How The Restaurant Industry Can Fix Its Staffing Problems
Nearly every restaurant operator I work with has the same problem: Staffing. There are a few who don’t, but most of our clients are struggling with how to get workers to return. That or how to introduce new people into food service. I can’t count the number of “Now Hiring All Positions” campaigns I have worked on in the past few months. According to the National Restaurant Association, before the pandemic, the industry accounted for about 10 percent of the overall workforce in the U.S. That number has dropped significantly. But it is starting to rebound, with the food service industry accounting for most of the job growth in the United States.
Once the pandemic hit, a lot of restaurant operators reduced or eliminated their staff. That left a lot of people unemployed and feeling abandoned. This is causing a lot of potential food service workers feeling skeptical about returning to an industry that dropped them so quickly a short time ago.
What’s more, the pandemic uncovered a lot of problems in the food service.
And at the base of the food service industry problems has been a lack of overall value enough to pay for the experience consumers are expecting when they go out to dinner. This isn’t a problem for restaurants alone either. This is a problem for our society in general. According to the Pew Research Center, wages in the United States have gone up, but purchasing power has barely budged in decades. This has put significant downward pressure on menu prices and restaurant staff wages.
Beyond the fact that people have less discretionary income now than ever before, there is also the competitive problem of large chain restaurants polluting the food industry with crazy low prices. McDonald’s has helped define the value of a burger in the United States with their dollar menu, and many casual theme restaurants have incredibly low prices. That, coupled with so-called ‘value menus’ makes it nearly impossible to raise prices at most restaurants.
Now Hiring All Positions With Better Pay
According to One Fair Wage, The tight job market has helped hasten changes that restaurant workers pushed for during the shutdowns, including higher pay and better working conditions. In the past, like a year and a half ago, the restaurant industry was in a situation where they could hire staff and restaurants were only in competition with each other for workers. After the pandemic, the industry now is in competition with a lot of other businesses, many of them offering better hours, decent pay and benefits. This will fundamentally change the way we sell food away from home in our country moving forward. At the moment, I have a lot of restaurant operators raising their prices to offset food cost, but very few are thinking long-term about offsetting employee costs.
The fact is, when a $300.00 per week benefit can keep anyone from working in your restaurant, you have a bigger problem. Simply put, your wages and benefits are not worth the risk and hassle for working in a very demanding industry. Now more than ever before, if you one a restaurant, you are going to need to find a way to get higher prices for your food so you can pay your employees more money or go out of business.
Now Hiring All Positions With A Better Brand
Brands are important. Think of your brand this way: your brand is your reputation, and your reputation will bring more interest not just for customers, but also for your employees. The more powerful your brand, the more interest you will get from your potential staff. The less known your business is, the harder it will be to get people to work for you. The stronger your brand is in the community, the more people will want to take a position in your operation. It is as simple as that.
Building a brand needs to be done over time. And in the current crisis, you need to be working on your brand now more than ever. Staying in front of your customers is one thing, but staying in front of potential employees is just as important.
Is Your Workplace Safe?
One worry many restaurant workers have is, is it worth the risk to work in a restaurant? Take this problem seriously, because your servers and back of the house staff are working in very tight spaces with direct contact to a lot of people. Put yourself in their shoes, and consider if you didn’t own or manage the restaurant, would you feel comfortable working in your restaurant for what you are paying? In many cases, you would not. And when I ask my clients that question, I’m often amazed at the answers I get.
Most often it’s something like: ‘well no, but look at the risk I’m taking by running a restaurant business’, missing the point entirely.
Again, many long-time restaurant employees are finding other work because they don’t think the compensation is worth the risk. If you can reduce the risk, you may be able to get them back. This isn’t just the risk of infection either, but the risk to their personal wellbeing as well. Think about how your employees are treated, and not just by you and your management staff, but by your guests as well.
Fixing What’s Broken
There is a wide range of complaints many foodservice employees have about working in a restaurant. Many of these complaints can be addressed and fixed with a little creativity and forethought. Others take a more serious approach, while still others cannot be fixed and are simply the nature of the business.
Guaranteed Minimum Wage – for many tipped workers, with fewer customers and time spent waiting for things to pick up, they are making very little money. In many instances, not even enough to put gas in the car to make it home from work. One thing you can do is bump their minimum wage for those hours they are not waiting on tables, and when things get slow.
Strict Policy on Harassment – a lot of servers and bartenders complain about guests making inappropriate comments and suggestions towards workers. One way to combat this is by having a very strict policy against harassment, and allowing for your staff to communicate to management when this happens.
Flexible Hours – because the restaurant industry is not always the final career for many of your employees, it can be very helpful for you to have a way for them to be involved in setting their own hours. This may not always be practical, but as much as you can, try to accommodate your employees so they can move on without guilt or frustration. And keep in mind, if your employees leave and stay in the area, they can become some of your best customers.
Adding Ideas About Food Service Employment
Make It Fun – offer little incentives like food and drinks, make up games, throw a weekly party, and get your staff to feel more like friends than coworkers. This can go a long way towards getting people to want to work for your business. Word of mouth goes a long way, and when your employees love working for you, they will tell their friends and family.
Listen – oftentimes, workers do not feel as though they are being listened to. The simple fact is, you are now selling to both guests and employees to keep your business productive and profitable. To succeed today, you are going to have to spend just as much time listening to and responding to your employees as you do your guests.
The Customer Is Not Always Right – our guests have gotten away with a lot because we’ve taught them that we will do nearly anything for their business. This has put your employees in a precarious position. Especially if they are in conflict with a guest. How you respond to a guest complaint about service needs to be gentle and firm. Gentle in how you treat both the guest and the employee, firm in how you express your position. Our advice is always to listen, research, then respond. Listen to the guest. Do a little research by asking around to see what happened and if there is another side to the story, and then respond in the kindest, firmest way possible.
When In Doubt, Go Without
Even if you are desperate for an employee, make sure the person you hire is a good fit. The last thing you want is to be hiring people who are not up to your standards. So if your gut is giving off a signal to take a pass, listen to yourself, and take a pass.
The Grim Reality of Restaurant Work
Nearly two million restaurant and bar workers lost their jobs between March and April 2020, when cities across the country first began shutting down due to the pandemic. The wave of re-openings and subsequent shutterings that came with ever-changing regulations and individual exposures meant that, in many cases, restaurants were laying off and re-hiring their staff cyclically. Fed up by the instability, some restaurant workers found jobs in other industries and didn’t look back.
To be sure, we are going to have to rethink our industry to get back some of those employees and to attract new workers with career potential. As an industry, we are going to need to work together on convincing consumers that going out to dinner will cost more, but it is worth the expense.
HotOperator is a foodservice marketing agency. We love restaurants. We want them to survive. But we can’t do that unless we work together. Hire us to help you romance your restaurant brand.
Mark and Kelly are a marketing team and managing partners of HotOperator. They have been working in the restaurant business since 1989. Contact them through the HotOperator website, or by calling 800-316-3198, or contact Laux here.