After a 2020 that took everything they had just to stay in business, many restaurants in 2021 have found a new challenge: simply hiring back workers.
There’s the McDonald’s in Florida that couldn’t get enough applicants, even while dangling $50 for anyone who interviewed. Chipotle announced it would bump pay and give its workers $200 or $750 referral bonuses. A steakhouse in Lebanon, Tennessee, is offering new hires a $1,000 signing bonus. The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association is lobbying the state to support $1,500 signing bonuses for new hires as lawmakers decide how to spend federal grants.
It’s wild out in these streets! The phrase “these unprecedented times,” so overworn during the past year, applies here. To help give restauranteurs some pointers on how to get ahead in this twisty job market, we convened an expert panel to discuss staffing, hiring, and retention. On the panel were
Bethany Zak, Director of Internal Innovation Programs | Relishworks
Ross Bodenberg, Account Executive | Landed
Kim Smith, Owner | Smitka Strategy
The big questions were along just how to run a business right now, and to go beyond the obvious responses. (Watch the recorded session on our Facebook page, to get the unabridged version.) You could, like so many restaurants now, try throwing money at the problem. But notably, both expert panelists agreed that signing bonuses and even pay bumps aren’t likely to be successful on their own as restaurants try to attract workers — especially younger workers — to turn down other opportunities to enter hospitality.
“It’s not just spending more money advertising,” Smith said. “That is not a long-term or sustainable solution.”
Rather, the larger issues at play are ones that require more creativity, more endurance, and perhaps more introspection than you might expect.
Here are five big takeaways from the panel’s discussion.
Offer perks beyond the paycheck
Workers, particularly Gen Z applicants, may surprise their employers with their expectations. Yes, money is important. But it’s far from the only thing.
“Growth opportunity and cultural fit are more important than pay,” Bodenberg said. “Diversity, inclusion, and equity hiring are also on the rise in what workers value from their employer.”
Whether you’re an independent operator or part of a chain, you’re going to have strengths and weaknesses in this game. Independent restaurateurs may not be able to keep up with the chains for sheer dollars, the support networks, and the access to huge job boards. But many applicants are turned off by the homogeneous culture and the rigid hierarchies of chains, and may instead favor chances to learn and grow on the job. So independent restaurants competing for talent may do well to target workers who show interest in professional development.
While you're at it, make it easy for them to say yes! The biggest immediate barriers for workers, Smith said, are the quality of the work environment; access to transportation and parking; and child care. You as one employer can only solve for so much, but you might begin with creating a safe, abuse-free working space for all your workers, helping your employees coordinate their shifts around school or daycare hours, scheduling them at least two weeks out so they can arrange their lives accordingly, and offering meals to take home at the end of a shift.
“As silly as it is: Are you feeding them?” Smith said. “We’re in the hospitality industry. Food works. Make it part of the perks.”
Speak to your applicants in new ways
Larger operations will be able to blast programmatic ads across job boards and into the various social crannies of the internet. That’s a smart first step. But whatever your scale, don’t overlook the places online where your best candidates are already convening. Larger cities are likely to have Facebook groups where hospitality workers trade job leads and gossip about new opportunities.
“You can meet different people with different choices where they are,” Smith said.
Likewise, don’t insist that everyone who applies comes to you first thing. Until you know someone’s living and transportation situation, a demand to come to your office might be a huge obstacle. Can an initial in-person meeting instead be a phone call? Can a phone call be a FaceTime meeting? If you’re overscheduling meetings and miss someone’s call, can you text them asap to reschedule? Show some creativity and flexibility to get ahead of the competition.
Younger workers are almost certainly on Snapchat and Instagram, and of course restaurant TikTok is a thing — if you’re using those platforms to reach out to workers, you’ll have an advantage. They’re also networkers themselves. Consider referral bonuses to encourage them to reach out to people who already are probably a better cultural fit for your operation than the average person replying to a classified ad.
Close the deal yesterday
You have a candidate who looks promising? Don’t let them look around any longer. The clock is ticking — you don’t think you’re the only place they’ve applied, do you? — and it’s not exactly on your side.
“It’s important for employers to respond that much faster to candidates when they express interest in a position,” Bodenberg said.
Roll out that offer sheet and get that new line cook or dishwasher fitted for an apron. Not in three days, or two, but stat.
Get technology to free up your time
By all means, use the best restaurant technology to help you automate the tasks you do repeatedly, that drain the hours of the day. Restaurant hiring software, for one, would be a great place to start. Just don’t expect that you can, in the immortal words of Ron Popeil, set it and forget it. A better strategy, the panel agreed, is to leverage tech solutions so that you have more time to be a real person when you deal with your workers.
"The future of staffing is going to be embracing technology with personal touch," Bodenberg said.
Build a workplace fit for the long haul
OK, so now that you’ve got someone hired, and maybe they’ve even lasted long enough to get that full signing bonus vested. Ask yourself: Why would they stick around? “Great people, getting them to show up, means you’ve created a career path or a job opportunity that’s good in the long-term,” Smith said.
So take honest stock of your workers see and feel when they step into your kitchen. Have you offered them a sense of meaning — a way to feel they’re giving back to their community? Do they have flexible schedules, giving them a sense of control in their work life? Are you giving them a chance to feel heard at work? Are the uniforms even vaguely cool?
And, as hackneyed as it sounds, are they having fun? Hospitality builds camaraderie like few other industries can. If your workers are enjoying the company they keep for those intense shifts, they’ll be more apt to stick around.