Vaulting the staffing hurdles to find a way forward

By David Hopkins

The restaurant industry is facing a significant crisis: staffing. It’s a trend that has been particularly exacerbated over the last several months and, unfortunately, shows little sign of vanishing soon – foodservice operations across the country are struggling to find, hire, and retain staff.

​So, why is this happening, and what can restaurants do to be competitive in the labour market right now? We have been working closely with our clients to understand the challenges they are facing and develop new strategies to find success with hiring.

The bottom line is that restaurateurs need to look for alternative strategies to what they’re offering people; pre-pandemic incentives aren’t going to cut it anymore.

Holistically investing in staffing

It’s clear that restaurants need to invest in their staff like never before. While signing bonuses can be a great initial incentive, they are only effective until staff has the opportunity to leave for more lucrative options.

So, it will be important to invest in staff holistically. A key component of this is thoughtful staff training. With a limited pool of workers, hiring “for desire” based on a candidate’s values and attitudes and training “for mechanics” by spending the time to ensure this person is well-versed in your restaurant operation will be an effective strategy.

You’ll also likely need to improve employment perks to be competitive in the market. This includes upgrading programs such as staff meals or redistributing server tips to provide more equity in position remuneration and allow for a better “hourly wage” in the back of the house, as kitchen jobs are proving to be the hardest to come by right now. Balancing staff schedules to avoid long hours, posting schedules to provide adequate shift lead times, and providing flexible shifts will also help attract workers by offering them more flexibility.

Adjusting your menu and raising your menu prices can also help you invest in staff. Our recent consumer attitude survey indicated that the majority of guests support a moderate menu price increase (5-10%). This will add to the bottom line and provide you with more ability to improve staff pay rates.

It will also be strategic for restaurants to build strong “core teams” as businesses in other industries do. Assembling a strong, reliable group of people who play an important role in the proper functioning of the restaurant and are valued in their work will improve staffing and help keep turnover low in the future. This will also provide a framework for rewarding staff for their commitment and tenure and for bringing on new team members.

Fostering positive work environments

Restaurants are notorious for breeding challenging and sometimes toxic work environments.

COVID-19 acted as the catalyst for change for many workers to switch industries, and now they’re not looking back. Employers must offer a better work culture going forward and treat staff with respect; it is an employee’s market, and people will no longer settle for less. Only those who wholeheartedly embrace creating positive work environments will attract talent.

Open lines of communication and systems in place for providing feedback and complaints need to be established. Relationships among management and employees must be built on respect, and the understanding that there are new standards and values staff are looking for. But as always, actions speak louder than words; you must be prepared to demonstrate your restaurant’s positive, beneficial workplace to potential employees by sharing examples of practices in place or providing references from current staff. If you create a great work environment, you can also offer existing staff referral payments to bring other great people into the fold.

Being realistic about current operations and staffing

The way your restaurant operated pre-pandemic may not be the optimal way to operate right now. Working with a bare-bones team and trying to maintain a 10/10 guest service experience is going to be extremely difficult, so we recommend updating your hours of operation to focus on your busiest times and maximize staffing.

Rather than staying open on Monday and Tuesday or during lunch hour when there is limited traffic, close the restaurant during those times so you won’t have to book staff. This doesn’t have to be permanent and can easily be changed again when there is an uptick in hiring, but ensure that you keep guests apprised of these updates in person and across online platforms. This way, you can prioritize your team’s schedules for your restaurant’s busiest, most profitable times.

Planning for the future

These strategies present important ways to move forward, but some of the current staffing issues will likely resolve themselves with time. As time goes on, the employee pool will slowly grow again as more and more people need to find work. Hospitality industry employees will likely be more eager to return to work when they are confident that working environments and the mindsets of employers have improved.

But it is essential to improve employment incentives now, regardless of what’s to come. Early 2023 may bring some relief for restaurants, but it will by no means be smooth sailing for some time to come.

Like so many aftershocks of the pandemic, the restaurant staffing crisis seems to be changing daily and presents ongoing complications. So, while there isn’t a clear-cut solution just yet, adopting a new mindset around hiring, considering newfound incentives, and instilling a strong sense of value in your employees is the essential way forward.

David Hopkins is the president of The Fifteen Group, a hospitality management and consulting agency that works with hundreds of restaurants across North America, and a regular contributor to CRFN.