Sometimes, when faced with a problem, it’s helpful to step out of your echo chamber and hear new perspectives.
The restaurant industry is grappling with its massive staffing problem — specifically in the areas of hiring and retaining staff. Some of the old-guard staff management practices of our industry aren’t helping here either, so we interviewed Emily Scichilone and Joe Hannon — both former restaurant lifers who changed careers — to find out what they’ve learned from their time in and out of restaurant operations.
Emily Scichilone worked in restaurants in various front of house positions for over five years before going back to school to get a masters degree in social work. Now, she works as a recruiter for Year Up. Joe Hannon worked in restaurants for eleven years, working his way up from server to assistant GM. Now, he works at Restaurant365, a scheduling and inventory management software company, where he interacts with restaurateurs across the country and learns how they run their operations.
Both Scichilone and Hannon have advice for restaurateurs struggling with staffing — in particular, with finding and hiring the right people, and then keeping them around for years. Here are their ten best tips for hiring and retaining restaurant staff.
Hiring Restaurant Staff
1. Look for Passive Candidates
Scichilone advises to take a page out of the corporate recruiting book and seek out passive candidates — it could be a gamechanger if you’re struggling to find great employees. It’s uncommon in the restaurant industry but is a normal practice in other fields. She recommends using LinkedIn or doing in-person reach-outs: “Even if [someone’s] not necessarily looking, people are always looking if you can entice them with a better offer. Say you go out to eat and you have a really good server. Let them know that you work at a restaurant and you’re hiring. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I mean, the worst they're going to say is no. And then you just keep eating your spaghetti.”
2. Set up an Employee Referral Program
An employee referral program is a strong way to attract new, qualified staff members. “Have your staff that you feel are top-notch reach out to their friends and their former colleagues. It can be a really helpful way to get some good, dedicated people in the door,” says Scichilone.
Set up basic incentives for your referral program: For example, if your employee refers their friend and they eventually get hired, your employee gets first pick on days off, two tickets to a concert, or a gift card. Make sure your employees know that they’ll get the reward only if the staff member is hired.
3. The Power of the Cover Letter
Scichilone recommends asking for cover letters; they’re a fantastic way to find great candidates. “I think a lot of times in restaurants, owners or managers are only asking for a resume and not for a cover letter. Because of this, they’re missing some of that more anecdotal information that could be really helpful.”
She gave the example of someone with no FOH experience, but who has worked as a camp counselor. “People like that will likely work well on a team and are good at communicating with people and being friendly and outgoing. Those, to me, are really transferable skills for a great hostess.”
Scichilone says, “[As the person reading that resume,] you might be making that connection in your head, but I think if you ask for a cover letter, it gives candidates the opportunity to spell it out for you. I know it takes more time to read both a cover letter and a resume, but if someone writes a really strong cover letter and the resume isn't totally spot on, that could be where it makes up the difference.”
4. Don’t Rush the Interview Process
Scichilone says that once a candidate has been selected for an interview, most restaurants make the interview process way too brief. “Talking to someone on the phone for twenty minutes and having them only talk to one manager at the restaurant probably isn't enough to figure out if that person is a good fit. I think having them meet with a peer in addition to whichever manager is on duty could be really helpful.” She suggests setting up a potential candidate with a second interview — even if it’s quick — with someone in the role they’re applying for to see if they’re a good fit.
5. Use Tech to Attract Candidates
Hannon says you can use scheduling software and other advancements in technology to help you stand out among the pack of restaurants competing for qualified staff members. “Say I'm an employee and I get two offers from two local restaurants right across the street from each other. Everything else is equal, but one restaurant is pen and paper, and one restaurant is using mobile [scheduling apps] — I'll probably pick the one with the [app]”.
Make it clear in your job posting that you value your employees’ time and work-life balance, and also that you use modern, headache-free technology — like scheduling apps instead of paper or spreadsheets. It’ll make your restaurant seem like a more appealing place to work.
Retaining Restaurant Staff
Restaurateurs are having a harder time than ever keeping staff from leaving. The industry turnover rate is now at 75%, and because the industry has grown so much so quickly, there seems to be more restaurants than people interested in working at them. Here are five ways to keep your staff around longer.
