We all know staffing remains an industry-wide problem. And many restaurant owners feel they’re throwing everything they’ve got at trying to solve the issue. While strategies range far and wide, one of the most successful ones heard from countless industry operators is empowering existing talent to draw in new hires.
There are plenty of ways to do this, from referral bonuses to creating an outstanding culture that drives staff-led promotion of open positions. No matter the tactic, ultimately when staff tap into their own networks, generally you save time and money. You also pull in candidates that already come with a base level of vetting and trust, granted by the employees who refer them.
To get some advice on ways to execute this strategy, we spoke with a handful of operators who are currently putting the idea into practice.
From Michael Lennox, CEO and founder of Electric Hospitality in Atlanta:
Almost half of our teams have been with us for more than a year and a half. It takes a long time to develop that type of stability. You really have to do the little things right, in terms of treating them really well, paying as well as you can, giving benefits, providing opportunities for advancement, and creating a working environment that’s enjoyable and respects their time. But if you do a lot of the little things right to help promote retention, it sets the stage for conversations with staff to say, “Hey, we’ve got an opening. If you have any friends or former colleagues that you’d like to work with, we’d love to talk to them.”
To provide additional incentive, we offer a referral bonus – $500 for any hourly staff member who brings a referral that stays in good standing with us for at least three months. Both the referral and the existing staff member get $500. The logic here is that stable employees, who’ve already bought in, have a vested interest in wanting to work with really good people.
It costs a lot of money to find people, between job postings and having understaffed shifts. If we can have interests aligned with loyal members of the team, who have a vested interest in bringing great people to work, that $1,000 could save us $10,000.
From Kelly Phillips, founder of Destination Unknown Restaurants in Washington D.C.
In 2021, our focus shifted to a more professional wage model. We’re currently paying full-time servers a salary with a bonus structure. That has really changed the game for hiring, recruiting, and retaining staff, and empowering staff to feel like they have room for growth and a stable environment.
The salary depends on experience, but we looked at what servers were making across the board over the course of a year, and we used that number. Then every month, if they achieve certain scores with Google or Yelp, our full-time servers and bartenders get a monthly bonus. They're making a couple $100 in bonuses every month, and that's adding up to $1000s a year.
If you have a 4.8 on Google, you’re going to come up first, and people want to go to restaurants that are highly rated. So we’re seeing an increased amount of guests coming in. If one person comes because they read a review and they spent $200, that's paid for someone’s bonus.
Turnover has been very low. But if we do have a position open, I send out a message to the team letting them know we offer an extra incentive for referrals. If someone [new] stays with us for 60 days, we offer a $150 bonus to the person who referred them. I’d rather pay it to them than to Craigslist. And I’d rather someone on my team bring in someone they trust. Then, when someone’s hired, the servers really take initiative in training this person because this person’s going to impact their service reviews. It's no longer like, “if you're new, you're out for yourself”. Now it’s like, “if you're new, we're going to take you under our wing because we want you to give really great service, and we don't want anybody dragging down our score”. We’re seeing a lot of teamwork happen.
I think culture is everything. From the time we opened our doors, we’ve wanted to treat our team really well and afford them the tools to do their job the best they can.
Just about everyone that works talks to someone about their work experience. Many conversations and relationships, no matter if you’re distant or close, lead with, “How are you? How’s it going at work? Are you still at that place?”. We want to put ourselves in a position so that when our team members are going home, they can talk fondly about where they spend their time. We recognize that that makes an impact.
So we have a more nuanced approach to attracting people. Culture is our number one strategy and our achilles heel, and our culture is a culture of kindness. We’ve worked really, really hard to bring that. When you feel better, you work better. And that’s what we want to lead with.
From Tina Eskenazi, PHR, Team Member Services Manager of Mission Yogurt, Inc. (multiple West Coast locations):
We believe that good talent knows good talent. Hard-working and dedicated people usually know other hard-working and dedicated people. Our best team members may not think of telling their friends and contacts to apply to Mission Yogurt, [but] by offering them an incentive through our Talent Knows Talent program, they get excited about the bonuses and take action to refer talented staff. Team members who refer a new hire to Mission receive $100 after the first 30 days of employment of the referred new hire and an additional $100 after 90 days of employment.
Advertising on job platforms is expensive – the average cost of hiring a team member is $500. We reduce this cost by half when a new hire is referred, and we eliminate the need for advertising. The new hire has a shorter onboarding process and is more likely to be retained.
Mission started the Talent Knows Talent program several years ago and has run the program off and on through the years based on hiring needs. Since July 2021, as things have picked back up in regard to hiring needs, we've hired 42 team members through referrals. The best part is that only two of the 42 new hires didn't make it to 90 days of employment.
From Carla Changwailing, director of operations of 101 Hospitality in Washington D.C.:
One of the best ways we recruit is through promoting our own success stories. These are people who started as line cooks and are now chefs de cuisine, people who started as captains and are now managers for other locations within the company.
We have a number of different outlets where we share those stories, including social media campaigns. And we've acquired a number of people through that – people we've gotten to know within the industry who’ve come to us after feeling stuck and realizing the growth potential here.
Even with hourly employees, we encourage them to share their own stories with friends and former colleagues. It's something we talk about when we’re trying to recruit. We say, “You've been here for two and a half years. You really enjoy working here. Bring your friends into the circle.”
We don't use a ton of other outward recruitment techniques, and I do think part of it is that we offer a number of really unique incentives. We offer a generous meal discount program – 50% across the board at any of our locations. I don’t know a lot of other Michelin venues that allow employees from other locations to come eat a meal at 50% off, including beverages. With our growth over the last year, we’ve also emphasized education, as collaborative education where we're all learning from each other, but also through reimbursement for training. With commitment to the company for six months, we’ll reimburse your fees for classes. And then again, growth within is just a huge topic for us.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Photo courtesy Anna Tarazevich]