5 Tips for Weathering the Restaurant Labor Shortage

a photo of cooks working hard during the restaurant labor shortage

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With COVID-19 vaccines becoming more readily available, many restaurants in the US are starting to reopen their doors or to increase their customer capacity to pre-pandemic levels. But there’s a problem. Restaurant owners are finding that many of their former employees have no desire to return to their old minimum wage jobs. As a result, there’s more competition for talent than in previous years, and many restaurants simply can’t find necessary staff to fill their vacant roles. To help businesses cope, we’ve put together 5 actionable tips for dealing with a restaurant labor shortage.

Tip #1: Engage and retain the employees you do have.

When you’re faced with a restaurant labor shortage, it’s important that you do everything you can to retain your current workforce. It’s simply much easier and more cost-effective to retain your current staff than to hire and train new team members. This is especially true when competition for new hires is tight.

Employee engagement and satisfaction are vital. Check in with your staff frequently, understand their pain points, and make sure they feel heard. Doing so requires only a little extra time and thoughtfulness but can make all the difference between frustrated employees that feel expendable – and engaged workers who are invested in the success of the business. You also need to ask yourself whether you’re providing the conveniences that employees today expect. For example, most workers today want to be able to pick up shifts, swap shifts, and request time off from their mobile phones.

Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Think about perks, benefits, and conveniences you can afford to offer and which your staff will actually care about. Find ways to make the job fun and rewarding, and give the team a pat on the back after a hard day’s work. The internet offers a wealth of ideas and examples for games, activities, and contests that can increase employee engagement and retention.

Remember: whether they’re line cooks or front of house staff, if your employees don’t feel valued and appreciated, they’ll go somewhere they do. And your competitors would probably be glad to have them.

Tip #2: Utilize your current workforce well.

During a restaurant labor shortage, everyone has to put in 110% or more. Not only should you make efforts to retain your current staff, but you should also make sure your staff are scheduled efficiently and according to anticipated demand. This also means giving your team adequate periods of rest, so that they don’t get burnt out by a hectic work environment.

Sales-driven scheduling software can generate staff schedules in advance and help you cover your labor needs much more efficiently. A good software can also build in adequate rest breaks and periods of time off, both of which will help keep your staff healthy and sane. Again, this goes back to Tip #1 and retaining your current staff. You likely need every pair of hands you can get, but having overworked, harried employees isn’t sustainable over the long term. Tired, overworked team members make more mistakes; they’re also less likely to show up to work when you need them.

If your staff shortage is extreme, you may need to consider adjusting the hours of your business. By temporarily reducing hours, you allow your current workforce more time to recuperate. Otherwise, you may risk losing more of your team. It’s a stop-gap measure, but it’s one that can help get you through a difficult time while you try to fill vacant roles.

Update: If you’re in a state that does tip credits, you may want to check out our article what is the 80/20 tip rule. It has useful advice for staying compliant with the DoL’s revised tip rule AND managing your labor well.

Tip #3: Hire for the future, not the present.

Again, this may seem like a difficult task during a restaurant labor shortage, but hiring for the future is too important to ignore. Snap decisions to hire poor job candidates will cost you in the long run, likely in the many hours spent training people who turn out to be no-shows or who do shoddy work and bring down the reputation of your business.

When hiring, look for someone with a track record for being reliable and a team player, even if they have no restaurant or food service experience whatsoever. Soft skills and a good attitude are far more important than whether someone’s ever taken a table order or worked a lunch rush. It’s a lot easier to train people on the latter than the former.

Tip #4: Have a solid training program for new hires. 

Speaking of training, since many new hires have likely never worked in the hospitality industry before, it’s important to have a solid training program in place to get them up to speed. Don’t take anything you know for granted. Prepare yourself for a higher volume of new or untrained staff, and get your tribal knowledge down into an easily reusable and digestible format.

Checklists are a great way to introduce new staff to a list of tasks and responsibilities. You might also consider short how-to videos, slide shows, and other media that your new hires can re-watch later if they need a bit more exposure to restaurant lingo or techniques.

Tip #5: Create a place where people want to work.

This last tip takes us full circle. In order to retain and attract employees, you need to create an environment that they will want to work in, despite the often grueling and high-pressure nature of the job. And yes, that may mean increasing wages. It may also mean reduced profits while you adjust your business model to the new reality.

Restaurants are now being confronted with a problem that many businesses in retail and other industries have been dealing with for years: more competition for the same talent pool. One of the best ways to draw more talent to your business is to cultivate a reputation for being a place where people genuinely enjoy working. A place where team members support each other and invest in the group’s success.

Treat your people well, and make them feel valued. They’ll not only be more likely to stay, but they’ll be more likely to tell their friends and family and to refer suitable new hires to your business.

The Bottom Line

Work in the restaurant industry is and has always been difficult and demanding. Because of COVID, many former food service workers, both managers and staff, took the opportunity to pursue work in different industries. Industries that often pay better for less demanding work. The pandemic may be coming to an end, but the labor shortage isn’t. It’s time to start thinking long term.

If you’re considering offering sign-on bonuses, paying for social media campaigns, and using referral programs to try and attract new workers, put those ideas on pause for a second. Here’s why: You could have a great referral program, but if people don’t want to work for your business because your competitors have much better reputations as employers, it’s not going to do you much good. Likewise, you could have a compelling sign-on bonus, but if employee morale is low and the regular pay isn’t great, your new hires simply aren’t going to stay. You need to consider long-term what you can do to make your business an appealing place to work. You need to be able to compete in ways that you probably haven’t before.

The good news is that once you have applied the 5 tips above, you can start using referral programs, social media campaigns, sign-on bonuses, and other methods more effectively and with longer lasting results.

UPDATE: We’ve recently posted our advice for dealing with the labor shortage in 2022.

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