6. O.T. v.s. T.O.
Hannon says restaurant managers tend to put way too much emphasis on avoiding overtime. “To me, as an industry, instead of preventing O.T. (overtime), we should really be preventing T.O. (turnover).”
“When I was running a restaurant, I would always change the overtime budget to allow more wiggle room. My thought was to ask the tenured folks if they wanted more hours to get them time and a half and, because of that, a bigger paycheck.”
He found that by asking his best employees if they wanted more hours, and thus more money, he could keep the restaurant running smoothly with fewer people in each shift and avoid having to hire and train new staff. “By the time I train somebody to do that same job, or really, two people to do that same job… I could just give [the experienced employee] some overtime. They're happy they get a bigger paycheck, and I'm happy my customers are happy because they don't have to suffer through somebody burning their steak.”
7. Train Your Trainers
Scichilone feels that shadowing and training are crucial in this industry, but sometimes, the person who is being shadowed doesn’t know how to teach a new employee. The solution? Train your trainers.
“I once started at a restaurant and the person training me had worked there for about a week,” said Scichilone. “So when I would ask him questions, he didn't have the answers to them. Shadowing is really important, but it's just as important to make sure that the person doing the training is equipped to do that and knows how to take the training wheels off slowly. Also, give [new staff] the opportunity to shadow different people at the restaurant so they're not learning only from the way that one person does [things].”
8. Set Up Check-Ins with All Staff Members
This tip requires commitment for it to work, but the benefits are huge. Scichilone mentioned regular manager-employee check-ins as a corporate strategy that can make a huge difference when applied in restaurants.
“I can't think of any moments during my time in the restaurant industry that I had a manager check in with me and ask, ‘How are things going? Is there anything you're struggling with? Is there anything you need more help with?’” said Scichilone. “If someone's having issues, they might bring them up then and there, and they might get solved. That could be the difference between them staying or leaving. That type of supervision model could be implemented in a way to really affect retention.”
These check-ins can be as short as ten or fifteen minutes, and they can be done weekly or bi-weekly. Managers can split this responsibility, so each manager only has a handful of staff they need to check in with on a regular basis. Keep track of any issues raised in these check-ins; it’s a great way to find areas of improvement in your restaurant.
Regular check-ins are also a great way to stay aware of which employees are ready to grow in their roles. Promoting from within is another excellent retention strategy, Scichilone explained.
9. Try Set Schedules
Though the practice has somewhat gone out of fashion in recent decades, making a schedule based on set shifts can provide a better work-life balance for employees. That’s why Hannon suggests creating a set schedule that only changes when it needs to, not starting from scratch every other week.
“Working [the] exact [same] shifts every week sounds kind of boring, and you're gonna mix it up some, but with minor exceptions, man, that can really be a great tool of maintaining a positive relationship with your employees,” said Hannon. “Obviously you have to have loyal employees to do this and pull it off. You have to have some pretty good cross training, too, so people can fill in the other positions.”
However, he explained that this is a great method of scheduling because if someone does leave, you know exactly what availability you’ll need from a new staff member.
It shows prospective candidates that you value stability and run an organized business. “You go into the interviews and have a plan of attack. You're like, ‘I just need Tuesday through Saturday from 5:00 PM to close. You get Sunday, Monday off every time.’”
10. Personalized Employee Incentives
There are dozens of types of employee incentives, from time off to gifts to free meals to first pick on the schedule. But Hannon says that the most effective incentives — the ones that actually make employees feel cared about — have a personal touch.
“Let's say an employee is always talking about Star Wars or whatever. This is an A+ employee, they're always just knocking it out of the park. Well, as a manager, why don't I just buy him a couple of tickets to the new Star Wars premiere when it comes out and give him the night off? That's just one example of thousands that you can think of. But if you tailor it to the person like, ‘Hey, yeah, I was listening to you three weeks ago when you said Star Wars was your life. Well here you go. I'm going to just to give you a little thanks for being an awesome employee’— that kind of stuff helps a lot with that turnover.”
Reduce Employee Turnover
By adopting hiring and retention practices from other industries, your restaurant can stand out from the pack as a desirable employer.