5 Restaurant staffing best practices

Finding and retaining staff can be a significant challenge for restaurants, and that issue is amplified in cities where staffing demand exceeds supply. However, a few simple strategies can help keep restaurants well-staffed all year-round.

1. Don’t wait too long to hire staff. “We see a lot of this,” said Chris Floyd, owner of Capital Restaurant Resources, a restaurant recruiting firm in Washington, DC. “Washington is an incredibly competitive market right now, we've had a real renaissance in the number and quality of restaurants, but although it's become a great restaurant town, a lot of people don't move here to be in that industry. So restaurant owners who think they can wait until a week or two before opening to hire will be opening with half a staff or no staff.”

Although many new businesses don't want to bring on staff until they have cash flow, restaurateurs must know their market. If they’re in a competitive area with staffing shortages, offers must be made well before the eatery opens, Floyd said.

2. Avoid making low offers to prospective managers.  “Many restaurant owners lowball managers with offers and don’t want to pay them commensurate with their experience,” said Scott Samuels, CEO of Horizon Hospitality, an executive recruiting firm for the hospitality industry. “Let's say someone was making $50,000 previously and they're unemployed, so you want to offer $45,000 since they have no job right now -- that's a big mistake, because managers are accustomed to a certain style of life and they will sign on with you, but they’ll keep looking and then leave quickly as soon as they find someone to pay them $50,000,” he advises.

Such offers are short-sighted, Samuels said, because turnover is costly to restaurant businesses. In another example, if a manager is currently employed and making $50,000, some restaurants will offer $51,000 to entice them to join their restaurants, but that may not work either, Samuels said. “That is pretty much a lateral salary move, and candidates won’t get excited enough about that. In addition, low offers open the door to the manager’s existing employer offering to match your offer, and then they’re likely to just stay where they are,” he said.

“If you’re in this situation, look at it long-term -- if you can't afford to make the step to a higher salary right away, get creative and say, ‘We'll sit down after 90 days and reevaluate, and if you're performing where we expect, we'll bump up your salary,’” Samuels said.

3. Look at what the staff can bring to you when creating offers. Every prospective staff member has the potential to help a restaurant in ways that can ultimately help save money, and restaurateurs should consider that when making offers.

“If you’re hiring an executive chef, you know the value of them helping reduce food costs is worth so much more to the company than $5,000 in additional salary, because if you get someone who isn't a top performer and causes food waste and increases the food cost, that's so much more expensive than paying a little more in salary,” Samuels advises. Therefore, take these factors into account when making offers.

4. To retain staff, maintain a positive culture. Once a great staff member comes on board, create an environment where they want to stay, Floyd said. Candidates are enticed by money, but they also seek other benefits, including culture, work satisfaction and fulfillment. “Employees need to believe the company cares about them and is interested in their welfare and not just making a buck, and if you can make that a reality, employees will stay longer,” Floyd said.

5. To bring on and maintain hourly staff, be flexible. If a restaurant is having trouble hiring hourly staff, get creative, Samuels says. “For instance, if it isn't cost-effective for employees to park at your restaurant, you could offer a parking allowance, so people can afford to work there. The whole benefit aspect is critically important, whether it's monthly stipend or even paying for the subway pass, or having a garage you can pay directly for staff to park there, those are critical factors in downtown areas,” he advises.

Samuels says he’s also seeing more restaurants offer perks like sign-on bonuses or retention bonuses. “Smart employers are looking at more retention bonuses for tenure,” he advises. “If an employee gets an offer that’s a $1-per-hour higher from another restaurant, they would typically take that -- but they would be less likely to do so if they would miss out on a year-end bonus if they choose to stay where they are,” he said.  

Bonus tip: Train hourly workers so you can promote from within. One simple way to retain great staff members is to give them the opportunity for promotion. “If you see a spark of interest or talent in any of your employees, train them so they can move up,” Floyd said. “I know a few companies doing this successfully and it gives the employees a pattern of growth and teaches them skills. I'm a former chef and my favorite thing about that job was seeing people I trained from dishwasher into prep cook into a line cook into a saute cook and so on. I loved that, and it helps the restaurant as well as the staff members.”


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