Tips for Conducting a More Effective Restaurant Interview

Restaurant interviews are no time to be laissez-faire. Candidates are expected to show up ready to impress. And that applies to the employer, too, a reality only further intensified in today’s hiring climate.

“It’s definitely the applicant’s market, so having a structured interview, making it a professional experience, and being able to talk about your culture and benefits all becomes increasingly important,” says Charles Wright, director of customer success at 7shifts, a labor management software company for restaurants.

A strong interview remains among a restaurant’s best recruiting tools. Show up prepared, and your chances of winning over talent dramatically increase. Plan to wing it, on the other hand, and you’re likely to miss key opportunities for selling candidates on why they should work for you, giving competitors the chance to rise above. 

“Interviewing is right up there with the restaurant’s reputation and the culture,” says Christine DeVita, CEO and co-founder of DeVita and Hancock Hospitality. “You’re the face of the company and the brand at that point, so it’s super important that you bring your A game as the interviewer.” 

So how do you conduct a restaurant interview that makes an impression? Use these tips for a more effective process.

Set aside time to do research in advance.

Waiting until the interview to review resumes wastes valuable time to dive deeper into a candidate’s background. Equally important, it shows you neglected to do the bare minimum upfront research, demonstrating a lack of excitement about the candidate.

“The most important thing is to be prepared and organized,” says DeVita. “A lot of times the GM is just printing the resume as the candidate’s walking in, but you need to look at that resume beforehand, make notes, and add any questions you have.”

Ask the right questions.

The interview is your time to really figure out if the prospective hire is a good fit for the role. Questions should be tailored according to the requirements of the position. But you can generally always start with softball questions, like “Why do you want to work here?”. This encourages candidates to open up and get comfortable before moving into more heavy hitters.

“I always love to ask what kind of job they’re looking for and what’s important to them,” says Wright. “If you can get to the root of what motivates people, that's key to keeping people around.”

Eventually you want to move into behavioral questions that give clues about how a candidate will communicate and/or react in certain situations. These include questions like, “Can you describe an instance when you resolved a customer service issue?”, “Can you tell me about a time when you clashed with a coworker and how you resolved it?”, “What do you value most in a work environment?”, and “What does being a team player mean to you?”

“Make sure these are open-ended questions to create a discussion that’ll get more out of the candidate,” says DeVita.

Always ask what questions the candidate has for you before concluding. The fit needs to work both ways to prevent turnover.

Keep the questions consistent from candidate to candidate.

It’s normal to modify questions from one open position to the next, based on your goals for each role. But you don’t want to change that question list between candidates applying for the same position.

“This is extremely important,” says DeVita. “If you ask two different sets of questions, you’re not going to be able to gauge and rate the candidates appropriately.”

Create a set list prior to conducting any interviews, and stick to it.

Call attention to your company culture and employee benefits.

A strong workplace culture and benefits package can help your restaurant stand out from the crowd. But regardless of your offerings, it’s important to be transparent about these issues so that the candidate can make sure the position meets their living needs and preferences.

“You want to describe, what is it like to work in your restaurant? What is your team like?,” says Wright. “When I think about some of the bigger brands where I’ve worked, we had a paper that lays out the total package, and that includes what your pay looks like, what your tips look like, and what you can expect for benefits, including things like whether the restaurant’s paying for your uniform and giving you a discount on slip-resistant shoes.”

Providing a clear picture about pay and the work environment will, again, help prevent turnover, a costly and unsustainable outcome. From there, consider what extra selling points you can highlight. Are there opportunities for growth within the company? Do you offer any training opportunities? Do you have a bonus structure? Do staff get a certain number of free, off-shift meals per month? These details, both small and large, showcase what sets your restaurant apart.

Avoid overselling the position.

Whether you’re talking about your workplace culture or the specifics of the job, honesty is crucial.

“It’s not bad to tell people that, ‘Hey we’re a busy restaurant, during the lunch rush you might be asked to do XYZ, and if it’s winter, you might be working next to this window and it may be cold.’,” says Wright. “Unclear expectations is how you lose people.”

When you make promises you can’t keep and hide realities of the job, again you’re destined for retention challenges.

Be prepared to make an offer on the spot.

In today’s hiring market, you have to act fast when you like a candidate. Show up prepared to schedule the next steps of the interview process before the candidate walks out the door.

“Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Hey this interview went really well, and I’d like to set you up for the next step right now.’,” says Wright. “If they leave your restaurant and someone else calls them, at the very least they already know when they can expect to meet with you again, and it’s not as easy to just dismiss your opportunity.”

For candidates applying for an hourly position, be ready to make an offer on the spot. They typically have plenty of choices, and you want to snag a strong hire before they move on.

“Hourly employees are looking for a quick hire and to start right away,” says DeVita. “The expectation is that they're going to be working inside that restaurant within a few days.”

Create a universal interview guide and train managers on how to interview.

How to effectively interview is rarely common knowledge. It’s a skillset that needs to be learned, and creating an interview guide is integral to that training process. 

“If you just say, ‘Hey, go do this interview.’, not only might they miss questions they should be asking, but there might be questions that they shouldn’t be asking, and aside from potentially hiring the wrong person, that could be detrimental to the brand,” says Wright.

An interview guide serves to help leadership members know how to consistently and constructively execute interviews. It should lay out a basic structure for the interview, a set list of questions, and key selling points to communicate about the restaurant and/or brand. 

Once created, schedule a training session with all members of the leadership team to review. You may even want to practice potential interview scenarios. Then, prepare the team for how the guide might change according to the position you’re looking to fill. 

Everytime you post a new job listing, update the guide accordingly. This includes adding the job description at the top, stating the goals for this hire, and adapting the question list, as needed. Use this to get everyone on the same page by sharing copies with the leadership team prior to interview time.

“A critical part of the [training] process is also to shadow and observe them, and then exchange feedback,” says Wright. 

Suggest a working interview, especially for BOH or non-hourly employees

Stage is the French word for internship, and around the world, it’s come to mean “kitchen internship”. This is a period of time when a chef works in another chef's kitchen to learn new techniques, and can last for as little as a few nights to a few months. 

Right off the bat, if the interview went great, schedule a stage,” says DeVito. “A stage is a great way to see if the candidate’s personality is a good fit for the restaurant, and it’s appealing to candidates because they get a sense of who they’re potentially going to work for.”

Incorporating a stage into your interview process will likely look a little different than when a chef or culinary student reaches out to a restaurant and requests a stage. As part of an interview, a stage looks more like a two-way test, and you may only have a night or two to figure out if the candidate passes or fails. These should be paid stints, and you should agree on the time parameters upfront. You don’t want to lose the candidate in the process. Depending on the role and your goals, conducting a working interview for salaried front-of-house and managerial openings can prove valuable, too. 

[Photo courtesy Edmond Dantès]