It's not an easy time to be hiring in the restaurant industry.
The labor pool is shrinking — the U.S. had 7.4 million job openings in June, but only 6 million people were looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the rise of the gig economy has created a new industry for young people to make their cash. That part-time server job at the restaurant that got you through high school is becoming less common.
Retaining a loyal, energized workforce is a process that starts long before an employee’s first day. Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been in the restaurant game for decades, a clear, comprehensive, and actionable staffing plan is important, for both you and your team. It’s one of the first steps to building an engaged workforce. Everyone from your dishwasher to your lead bartender should feel like they’re a valued, contributing member of the team.
Anyone with hospitality experience will agree: No two restaurants are the same, which means a one-size-fits-all staffing solution isn’t going to work. Your restaurant concept informs the staff and skill sets you need to hire, making it important to consider the nuances between, say, a fast-casual chain and a fine dining establishment.
Your front-of-house restaurant staff should be made up of friendly folks who champion great customer service. But is hiring your ideal FOH team easier said than done?
The restaurant workforce pool is more dynamic than ever, with millennials making up the largest portion of the U.S. workforce. Consider what your potential employees are looking for in a workplace, how to keep them engaged at work, and how to retain the great ones. Let’s look at the who, how, and why of hiring for your restaurant’s front-of-house staff in today’s workforce pool.
Knowing Which Front-of-House Jobs to Hire
Front-of-house restaurant jobs are, by their very nature, customer-facing. After all, the front of house includes any area where customers exist. A positive attitude and an ability to effectively handle customer complaints (in the moment and afterwards) are critical. If it’s obvious an applicant is not a people person—or at least able to effectively put on a personable facade—then this side of the restaurant ain’t for them.
So who are these people-persons, and what should you, as an owner, do to make sure they contribute positively to your restaurant?
When searching for top talent, keep your company culture at the forefront of your search. You want someone who does a good job, of course, but you also want an employee who encourages your team, delights your guests, and works well with others.
SuViche, a Peruvian restaurant in Miami, FL, is honest about how much their people matter. On their website’s careers page, they’ve got an overview of their company, the career opportunities that offer advancement, and their company culture.
"We look for people that love coaching, know how to set priorities, work with a sense of urgency and understand the importance of accountability. We place more value on character, principles and behavior than the technical knowledge needed to perform a certain job"
Finding candidates who contribute to your restaurant’s vision and morale is paramount. Here’s what to look for in a stellar front-of-house team.
Serving is likely the first job that comes to mind when you think of FOH positions. Your servers have the most contact with customers and act as the liaison between the front of house and the kitchen. To do this effectively requires strong communication and organizational skills, as well as an approachable, accommodating disposition. This is as true for a sit-down restaurant as it is for a fast food establishment, even if the job titles change (counter staff, barista, cashier, etc.).
Just because a candidate lists previous serving experience on a resume doesn’t mean they’re a perfect fit. Qualities like agreeableness and empathy are not easily taught, whereas processes, like how to do a quality check or how to use a point of sale system, are.
Bartenders or mixologists will have different levels of customer interaction depending on your setup: If there are seats at the bar, they might take food orders along with preparing drinks for the rest of the restaurant. Like servers, staying organized and on-task in a fast-paced environment is key.
Have your bartender prove their prowess. Are they familiar with mixing techniques? Are they trained in the best practices of serving alcohol? Do they have a mental Rolodex of cocktail recipes to deliver on demand? A pre-hire trial shift (paid, of course) is a good way to see their skills in action and make sure they can keep up with your customers’ desires.
Most sit-down restaurants will have hosts whose jobs include welcoming guests on arrival, overseeing wait times, reservations, and seating. With the exception of maybe your restaurant marketing, customers get their first impressions from your host. So it’s important that these team members are friendly, eager, and skilled multitaskers.
