Why Do Restaurant Staff Quit?

Here are some common reasons restaurant employees quit, and ways you can get them to stick around.

The scenario is probably all too familiar: You have a star employee — and we’re talking a star. This person shows up early for their shifts. Their personality perfectly clicks with the culture and atmosphere your restaurant aspires to. They turn coworkers into friends and customers into regulars. They’ve taken on helping you train new employees. They’ve done it all and shined while doing it.

But then, one day, out of the blue, they tell you they’re quitting. And before you know it, they’re hanging up their apron and starting up at a different restaurant down the street, in search of greener pastures and fuller wallets. 

In the restaurant industry, this happens more often than it doesn’t. According to a survey conducted by 7shifts, the average tenure of a restaurant employee is just one month and 26 days. Chances are the star employee we used as an example above lasted longer than that, but this stat only proves that employees will leave if they aren’t given solid reasons to stay.

It not only hurts to see great workers leave, but it can also cost you. A study by Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration showed that the cost of losing and replacing one hourly employee can be as high as $5,864.

And no matter what solutions you put in place, there’s no getting around the fact that restaurant industry work is hard, with long days, late nights, big demands, and few rewards.

Simone Montali, who now works as a chef instructor at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, worked in a restaurant for about a year during his culinary journey — but it eventually got to him. He told us, “The pay isn’t great, but moreso you lose contact with a regular schedule and social interactions. Long hours that get you very tired, especially on weekends when your friends are having fun and relaxing. Nobody wants to hang out on a Tuesday morning. Some days I would get home tired, head to bed, and not wake up until it was time to head out to work again. And I had a pretty easy schedule and a not excessively demanding restaurant or chef.”

Some employees, like Simone, may decide that working in a restaurant just isn’t for them, but there are still a few things you can do to reduce turnover and keep staff enjoying their restaurant work. Below, we cover some of the most common reasons restaurant employees quit and solutions you can implement to keep great staff around.

5 Reasons Restaurant Employees Quit (And 5 Ways to Keep Them Around)

1. They’re not getting the compensation they’re looking for.

No matter how much blood, sweat, and tears you put into your business, a job is a job for your employees. While the modern restaurant worker is often looking for more than just cash (more on that below), they’re still more likely to leave if they could be earning more elsewhere.

But you can’t just throw money at staff to get them to stay — you need to think through how much you can and should pay your employees, which will be unique to your business, margins, legal wage obligations, and personal philosophy on gratuities.

Solution: Develop a competitive compensation structure.

The development of a competitive compensation structure doesn’t happen overnight. To determine what compensation structure you can realistically offer, you need to ask yourself:

  • Who gets paid hourly and who gets paid a salary? It can depend on the role, whether the employees in question are front-of-house or back-of-house, federal and local labor laws, and more.

  • What wage and hour laws should I know? Review the most up-to-date list of state-level minimum wages for both tipped and non-tipped employees, and make sure you’re compliant with federal and local labor laws.

  • What’s the tip credit? The tip credit is another component of the Fair Labor Standards Act  that lets restaurants pay tipped employees a minimum cash wage (below the national minimum wage), while allowing for tipped income to make up the gap by either reaching or exceeding minimum wage.

  • Will paying above minimum wage make a difference? The short answer is yes, which is particularly true in fast food and quick-service establishments.

  • What else can I offer on top of competitive restaurant wages? Offer career advancement opportunities, employee benefits, and other job perks (more on these below) that make employees’ lives easier.

Asking yourself these questions — and finding the answers to them — will give you a great foundation for determining how much to pay your employees. To help you break down the complexity of these questions, we wrote this handy guide to determining how much you should pay your restaurant employees. Give it a read.

2. They feel like there’s a lack of opportunities for growth.

Without a structured training program that keeps your team engaged, you could be losing valuable workers that want to keep learning and growing.

In a 2019 survey by TalentLMS on the state of training in the food and beverage industry, 62% of restaurant employees said a lack of training would make them leave their company. To keep the revolving door from spinning too fast, you have to provide employees with opportunities for growth within their role at your restaurant. One way to accomplish this is through a training program that provides access to resources and clear steps for career advancement.

