The Next Era of Restaurant Recruitment

Four Ways to Find and Keep Employees

By Samantha Lande

Restaurants across the country are back open, and diners are packing once-sparse locales. As COVID-19 wanes, the return to packed dining rooms is here, but one issue remains: staffing. While patrons may be ready to return to their favorite eateries, many restaurants are struggling to fill both front- and back-of-house positions to meet the new demand.

The problem is prevalent across the country. According to a study conducted in May by the National Restaurant Association, 72% of restaurant operators said recruiting and retaining employees was their top operational challenge. In April, a job openings and labor turnover report from the U.S. Department of Labor showed that openings in the accommodation and food services increased by 349,000 jobs. Some of that can be linked to an increased need for staff, but the rest is that there simply is not enough staff to be had.

“A few million people left the industry to do other things like work in an Amazon warehouse or a grocery store,” says Jay Bandy of Goliath Consulting. “There’s a smaller pool to work from.” For some, the expanded unemployment benefits put in place during the pandemic have been a reason to stay out of the workforce. Although more people may return to hospitality when the added benefits run out, restaurants need to rethink both their hiring and retention strategies. Here’s how to do it.

Expand Your Applicant Pool

Gone are the days when restaurants could only hire very experienced staff, says Karen Browne, chief executive officer of One Off Hospitality restaurant group in Chicago. “This is something we’ve seen in many other industries,” she says. “Take tech, for example. What did big tech companies do? They hired smart people and taught them the how-tos of the organization.”

Bandy agrees, acknowledging that restaurants, at least in the interim, will need to look to younger, entry-level employees — searching at places like tech schools and universities while continuing to post on job boards and social media.

But that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice the quality of people you want on your team.

“Make your job descriptions clear and concise with language about the culture and behaviors you are seeking from your employees,” Bandy says.

Make the Hiring Process Easier

When hiring needs become overwhelming, it’s not always a priority to stick to a set hiring and training process, especially for general managers who have a host of other responsibilities in organizations that don’t have HR teams. If you find a great candidate during the hiring process, don’t delay – there are a lot of restaurant jobs to be had, and the candidate will find another one.

With so many software options available to send automatic text messages, Bandy says, or to keep restaurants on task during this process, leveraging this type of technology for hiring is almost a no-brainer. The most important step? Making sure you stick to the dates you relay to your candidate.

“You have to have a fluid process moving from step to step and close them quickly,” Browne says. “Gone are the days of saying, ‘We will get back to you soon.’”

Boost Your Benefits

The hospitality industry has been notorious for long hours, low wages, and in some cases, the lack of a career path. The current generation knows it has options both in and out of the hospitality industry, and restaurants must evolve to meet these needs.

This is something One Off Hospitality is really working on, Browne says. The restaurant group offers a robust health care program that includes complimentary access to the Calm meditation app, as well as more formalized training around leadership and job skills. One Off Hospitality is also putting together a series of relevant classes, like how to invest in a college savings plan or how to purchase your first home.

Consultant Arlene Spiegel of Arlene Spiegel & Associates advises her clients to look at offering a better quality of life.

“With restaurants shortening their hours of operation and simplifying menus, they can offer more flex time to chefs and allow for managers to work part time from home,” she says.

Browne agrees. “Do employees really need to work super long shifts?” she asks. “Why not have more employees work less hours for better work-life balance? Meet your employees where they are at.”

And don’t forget about payment.

“Be competitive – don’t pay people $12 when $15 is the going rate – pay appropriate and give raises based on performance,” Bandy says.

Offer More Incentives

Sometimes you need a little extra help while you are building out training programs or re-shifting staff. Some owners are offering incentives — both to new hires and current employees — for additional motivation. Although responses have been mixed on signing bonuses, some restaurateurs are getting creative with incentives that are much more valuable than a few hundred dollars.

Spiegel says she is seeing owners reach out to highly valued staff and/or potential recruits to offer to pay for relocation fees, contribute to rent for a few months and even pay for tutors for children.

New York City chef and restaurateur Lamia Funti, who owns Lamia’s Fish Market and Omar’s Kitchen and Rum Bar, also owns a property at the Igloo Beach Lodge in Costa Rica. She offers employees the opportunity to stay at her property if they work for her restaurants for a year.

“Since we were faced with the sudden reopening of New York City with no staff whatsoever,” she says, “ I thought why not take advantage of having Igloo Beach Lodge and offer a complimentary stay to applicants who sign on and stay with us. We also offer complimentary dinners and activities to reward employees for a job well done.”

Which incentive has been the most successful? Offering current employees bonuses for recruiting staff. This has worked in industries outside of hospitality, and it’s often the most fruitful use of bonus money.

Browne says about 40% of new employees at One Off Hospitality come from referrals from current employees, “with the industry average being about 20%.” These incentives help not only with recruitment but also retention.

Bandy has seen similarly great results. “[Current employees] will recruit people like them who have similar behaviors and are likely already working in the industry,” he says. “Those people typically stay on board longer.”