Typically, you’ll start sending serving staff home as traffic slows, but you should keep at least one host on until you close your doors for the evening. When a restaurant is slow, hosts spend a lot of time standing around, which can tempt them to become distracted or reach for their phones. Whoever you hire should be willing and able to find ways to keep busy that contribute to the success of the restaurant, like cleaning food-splattered menus, rolling silverware, or assisting with other helpful chores.
Expos toe the line between front and back of house, spending the majority of their time on the line, out of view of the customer. Orders can come in fast and furious at peak meal times, making it important to hire someone who’s naturally calm, cool, and collected.
An expo’s primary responsibility is putting the finishing touches on a dish and directing the servers or food runners to deliver the meal to the guest. Having an excellent memory and outstanding time management skills are crucial for this position.
The name says it all: Food runners are responsible for delivering food from the pass to the customer. Speed and accuracy are must-haves to make sure each dish quickly arrives at its correct destination.
Your food runners should have a solid grasp of your restaurant menu, processes, and software, because customers might decide to place an on-the-spot order or request a refill when their food arrives. They should be just as polite and accommodating as your servers. No one wants to be told “I’ll let your server know” when asking for a quick top-off.
Bussers are the champions who bounce around the restaurant cleaning tables, clearing dishes, and supporting FOH staff with food deliveries and other small tasks. They keep the place looking clean and comfortable for your guests. Your bussers should be attentive and diligent. The quicker your busser can polish a table, the quicker you can seat new customers.
Because bussers might also be tasked with delivering food to tables, they should be familiar with your menu in the event a customer makes a request. Generally, your busser will report the order to whoever is serving the table, but knowing what follow-up questions to ask about a particular menu item will help serving staff place a complete, correct order.
Typically found in fine dining, sommeliers and maître d’s are two examples of specialty FOH jobs that require extensive knowledge and training in a particular area. Some high-end restaurants will have employees dedicated to these positions; others may cross-train servers and bartenders to step in as needed.
Even if you aren’t an expert in the area, you should have enough knowledge to be able to ask questions or provide scenarios that require applicants to demonstrate just how well they know their chops. For someone to list “wine connoisseur” on a resume means very little if they aren’t able to suggest wine pairings for what’s on your menu.
Front-of-house hospitality skills and great customer service go together like happy staff and family meals.
Writing a Front-of-House Job Description
Now that you have an idea of the kinds of competencies you’ll need for your restaurant's front-of-house staff, you can create job descriptions that outline the expectations for each role. Include an honest and thorough explanation of the daily tasks the job requires as well as engaging material that will attract the candidate to your restaurant and team. But avoid including too many requirements, like years of experience of formal culinary school experience. This will limit the quantity and diversity of candidates who will apply.
Go into detail about what makes your restaurant different from all the others. No need to be formal — match the tone of your environment. Make jokes when appropriate and comfortable, or use casual phrases that make the job posting feel more personal.
Promoting Open Front-of-House Positions
Once you’ve crafted your job descriptions, it’s time to post your digital “help wanted” signs. Your company website, various job boards, and social media channels are all great places to advertise your open positions. Encourage your current staff to submit employee referrals, and even consider an employee referral incentive program, especially since new hires sourced through referral programs produce 25% more profit for companies than new hires sourced through other means.
Think creatively about how to get these open roles in front of the right people. Are there local culinary schools in your area? Any colleges or high-schools you can advertise through? What about community-based groups that place job seekers back into the workforce? Keep an open mind about who might be a good fit.
Now you’ve got resumes flooding in. Awesome. Time to start sifting through cover letters and calling the golden candidates for interviews.
Interviews are opportunities to vet applicants, but they’re also a chance to show off your workplace culture.
As the interviewer, make sure you’re asking engaging and insightful questions that help you get to know your candidate and get a feel for their personality. You only have a short period of time to get to know a candidate’s behavioral qualities, personality, and personal values, so make this time count.
Tacombi, a Mexican taco shop in New York, says their team’s personality is what makes their customers come back. Hire people who add to your restaurant’s personality. Your guests notice.
