Navigating the Restaurant Labor Shortage in the Pandemic

We are in the middle of spring 2021, over 216 Million vaccines have been administered and restaurants all around the country are opening up more and more. Yet in the midst of restaurants opening they now face a problem they were already facing in 2019 but on a completely different scale. There is a severe labor shortage in restaurants and the thousands of guests that are excited to finally get back to supporting their favorite eats are experiencing long waits. Without stopping to consider what is happening or looking around to see how busy these restaurants are some guests are ranting and taking their experience to social media and restaurant reviews. Some restaurants have opted to remain closed and only offer to go orders as they can't find the staff to open while maintaining their standards. Not to mention that re-opening requires more work from the staff as they carefully clean and maintain safe environments.

With the right game plan and some serious grit there are some things you can do at your restaurant to manage a steady funnel of new employees and retain the staff you have today. Let's take a look...

Why is it so difficult to find & retain staff?

A little over a year ago over 6 million American restaurant employees were told they were no longer employed. Many of these employees have families to feed so they found jobs in growing businesses like Amazon. Others received the unemployment benefits and found the risk of exposing themselves or their families was not worth the small difference in income. Many employees who have come back are finding they are not making enough tips to live off of. These servers often make just over $2/ hour and if they are not getting consistent traffic at the restaurant then they don't make enough tips to afford working there. This has lead to a lot of restaurant "hopping" where servers look for restaurants with higher traffic and more potential to make tips.

How can you increase your funnel?

The most important thing to remember in increasing your funnel of candidates is that it is a numbers game. Restaurants that hire everyone that asks for a job are suffering from poor service and their lack of options right now is what is killing them. Growing a funnel is only to help you grow the number of options you have to hire from which in turn will help you maintain quality service. You will not be hiring everyone you reach out to bring into your funnel so don't overthink it.

One succesful program we have seen used is an employee referral program. At the begining of each shift ask your staff if they have any friends looking for a job this week. If you repeat it enought they will remember the next time they do run accross someone looking for work and if they get some ca$h in the process it doesn't feel like nagging. Get a white board and list the top names for employees with referrals last week somewhere visible to your staff.

Another way to extend your reach is to get involved with universities and culinary schools in your area. Look for opportunities to teach a class or give a lecture from real experiences or something that makes your restaurant or your experience unique. What do you wish you were taught at school? Students enjoy having a practical real look at what they are getting into. It also gives you the opportunity to network after the lecture and ask for applications/ referrals.

Ask each of your managers to spend one hour each week recruiting at a mall, university or other public areas that may fit your profile of employee you are looking for at your restaurant. If you have never done this before it can feel awkward at first but you can use open language like. "Would you know anyone that might be looking for work at ______? We are busy and actively hiring high energy people with a great work ethic." Before long you will realize most young people respond positively. Take Applications with you to hand out and schedule a group interview date and time. Remember you are NOT hiring everyone you recruit so don't over think it. The goal of recruiting is to increase your funnel so you have the option to hire quality people later. With that in mind ask your managers to take a clipboard with them and write down the names and telephone numbers of those interested so you can call them the day before interviews. Ask your managers to initial next to their candidtates name and offer the top manager for each week a giftcard.

Social media can be another great avenue to reach prospective candidates. In general people love to follow restaurants on social media because who doesn't like seeing pictures of amazing food pop up on their news feed? Put up a post letting your followers know that you are hiring. Post a short video of your team having some fun. Maybe one of your cooks is a break dancer or you catch your team having fun at work. Showing a personal touch with a message that says looking to add more fun to the team can go a long way. Everyone needs a job but everyone wants a fun place to work. If your restaurant does have an employee referral program you can make a suggestion to your employees that they post a 30 second video on social media saying why they like working there and to pm them if their followers are looking for a job. If you want to give your employees an extra reason to go viral you can offer new hires a small bonus if they get hired from a referral which may help your staff feel more comfortable spreading the word.

How can you retain staff?

