The perennial challenge of staffing in the labour-intensive foodservice industry has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Widespread staffing shortages as restaurants reopen, coupled with serious financial losses due to long periods of closures and restrictions, mean savvy foodservice operators are looking for effective retention and hiring strategies that won’t break the bank.
Understanding the Issue
Objective analysis of a problem’s root causes is the first step to finding solutions. While some reasons for staff shortages are beyond your control, be open to the possibility that your own practices may be a factor. For instance, ongoing government support programs may be one reason foodservice staff aren’t flocking back. But telling staff that their colleagues who haven’t returned would rather collect a benefit cheque than work could backfire: finger pointing may be part of your retention problem.
There are many nuanced reasons that many have chosen to leave the foodservice industry — or perhaps your establishment — including:
- Pandemic downtime that led to reflection about career and life priorities, with some workers choosing to retrain online or start businesses from home.
- Safety concerns about serving the public and/or taking public transportation to work in a pandemic that’s now in its worsening fourth wave.
- Childcare shortages or the need to stay home with children who are schooling remotely.
- Your wages, benefits, advancement opportunities and workplace culture may be less attractive than the competition’s.
But What About Cost?
Some retention and recruitment strategies come with a price tag. Assess that against the costs of losing valuable employees you’ve already invested in and operating short-staffed. You may find that you can’t afford not to implement some of those strategies.
The cost of turnover can run to several thousands of dollars per departure, based on hiring process and training costs, lost productivity, and other factors. In pandemic times, turnover cost cuts even more sharply. Without enough staff to run your restaurant, tables may sit empty; some restaurateurs have even had to cut back on operating hours or close altogether.
Which Comes First: Hiring or Retention?
It may seem counterintuitive, but think about retention before hiring strategies. Why? Because the reasons your staff want to stay are also why people want to join your workplace. A poor reputation in the job market due to high turnover has a chilling effect on hiring; being known as a great employer attracts applicants.
The pandemic created a seller’s market in real estate, but when it comes to foodservice jobs, it’s a buyer’s market. Job seekers have their pick and so do your current staff — retention is more important than ever.
Retention and Hiring Strategies
In addition to providing competitive starting wages, consider implementing pay ranges with increases at set intervals. On a four-step scale, the starting rate could be followed by three incremental increases every six months to a year to encourage employees to stay.
Is your tipping policy — or lack of one — a source of staff dissatisfaction? You may not be ready to build gratuities into menu costs, but tip sharing could address compensation inequities between front- and back-of-house staff.
Jeff Dover, principal at the foodservice consultancy fsSTRATEGY Inc., says health and/or dental benefits can be cost effective for small operators. “Benefits are important and, given that many restaurants don’t offer them, can make a restaurant an attractive place to work. Help with childcare is very beneficial as well.” Dover says paid sick days are timely given the pandemic. While some employees may treat them as vacation days, there is a pressing need for employees not to come to work sick.
“Referral bonuses are becoming more prevalent,” Dover adds. Not only are they attractive to current staff, but he says they work well too. “New hires are more likely to stay if they know someone, especially if that person has stuck their neck out to recommend them.”
Training isn’t just for new hires. Offer ongoing training and development for staff who’d like to learn new skills, rotate through different jobs, or advance into leadership. Ask what they’d like to learn more about to keep it timely and meet their needs.
Establish Career Paths
Communicate the career paths in your establishment. Dover says, “Teaching people what it takes to get promoted and helping them do so is great for retention.”
Prioritize Staff Health and Safety
Health and safety is top of mind these days. Make it a topic at all staff meetings, reviewing protocols to bolster employees’ confidence that they and their co-workers are doing the right things the right way for safety. Be proactive about discussing mental health, and consult industry and community resources to address any issues.
Is your culture rigid or flexible? Do schedules take staff needs into account? Are minor repairs and interpersonal issues addressed quickly to minimize day-to-day work frustrations? Do you communicate openly with your team? Do staff feel safe bringing forward concerns? Do you offer open recognition but private criticism (constructive, of course)? Never underestimate the retention and hiring power of your staff feeling supported and heard.
Hiring Strategies that Reflect the Times
Asking applicants to drop off paper résumés can be off-putting for a digital-savvy labour pool. Trendy speed-dating-style hiring fairs are problematic during the pandemic. Think about recruiting online, offering applicants the choice of submitting traditional or video résumés, and conducting Zoom interviews. If you want to meet in person before making the final decision, use those tools to shortlist candidates.
Use Your Website for Hiring
Your website is an important tool in your hiring process. Amina Gilani, co-founder and COO of Sociavore, the independent restaurant website platform and Brand Points PLUS partner, says: “Use the Sociavore job creator tool to create customized job listings and generate mobile-friendly application pages right on your restaurant website. You will receive virus-screened application packages directly in your email — no third-party recruiting website required. Accept and manage application submissions all from one dashboard.”
Go Social for Recruiting
You work hard to build your social media accounts, so why not harness them for recruitment? Your followers just may want to work for you or refer candidates to you, so let them know you’re hiring and link to your website job listings.
Signing and Retention Bonuses
Signing and retention bonuses can sweeten the deal for potential new hires.
“The best thing you can do is make your restaurant a great place to work.”Jeff Dover, principal at fsSTRATEGY Inc.
When it comes to hiring and retention, Dover says, “The best thing you can do is make your restaurant a great place to work. […] Treat employees like a valuable commodity (which they are), and do what you can to keep people happy. […] Make your restaurant a place where Gen Z wants to work. They want to work for a company whose values align with theirs, so be environmentally friendly, address social issues, etc. Get the staff involved in implementing programs. If you nail this, you will have a way easier time than other restaurants finding and retaining staff.”
About the Author
Marlene Cornelis is a writer and editor based in London, Ontario, where she operates her business Veranda Editorial. She’s also the creative spirit and recipe developer behind the food blog Urban Cottage Life. Much of Marlene’s work centres around the food world.