6 Professional Development Ideas to Retain Staff at Your Restaurant

Many restaurants are looking to hire right now. In fact, as many as 87% percent of operators plan to make a hire in the next six to 12 months, reports the National Restaurant Association’s 2023 State of the Industry. Few think that process will be easy.

While you never want to take your staff for granted, today’s tight labor market makes it pivotal to show your commitment to your team. Ideally, you’re fostering an environment where staff want to stay. And offering professional development opportunities can be a major component of that.

“If your staff are constantly learning and evolving, and they’re seeing results for themselves, they don’t have as much of a reason to be looking outside for something else,” says Glenn Flood, a restaurant leadership training consultant. “Most people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers, and sometimes it’s about managers not empowering employees to succeed.”

Think of professional development as a tool to invest in your people and show that you care. Typically, it’ll save you money in the long run by reducing turnover, too. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve broken down a few training ideas to consider.

Set up vendor-led workshops

Striving to incorporate educational opportunities on a tight budget? Tap your local vendors.

“With a fish purveyor, for example, you can ask to bring your staff to see the facility, the production line, how the fish is processed and fileted, and have them teach about seasonality and why to buy local,” says Ray McCue, a master instructor and Johnson and Wales University. “If they want to keep doing business with you, they’re likely to offer you these opportunities.”

Depending on how you source ingredients, consider asking your dairy, meat, or produce reps about any opportunities for staff to learn more. Some vendors may welcome a site visit. With others, ask if they’re open to coming to your restaurant to do a brief educational session that dives deeper on a specific ingredient or topic.

Initiate a tasting session led by alcohol reps

Pulling in wine, beer, or liquor reps to conduct tastings is another low-budget way to offer continued education. Ask sales reps to go over details like the origins of the product and top food pairings, and encourage staff to ask questions. 

“People want to go to places where the waiter comes over and says enthusiastically, ‘Let me tell you about this bourbon’,” ,” says McCue. “If we can educate the staff and they can educate the consumer, that’s a win for everyone.”

Facilitate a mentorship program

Mentors serve to help employees learn and grow. They can also act as a sounding board to field questions and concerns, and build important soft skills, like learning how to effectively communicate or manage certain conflict scenarios.

Depending on your resources, consider setting up a formal mentorship program and tapping your industry network to see who may be willing and eligible to serve as mentors for your staff. Also encourage members of your leadership team to seek out mentors of their own. It’s important that staff find a mentor who feels both relatable and inspiring, and this may come from outside of your own circle.

Take time to regularly address the value of a mentor, whether it’s during one-on-one or quarterly management meetings, and provide suggestions for where members of your leadership team might look to find one. You may even want to provide a list of resources for seeking a mentor. Local industry events are a good place to start, as well as industry organizations, like the James Beard Foundation, the American Academy of Chefs, and the American Culinary Federation

McCue also recommends the “buddy system” to build mentorship directly into your restaurant’s culture. “You pair each new employee with someone that’s been at the organization for a while – it’s a proven method to help train people and get them on board,” says McCue.  

Sign up for classes through an online training provider

There are countless online training platforms you can use to both teach staff skills and keep them inspired. On Typsy, for example, you can access classes ranging from “food plating fundamentals” to “Instagram for hospitality” to “sake for restaurant owners”. 

Through MasterClass, you’ll find video series from famous chefs like Alice Waters and Thomas Keller, plus a whole range of classes that focus on leadership.

And on Rouxbe, you’ll find culinary courses that cover everything from fundamentals like knife skills to seafood literacy to food waste management.

Most training platforms require a paid membership. (Although some, like Typsy, offer a selection of free videos.) How will you know if it’s worth the investment? Talk, and listen, to your staff. What are they most interested in learning? Would they actually take time out of their day to tune in? Would they find it enjoyable? Inspiring? If so, it’s likely worth considering the perk to show employees you value their growth.

Even YouTube can inspire staff. It’s home to a wealth of videos, covering both hard and soft skills. But if you choose to go that route, it’s up to you to curate the experience. 

Create cross-training opportunities within the restaurant

Do you have a line cook interested in learning about pastry? Or maybe you have a server who’d want to shadow a sous chef for a day. There are plenty of learning opportunities right within your restaurant’s walls. It’s about carving out the time to craft what that would look like and communicating it to your staff. 

“Showing people the benefits of what other people do in the organization is a huge part of creating synergy with everyone who’s working side by side in a restaurant,” says McCue.

Designate a conference budget

Some restaurants offer a conference budget for leadership team members to use on industry events. Here’s where you can let staff lead the learning process by enabling them to choose what they want to attend. 

“Many of the good performers do this – they invest heavily, and you can reconcile it by looking at the retention of your staff,” says Flood. “It’s not always about the dollar figure [of the conference budget] but the time coming out of the business, so this requires figuring out a plan to make sure the events align with the business goals and the overall vision.”

[Photo courtesy Ketut Subiyanto]