Going Into Labor

by Katie Lee

— By Clint Williams —

Diving into what’s going on with the labor market and how to attract and retain good restaurant workers.

According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), over 80% of restaurants were hiring in 2023 and the same goes for 2024. That is, if they can find good, qualified workers — workers they can pay and workers who will stay. From servers on the front lines to cleaners in the back of house, the hiring landscape can be a tough, uphill climb.

To cope with sub-septimal staffing levels — according to the National Restaurant Association, 62% of operators reported not having enough employees to meet customer demand — some restaurants have reduced the number of days of the week they’re open or cut their hours. A recent NRA study showed restaurants are open, on average, 7.5 fewer hours a week than they used to be.

Understaffing in restaurants can stem from several factors. These include sudden staff shortages, high turnover among employees, fluctuating customer numbers throughout the year, inefficient allocation of work hours, and limited financial resources that hinder the ability to hire more staff. Below are a few ideas to overcome the shortage of labor.

• Recruiting: Encourage your current staff, perhaps with financial incentives, to recruit people they know to apply for open positions. The more referrals you have, often the better your employees are.

• Onboarding: Make bringing on new staff fun, engaging and rewarding to optimize the onboarding experience. Make sure new employees feel welcome and appreciated.

• Training: People keep their minds engaged when they continue to learn new things. Make training an ongoing process, always affording employees a new goal within the organization or certification within the industry to strive for. Ongoing training also helps employees keep up to date as technology changes quickly.

• Company Policy: Provide context around why policies and processes change. It shows employees respect and that you value them when changes are explained. Not just: “Because I’m the boss and I say so.” Explain why the change was necessary.

• Flexibility: Better scheduling makes for better lives. Understand that people need life-work balance. People have families, and people need lives outside of work. Especially in the years post-COVID, employees want more flexibility to their working lives. If your organization does not value flexibility, employees can find one that does.

• Communication: Build better teams through better communication by giving everyone a voice and a stake in the outcome. People want to work harder when the mission feels like a shared mission. (Related: Do not communicate to your employees only when they’ve done something wrong.)

• Recognition: Both recognition and rewards are great team-building experiences — ones that promote pride in one’s work from the employee’s perspective. And for the employer, you get happier employees if their work is shown to be of value.

• Outsourcing: Sometimes an understaffed establishment is simply the reality we live with. Rather than burn out or overwork your current staff, consider outsourcing for additional labor, such as cleaning.

With the tight labor market (meaning, workers have many options), rising food costs and an uncertain economy, it’s crucial for stability for restaurant operators to hire — and retain — quality workers. As labor shortages continue in 2024, operators who can adequately staff their space will have the best chance of success.

Knowing that full staffs are not always possible, there are other ways to “do more with less” via technology. Online reservations offer guest convenience and reduce the need for hosts. Digital ordering platforms, which you may already be using for takeout, can free up servers to focus on guest engagement in the dining room. A point-of-sale (POS) system that integrates with your reservation system can ensure seamless communication between front and back of house, speed up service, and give management instant revenue insights.

Technology can do more than help make up for fewer available workers. These tools can ensure your operation is maximizing efficiency, keeping costs down and getting the most return out of the staff you have. Use technology to your advantage everywhere you can.

Because everyone is short-handed these days, it’s no surprise that the quality of restaurant cleaning can suffer as well as a result. To find qualified jan/san staff, some restaurants need additional help — as their current staff is already stretched thin. Many restaurants choose to outsource their everyday cleaning, which is a win-win for the operation: already overburdened staff is not responsible for day-to-day cleaning, and qualified cleaners can come in and get the job done — better, faster and more efficiently.

— Clint Williams is senior vice president of sales with Cleaning Services Group, Inc., based in Danvers, Massachusetts. Williams has been in the retail and restaurant industry for 60 years. He can be reached at [email protected].

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