Tips for attracting and building a high-performing restaurant team

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Good help wanted: tips for attracting and building a high-performing team
By David Swanston

August 24, 2012
Tips for attracting and building a high-performing team at your restaurant or foodservice operation

With expenses steadily rising and margins continuing to shrink, employers are being forced to find efficiencies and boost sales volumes. This environment makes it increasingly difficult for restaurants to compete on price alone, so restaurateurs should be seeking other ways to add value for consumers. Building a strong team of employees is the best strategy for improving both performance and productivity, which will enhance customers’ dining experiences.

Talented staff provide outstanding service and superior quality of work, which creates high guest satisfaction and increased loyalty. When customers become repeat visitors, positive word-of-mouth promotion spreads. Well-trained, knowledgeable and organized staff members increase output, thus lowering costs for their employer. It seems logical, but finding and attracting these top performers proves challenging. And recently proposed legislation may further shrink the accessible labour pool making recruiting even more difficult.

The truth is that there aren’t a lot of great, experienced and motivated potential employees out there looking for work. Those rare individuals that do possess these characteristics are probably already working for the competition. Unless management is prepared to commit corporate espionage in an effort to seek out these all-stars and induce them away from their current employers, they will have to become more creative in their efforts to build strong teams.

Unfortunately, traditional passive methods of recruiting are not effective. They may help generate numerous applications, but do little to target and attract the right people. Often issued in reaction to an immediate need, these postings can result in hiring the best person out of those available, regardless of whether or not they are actually a proper fit for the position. This “warm-body” hiring is costly because the investment made in these new hires can be wasted – their performance is substandard and their tenure is short – leading to this ineffective cycle starting again.

Building a team of top performers requires a significant organizational commitment. These efforts must be focused on placing the right people in the right roles, and creating operational flexibility and consistency. Achieving these objectives will take time, and although immediate needs must be addressed, management must maintain a long-term perspective that will allow them to continually add new employees that will strengthen their overall staff.

These tips provide a general framework that will help organizations begin addressing their personnel priorities and build their performance teams. But the first step for operators is to look within to understand what makes them an employer of choice.

Why would a good potential employee want to work for us?

That is the question that every recruiter should be asking themselves. With all of the options available to them, why does a strong candidate choose one business over another? Every firm should be able to provide a persuasive argument that is more enticing than its competition, as to what they can offer a good employee. This could include flexible schedules, guaranteed hours, health benefits, opportunities for promotions, professional management, job perks or higher pay.

An operator who cannot offer an appealing mix of these benefits superior to their competitors will have little hope of attracting top talent. Even more than these specific employment conditions, the quality and reputation of the operation can be the best recruiting tool. Good people want to work in environments that are organized, professionally run, have a reputation for delivering superior quality and service, and will give them an opportunity for personal success. Setting and maintaining high standards will enhance operational performance and help to attract the best candidates.

Develop a human resource strategy

What role should employees play within the organization and what characteristics will make them successful? Understanding what is needed from employees in each position is crucial to being able to identify applicants who are likely to perform well. Some important considerations may include :

  • Training programs – Organizations that provide thorough training can hire candidates with great attitudes, strong work ethics and dynamic personalities, even if they lack job experience. Otherwise, firms must hire people with specific experience which often comes at a wage premium and requires that they correct learned behaviours that may be inconsistent with those currently desired.
  • Nature of work – Understanding the work environment and organizational culture will help identify the types of candidates that may be a good fit. Will employees be required to work independently or as part of a team? Do guests want highly personalized and engaging service from the staff, or are they looking for consistent, friendly and professional service?
  • Seasonality – Does the business see significant seasonal swings in sales? If so, staffing requirements may vary greatly and may place a huge strain on an operation’s ability to maintain consistently high levels of performance. Increasing the use of part-time employees, hiring candidates that have similar seasonal availability, and training new employees that may return for several seasons are just some of the strategies that can be used.

Evaluate personnel requirements

Good organizations are always recruiting and should always be able to find room for a strong applicant. Good candidates are rare so the organization must be prepared to move quickly should one become available. This is easier to do if the operation makes more extensive use of part-time employees.

Identifying immediate and long-term staffing needs will also help to outline the employee’s role in the organization. Knowing the total number of staff needed to properly schedule cooks for weekday lunch shifts, or that weekends requires servers that can also work as bartenders helps to target recruiting communications and assess the fit of a candidate.

Engage in active recruiting

Much like businesses use marketing to communicate their brand and attract customers that want what they have to offer, employers should use similar approaches to attract new employees.

Successful recruiters realize that just putting up a “help wanted” sign might not always generate interest from quality candidates. They must find these desirable recruits, promote their companies and what they have to offer, convince them that they are wanted, and solicit them to take action. It comes down to demanding that operators sell themselves and their opportunities. This is a departure from traditional approaches that expected candidates to seek out potential employers and sell themselves.

There are several strategies that will improve the effectiveness of recruiting activities, and help to focus management’s efforts.

  • Multiple channels – No single source will reach all potential candidates. Promotions within the operation, websites, Tweets, Facebook postings, participation in community events, internships, co-op placements and school guidance centres are all potential forums for recruiting.
  • Be creative – Consistent with the brand position, get the right people to see the message in a way that gets their attention. Handing out promotional items in a shopping mall to teenagers may be the right environment to remind them that a job will allow them to earn money.
  • Be specific – Just telling people that specific positions are available will do little to attract interest unless a person happens to be looking for that exact job. Often, candidates must be made aware of opportunities that they had not previously considered. A notice on a grocery store’s community board can attract stay-at-home parents who may want to earn extra money while their kids are at school. This may create interest from good candidates who had not considered a part-time job because they thought a larger commitment would be required.
  • Repeat messages – Even when there are no immediate staffing needs it is important to continue recruiting. A candidate may need to hear a message several times before they decide they are interested in applying. Plant the seeds today that will bear fruit tomorrow.
  • Use appropriate technology – Knowing your target candidate will allow recruiters to use the media that is most likely to reach them. Although many foodservice employees are digitally savvy, posting boards in job centres, “help wanted” ads in local newspapers or flyers delivered door-to-door can still be appropriate and effective channels for various demographics. The filtering capabilities of many electronic media will allow for more targeted messaging that will yield higher hit rates with the target audience.

Regardless of the means used, it is critical that today’s recruiters aggressively pursue potential employees. The efforts to find and attract top talent will result in those candidates achieving superior performance and enhanced service. Not surprisingly, where good employees go, good customers will follow.

See also:

About the author

David Swanston is a Hospitality and Foodservice Consultant, principal of Focused Industry Training Seminars and is an instructor at major Canadian university business schools. Since 1997 he has helped a wide variety of organizations develop and launch new concepts, turn around troubled operations, and improve sales, profits, controls and efficiency.  To learn more about how he can help you improve your sales, profits and performance, contact him directly at 905.331.6115, or

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