Rower left serving and bartending to work in wine wholesale, a job with more “normal” hours that lets him spend more time with his wife and child.
“I do miss the camaraderie of working dinner service. It's fun working a job where you don't need your phone, you don't need to write or read emails, and you can work together to accomplish something tangible,” he admits. “But as I got older (also, having a partner who didn't work the same hours was tough), I knew I had to make a change.”
Rower’s experience is all too familiar for staff in today’s restaurant workforce. This desire for a less stressful, more stable, higher paying career in the restaurant space, coupled with a strong economy and a tight labor market, has led to a crisis in staff retention and turnover.
The average tenure of a restaurant employee is one month and 26 days, with managers lasting an average of four months and four days. Everyone is talking about this problem, and the community is coming together to understand how to make the restaurant industry an attractive place for a long-term, rewarding, worthwhile career.
Part III: The Future. Imagining What the Future Holds for Restaurateurs and Their Staff.
Once again, new technology is changing the relationships between the restaurant and its workers. Handheld POS devices, self-serve kiosks, an explosion of reservation-making services, even robot restaurants are automating or streamlining some of the more repetitive and less creative tasks involved in running a successful restaurant.
And while it remains to be seen if 21st century technological innovation upends the restaurant industry the way it did with fast food in the last century, the early effects are workers being relied on for more creative and service-oriented tasks that require skills like empathy and salesmanship. The upshot of that is we may find workers more invested in their work and employers hiring for more skilled labor at higher pay, afforded by the money saved from automation of other tasks. Of course, the inherent downside is fewer jobs for less-skilled workers.
To create more fairness and equity for restaurant workers who aren’t automated out of a job, the fight for $15 and the movement to replace tipping with fair pay is something restaurant owners could support or at least be prepared to accommodate, because the debate will continue until all restaurant workers can make a decent living.
In the backlash to the fast and over-processed food that fueled the growth of casual dining during the mid to late 1900’s, the farm-to-table restaurant movement continues to grow. Front-of-house staff are expected to be as familiar as the chef with the origins of ingredients, and the workers who farm, raise, and produce the raw ingredients are becoming more integrated with the workers who cook and serve them. In the future, this trend could find us with more and more restaurants that grow their own food on premises, in urban rooftop gardens and vertical farms that celebrate organic and local food while also feeding our exploding population by any means necessary.
However, if water pollution, soil depletion, and other side effects of agribusiness cause the practice to crumble under its own weight, locavorism could become a way of life for all future restaurants diners out of necessity. On the other hand, it might remain an elite, urban trend while rural America simply won’t be able to afford to eat out much if food production becomes more consolidated and small family farms fade out of existence.
Off-premise dining and eating out less are also on the rise. According to the Atlantic, it’s predicted that restaurant delivery — the online market powered by GrubHub, Uber Eats, Postmates, etc. — is projected to grow 15 times faster than the rest of the restaurant business through the end of the decade. So while restaurants will still be in demand for serving up meals, there could be a shift away from hiring wait staff to hiring more delivery staff.
Part IV: How Restaurateurs Can Evolve With the Times
Change can be exciting, and it can also be scary, but all business owners must be prepared to adapt to new realities in their industries. That's especially true for restaurateurs whose businesses are highly competitive and facing razor-thin margins.
Sometimes, doing something bold that’s good for workers can set a business apart and attract attention and new opportunities. Emma’s Torch, a social enterprise in Brooklyn, NY, employs refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of human trafficking in a 12-week, paid apprenticeship program that helps set them up for culinary careers. Their unique business model has earned them media praise from Food & Wine, NPR, and Bon Appetit among others and recently led to an expansion with a cafe inside the busy Brooklyn Public Library.
Investing in workers also helps restaurants stay competitive. Staff turnover can be all too rapid, particularly in crowded urban markets, and many restaurants are struggling to fill positions. Andrei Stern of Miami based SuViche has found hiring reliable staff can be challenging. “At the end of the day, they’re going to leave if they can make a few bucks elsewhere,” he told us. To combat that, SuViche has offered profit sharing for hourly employees. “We set certain metrics. If they [staff] can meet them, they get a bonus. It’s helped with morale, productivity, and turnover.”
He adds, “I think culture plays an important role. We need to make staff feel comfortable. We need to be on the same side. First, we need to learn how to listen — that’s something we always teach our managers.” Then, what starts with the staff makes its way to the customer. “First, be hospitable to one another, then to our guests, then the rest will fall in line. The guest will come in and feel that energy.”
SuViche has also embraced new technology to help manage their staff of 400 team members across a half dozen locations. They simply could not have grown the business without it. “This year we’re working a lot on establishing a learning management software that creates consistent training across all stores,” he explains. This, along with digital tools for accessing pay, seeing their schedules, swapping shifts, etc., has made SuViche attractive to Millennials and Gen Z workers. “Your first interaction with a potential staff member needs to be very user-friendly, so we use a mobile-friendly option that allows you to apply online,” he says.
What SuViche has in common with Emma’s Torch is that workers are being empowered — empowered to manage their work life more seamlessly, and empowered with career skills that they can take with them. “The decision making power, instead of flowing up in the hierarchy, we push it down. Everyone has the ability to make decisions,” says Andrei.
Robots, Drones, And Driver-less Delivery
The restaurant industry in America has at times been a hotbed of innovation and yet remains an industry that’s set in its ways.
As cultural, technological, and economic factors change the needs and demands of the restaurant workforce, we’ll see restaurateurs and their staff working together to shape the future. From robots powering back of house to drones facilitating delivery, the future of the restaurant industry will surprise and delight guests with the latest in culinary and tech innovation for decades to come.
Business owners who embrace what’s best for their workers will have the ultimate advantage.