Solution: Create an employee training program.

New-hire training goes without saying, but regular on-the-job training will help you keep your turnover rates low and leave your employees ready to get their jobs done efficiently.

At Mei Mei Street Kitchen in Boston, owner and operator Irene Li provides constant training in every area of running a restaurant to help make working at Mei Mei feel more like a “real job.” In her eyes, it’s the only way the industry’s going to survive.

This constant training at Mei Mei takes two main forms: open-book management and peer training. “I think we have a lot of folks who apply and sort of say, ‘I want to learn about how small business works.’ And before we had open book management, we would kind of say like, cool, that's great, but mostly what you're going to do is wash dishes or cut vegetables, so hopefully you'll absorb something by osmosis,” Irene told us. “Now, we can actually say to them, ‘Here are some best practices for business, for accounting, for financial management.’”

The turnover rate at Mei Mei hovers around 19% (excluding students who tend to work seasonally). Relative to a national average rate of 75%, we can deduce that Mei Mei’s program actually works. But you don’t have to implement their exact program to kickstart ongoing employee training. You can also provide career training through research and development trips, formal workshops, online courses, trade shows, or one-on-one mentorship. Ask your team what they want to learn, and then do your best to make it happen.

To learn more about how you can prop up an effective training program, read this helpful guide to employee training. And to learn how Mei Mei prioritizes and provides regular training, listen to the podcast episode below.

To Get Staff to Stick Around, Irene Li Never Stops Training

Irene Li's investment in staff training pays off big-time, which is why average employee tenure at Mei Mei is 2-3 years. Hear how she does it.

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3. They don’t have access to employee benefits.

Benefits are crucial to an employee’s sense of financial security and wellbeing, but the restaurant industry has some of the highest rates of underinsured and uninsured workers.

In a survey of restaurant workers conducted by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 90% of respondents said their employers didn’t offer health coverage. Similarly, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that small businesses in low-wage, high-turnover industries (like the restaurant and food service industries) were less likely to offer health insurance.

It’s not uncommon to see great workers leave the industry for a job that offers a more stable paycheck inclusive of traditional HR benefits like health insurance. The retention power of benefits is undeniable in the restaurant industry, and providing them is a surefire way to stand out and get staff to stick around.

Solution: Create an employee benefits program that works for your restaurant.

When you hear “benefits,” your mind likely jumps to thoughts of health insurance and 401k match — scary words in an industry with such thin profit margins. While benefits like these are doable, restaurant employees in today’s job market are also interested in non-traditional workplace benefits, like transportation stipends and professional development. If you’re not equipped to pitch into your employees’ retirement just yet, a little creative thinking can still go a long way.

Andrea Borgen, owner of Los Angeles restaurant Barcito, provides health insurance to all full-time employees. While she knows that benefits like these sometimes aren't feasible, the positives outweigh the financial cost in her establishment.

“The turnover you see at a place that offers more benefits versus one that offers basically nothing aside from what you can try and smash into your pocket by the end of the night is really significant,” Andrea told us. “This is one of the tightest labor markets we’ve ever seen, at least in the span of my career, and trying to attract and keep talent is really challenging. So you need to stack your deck with everything you can in order to be appealing and stand out.”

Check out our in-depth guide to learn how you can create an employee benefits program that makes sense for your restaurant, with information on providing health insurance and offering non-traditional benefits.

4. There’s a lack of effective communication.

We’re surrounded by mobile phones, with more access than ever before to various means of communication. According to the Pew Research Center, 96% of Americans now own a cellphone — but none of this shields us from miscommunications.

In a restaurant, lack of effective communication leads to confusion and messy processes, but also to issues in the relationships between management and staff. When these aren’t properly resolved, things can get ugly.

Amyko Ishizaki spent years working as a front-of-house renaissance woman in different restaurants around the Boston area. She had her fair share of reasons for moving on to new jobs over the years, but she recalls one negative experience in particular that led to a fleet of employees quitting.