“We believe that the success of our business depends on the quality of our team. We work hard to recruit, hire, and retain an extraordinary staff notable for its warmth, professionalism & work ethic.”
Here are a few of our favorite front-of-house interview questions to get you thinking.
- Have you dined at our restaurant before? If yes, what was your experience like and how do you think you can contribute to or improve it?
- What made you want to work in the restaurant industry?
- How do you adapt to sudden changes? Competing priorities?
- Tell me about a time you went above the call of duty to help someone in need.
- What’s your favorite dish? Describe it to me in a way that you think would make me want to try it.
- How would you handle a difficult or demanding customer?
As you’re asking questions, pay attention to body language along with how your candidate answers. Does the person you’re interviewing avoid eye contact or display a lack of engagement? Are they quickly answering the questions with short, textbook answers rather than elaborating and revealing their personality? If so, this candidate might not be the right person to connect with guests and build on your restaurant’s culture.
Don’t forget to invite the candidate to ask questions of you, too. Interviews are a two-way street, and the questions they ask can reveal new insights.
Making the Offer
When you officially decide on who to hire, follow up with that candidate with a phone call. Congratulate them and formally offer them the position. In the initial phone call, cover the pay, expected hours, any employee benefits, their level of interest, any questions they still have, and how you want to move forward.
Hopefully it’s a good fit. But there’s always the possibility that they’ve accepted another offer or decided to go in a different direction. If this is the case, go back to the other candidates you interviewed and reassess what made you put them in the “no” pile.
If the offer phone call goes well, deliver the offer letter either in person or by email, and give the candidate a few days to formally accept the role.
Need a restaurant job offer letter template? We already made one for you.
Preparing for Onboarding
Once the interviews have wrapped and you’ve found your candidates, (don’t forget to check their references), it’s time to prepare for day one.
A well thought-out restaurant employee onboarding process is super critical. If you don’t invest the time to build a system that properly orients staff to the workplace, you won’t be giving your new employee a fair shot at being the best staff member they can be. Just like when you’re searching for candidates, make sure you’re keeping in mind your company’s culture and values when creating your onboarding process. Whether you offer hands-on systems training, an employee handbook, or a mentor, you should feel confident that as your employees migrate from training to the floor, they know the ins and outs of serving your guests and will represent your restaurant to your standard.
Familiarize your staff with your menu. Whether you test them using a written exam or try something a bit more engaging, like providing your training class with samples of the best-selling items on your menu, make sure they can answer customer questions about everything, from ingredients to preparation.
Explain exactly what you expect for your restaurant’s guest experience. How do you want your guests to feel? What about your staff? This is as much about showing as it is telling. Have your current staff give examples of real customer interactions where they had to go above and beyond to make sure the guest was accommodated properly or how a particularly busy shift required extra team work.
Prepare training materials that communicate your restaurant’s staff policies. Include things like dress code, meal breaks, what time to arrive for a shift, and staff meetings. If your company has a harassment policy in place, make sure your employees are aware of it. Provide contact information for shift managers, HR, and any other need-to-know information.
Include a detailed overview of your restaurant’s systems and tools. Technology has helped restaurants become more efficient than ever: In the National Restaurant Association’s 2019 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, more than 80% of restaurateurs surveyed agreed that technology has given their business a more competitive edge. Spend time orienting your new hires on the tech they’ll have to use, like your restaurant's POS system, scheduling software, and so on.
One last thing: Be open to answering any and all questions your new employee might have. If you can address their concerns now, you’ll know they can handle a full house on a busy Saturday night.
Hiring quality staff is tough, but if you find the right candidates and show them why working for your restaurant is better than everywhere else, you’ll keep good employees and create an unmatched experience for your guests.
If you want to learn more about hiring, check out the Hiring the Modern Restaurant Workforce course.
In this five-chapter interactive course, you’ll learn how to master the hiring cycle so you can get back to doing what you love.