that arise in the new employee’s first days and weeks on the job. It will build engagement for both employees and prevent the new person from making assumptions that could negatively impact your service to guests.
Any chef can confirm it: Running a restaurant well can require the skills of a lawyer, doctor, designer, HR manager, mechanic, janitor, and the list goes on. And that’s on top of having to offer an appealing, in-season menu that can be readily adapted to different nutritional needs. While that ever-changing environment can bring interest and variety to each day, chances are you were drawn to the restaurant industry more because of the food than for your ability to negotiate a beneficial contract or identify the best cleaning supplies. Further, the multitasking often required in a restaurant setting can kill productivity: A University of Michigan study found that when a person attempts to accomplish more than one task at a time, productivity drops by 40 percent. Team Four’s Palette program can serve as an extra pair of hands, taking on some of the responsibilities on your plate so you can multitask less and focus more on parts of the business that suit you best. For example, Palette can help you fine-tune your brand, including redesigning your menu or updating your graphic identity on your website, signage and marketing materials. You can also access restaurant equipment, linens, office and cleaning supplies, along with services for managing waste collection and pest control. And in case your menu or inventory needs attention too, we can help you develop new recipes, identify cost-effective menu substitutions, improve your food safety record and offer negotiated contract pricing to help ensure you’re getting the products you need at the best value. You can access the full list of services included in Team Four’s Palette program at www.palettefoodservice.com.