“I quit this one restaurant after loving it for like a year and a half, moving my way up, becoming a head server and heading up the wine room, because our beloved GM was ousted. After they left, a new manager came in to help an old GM who was pulling double duty. This new manager worked us all way too hard, wouldn’t be friendly with any of the women on staff, and straight up told me to my face that he didn’t care about my wellbeing when I was feeling exhausted and overworked,” Amyko recalled.

At the end of Amyko’s time at this restaurant, the manager was the root cause of about 30 people quitting — all within just a few weeks of each other. A costly issue like this one could have been better handled or even avoided, had there been more of a dialogue between the staff and upper management.

Solution: Ramp up your internal communication strategy.

There are a few ways you can improve communication and restaurant processes to increase efficiency, keep staff happy, and prevent situations like the example above. Here are some ideas you can easily implement:

  • Have regular employee check-ins: Use this time to see how each employee is doing. Are they stressed or dissatisfied? Having issues with a manager or coworker? Do they have questions about the restaurant or career advancement?

  • Get the team together for staff meals and outside-of-work activities: Get your staff together in an informal setting, and you’ll help to build a greater sense of kinship and community.

  • Run pre-shift meetings: A great pre-shift meeting can get your team focused, informed, and excited for their upcoming shift.

  • Collect and encourage anonymous feedback: Employees won’t always feel comfortable sharing feedback directly with restaurant management. Anonymous feedback can help you keep the lines of communication healthy and open.

  • Conduct exit interviews: Employee exit interviews are a great way to understand why staff are leaving and how you can improve culture and workplace satisfaction.

These are just a few ways to help you get your team talking and improve retention. For a more in-depth look at effectively communicating in the restaurant, check out this how-to guide.

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One-on-One Meeting Template

Make weekly, biweekly, or monthly check-ins with employees productive with this customizable Word doc for your one-on-one meeting agendas.

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5. They don’t feel a connection to the restaurant.

Compensation, benefits, and regular training are huge when it comes to employee retention, but you have to give your team something they can believe in, too.

Millennials, in particular, want to work for businesses that actively participate in conversations and causes around issues like safe workplace environments, career growth, climate change, sexual harassment, and diversity and equity — on both a local community level and a larger scale.

Not only do they want to work for employers that have strong cultural values, but nearly 9 out of 10 millennials would consider taking a pay cut to work at a company whose mission and values align with their own, according to LinkedIn’s Workplace Culture report.

Solution: Create core values and get your team behind them.

Your restaurant’s core values will depend on your personal values and what you want your restaurant to stand for in your community. Before you can get your team to believe in them, you have to live and breathe them first.

We devised a quick, easy exercise to help you develop your restaurant’s core values — here’s a brief overview of that strategy:

  1. Write a list of your personal values.

  2. Let that list sit for a couple days. Then review it with a critical eye.

  3. Get feedback from those you trust.

Once you’ve developed your core values, it’s time to set them in motion: Type them up; prominently feature them in your employee handbook, training manual, and website; and conduct value training sessions with your team. Basically, you want to do whatever you can to show your community what your restaurant stands for. For more info on implementing your core values, check out that article above.

Sidewall Pizza Company, which has four locations in South Carolina, is a shining example of a restaurant business that lives and breathes its values. The business operates on a profit share model, meaning that every time a customer dines with them, a portion of the proceeds are dedicated to the Sidewall Pizza Community Fund. According to the restaurant’s website, “The Sidewall Pizza Community Fund is an ongoing fund from which we donate to individuals, families, and organizations in need in our area.”

This dedication to giving back to the community has had a big impact on Sidewall’s customer relationships, but it’s also helped them better hire and retain great employees. Sidewall Pizza’s Director of Community Engagement and Special Events, Laura Smith, told us, “I think our community work helps everybody at Sidewall feel like they're part of a good team that is doing more than just making pizza. They're helping their communities.”

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