You may not need to hear this but it gets easy to forget when you get short handed. One of the main reasons people quit is because they don't feel like they had the tools or training to do their job correctly. Training is critical to make your staff feel comfortable working in your restaurant and keeping them around.

If you are struggling to keep servers employed, how can you help them make more tips? If they take home more at your restaurant than they did at the previous restaurant they worked at they will notice this. If they make less than their previous restaurant they will be more likely to leave. There are two factors that impact their tips. 1) Help them sell more food like deserts, drinks and appetizers. As they sell more to their guests the 15-25% tip grows with each item. Take the time in the begning of each shift to educate your staff about how they can pitch some of these items. 2) Improve your restaurant efficiency by streamlining your kitchen and leveraging technology like pay at the table. Review your current kitchen practices and re-think what you have done. Can you do something faster or be more prepared for something to help get food out to the floor quicker than you do today? If you read articles about pay at the table you will find that your servers can save anywhere from 2 -10 minutes per guest by having a pay at the table solution. If a server can sit 25 parties on four tables on a busy night then that means they are spending at least 50 minutes running paper, pens and credit cards. That can be nearly 1/4 of their entire shift! Pay at the table can help your server sit up to 6 extra guests in the same shift which means they take home a 20% tip of six additional guests in the same four hour shift. That is equivalent to a 20% increase in tips for the whole shift. In order to achieve this it is important that you have the right type of pay at the table at your restaurants, not all solutions deliver the same time savings, you can read more about this or watch our short video here.

What are the menotonous tasks you are asking your staff to do today that are not a part of their core job description? One thing that has boomed since the pandemic is online ordering. More restaurants are adding Uber Eats, DoorDash and updating their own online ordering system. Many restaurants still have a stack of tablets in a corner and are asking their employees to manually enter these orders into their point of sale so the kitchen can start working on them. Mistakes occur in the order entries and sometimes this leads to a poor experience or review due to the manual process of entry. Finding an online ordering system, like Taby, that is capable of writting to the point of sale directly can bypass this menotonous task and spare your team from getting upset when mistakes happen. Chowlyis an excellent option if you are looking for one platform to update all of your online ordering systems with one button. Automating these tasks will lead to a more consistent experience for your guests and improve your team morale.

Shop your competition by calling them and asking what kind of benefits they are offering their staff at the moment. Are they offering benefits, PTO, schedule flexibility? Can you one up them or at least compete with them?

Take a look at who you are hiring and ask them some questions. Are you getting too many or too few hours? Are you currently in School or working other places? Is schedule flexibility important to you? Does the hours we are offering today match your lifestyle? You may need to change the number of hours or employees you have on hand at any given time to fit your team's life style.

Look at creating mile markers for employees that honors seniority. For example after one month an employee gets discounted meals and after 5 months they get a free meal. You can create a profit sharing bonus that is paid out annually. Don't make it complicated, take a percentage of the total profit and divide it up amongst all of the employees that have worked there for at least 8 months. Another idea is to track key things you are wanting to see sold ie. wine, desserts, appetizers and pay out bonuses to the top monthly sellers and post their names on a whiteboard in the back. Chick-fil-A offers a scolarship for one employee in each store each year and they post it on social media which goes viral and brings in more candidates.

As you think of ideas that fit your restaurant keep in mind that recognition of quality work and seniority needs to become a part of your culture. It is harder to quit a place where an employee feels recognized valued and has good friends.

Closing thoughts

Navigating the pandemic has been the hardest thing restaurants have faced in all history. Now as restaurants try to open up we are seeing challenges that no one saw coming. In a time where it can be too easy to give in it is important to focus on what you can control and take massive action. Sit down and determine what a healthy number is for a funnel of new candidates and what a good retention rate is for your restaurant. Once you have these picked out pick two or three things your restaurant can do now to get to those numbers. If you are still not meeting your numbers in 3-4 weeks pivot and try new things. Quality people are the key to running a succesful restaurant and although being shorthanded can be overwhelming don't put off taking massive action on growing and retaining your staff.

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