Actors are only as good as their last performance. Businesspeople are only as good as their word. And restaurant operators? You’re only as good as your staff.
We all want to work with smart, qualified people who work like sled dogs, study like surgeons, and focus like chess grandmasters. People who love food, who know how to set an alarm in the mornings, and who actually enjoy the company of the hangry randos who wander in your front door every evening. And while we’re at it, maybe they can work weekends and for some reason, when someone else drops out of the schedule, always need the hours?
Finding these unicorns, in the best of times, is tricky. In the current pandemic environment, finding good staff is a Holy-Grail-level quest. Understaffed shifts and malevolent guests make the hunt harder still. But this is no time to cut corners — if anything, if raises the stakes of hiring well every chance you get. Zeroing in with the right questions can make hiring feel less arduous and ideally get you the right people for your team.
Before a potential server comes to your restaurant for the job interview, you should determine your specific goals for this hire. What do you need most from this person? Is it scheduling flexibility? Is it the ability to speak Spanish to guests and to colleagues? Is it wine knowledge? Customer service? Diplomacy with tipsy guests? Whatever your top goal, you can tie most questions back to it as you progress through the interview.
Then think about your team dynamic. You are the conductor of the orchestra, and you want everyone to play in cohesion. Assuming you like the current staff, how will this new person fit? Are they a natural morale-booster, learning names quickly and toasting colleagues after every shift? Do they need a firm leader? Do you need a calming presence on a staff already full of type-A personalities? Keep your ensemble mind as you meet prospective staffers.
Next, determine the level of experience. If you have the bandwidth, training an eager learner is very rewarding. You can mold this blank-slate protege to fit your specific restaurant culture. But that is a commitment. And the Catch-22 of the current labor environment is, it’s a great time to find and train green staffers, but since we are all exhausted, you might need someone to perform in peak form from Day 1.
Assuming you want someone with some skills, here’s what to ask to find someone who will fit your needs.
Start with softball questions that feel out this person’s personality.
Why do you want to work here? Every restaurant on every block in every city is hiring, so find out what brings this person to your particular door. In the corporate world, people explain this with a cover letter. But in our community this is your chance to see if they are digging the unique vibe you are putting down. Restaurant work is hard. Stil, we love it, right? Surrounding yourself with similarly minded people is the foundation of a cohesive team.
Have you been to our restaurant before? Someone who enjoyed a meal, a drink, or even a quick walk to the bathroom is motivated to maintain the connection they felt. This is a great time to steer the conversation towards your goals. Did they notice your wine list? Did the rowdy bar crowd or the long waits put them off? What did they think of the staff’s camaraderie? This is a chance to lay out what you are looking for and see if they are into it.
What was an instance when you resolved a customer service issue? Everyone has that story of saving the day — no one forgets the brunch shift when they got Cinderella’s evil stepmother to calm down and actually say thank you. Someone who can’t describe their own little victory is quite possibly someone who doesn’t really care about service. You want to tease out how invested this candidate is in guests’ experience, and to understand their work ethic. Do they take initiative? Are they happy to help customers and coworkers? Do they stay cool in the heat of service?
What are your favorite interactions with a guest? This is another question designed to find out if this person invests in their guests. This can be more subtle, as small as suggesting something new that a guest loved. Or they may have a sweet spot for that regular who lets them choose their three courses every time they come in. It may be Daniel Boulud palming them a $20 and thanking them for a great night. Get them to tell a story that makes them happy! If they can’t do that, well ...
What does your ideal schedule look like? Hopefully you included some clues along these lines in the job posting for your restaurant job. But double-checking in person is wise. This is also when you can find out if they have another job/hobby/passion project. Will it frequently conflict? Find out.
Next, move onto more technical questions. Someone who fits with your culture is fine and good. But, like the protagonist in seemingly every Liam Neeson film, your new hire ought to come with a certain set of skills.
What experience do you have with POS systems? You have to get an idea of their comfort level with restaurant technology and find out whether some previous manager has done the hard work of teaching them the back end. These days, having someone on hand that can easily add or modify the POS is a real gem. And if they’ve used your particular POS, bonus, you just saved yourself an afternoon of training.
Can you show me how you open a bottle of wine? This is particularly important in fine dining. And you’ll know exactly how much they are fibbing (or not!) right away. You haven’t lived as a hiring manager until you watch an interviewee brashly grab a winged corkscrew out and start to open the bottle — and then watching them clamp the bottle between their knees to help free that tricky cork. If you’re hiring for a dextrous bartender, watching them remove the foil also tells you whether they’ve been around the block.
Can you mix me a good negroni? When you’re hiring servers who also need to make drinks, a negroni is a solid baseline cocktail — something relatively simple, but requiring nuance. Find out, too, whether they feel comfortable with multiple roles. Some servers love to step behind the bar — hey, no tipping out bartenders! — while others would prefer to delegate. Much better to know this before you waste time training them.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, you’d be done. But these days you have to follow up with a few other questions that also need straightforward answers.
What’s your vaccination status? This may be required, or you may decide to require it. If you’re going to protect your guests and staff, it’s best to get it out there.
Are you comfortable abiding by the city’s and state’s Covid protocols? This is a conversation that will likely make you both uncomfortable. By this point in the pandemic, your staff have determined what they feel safe with before and after service and how they conduct themselves during service. So is this new person going to disrupt that? Are they going to flaut the mandates and get you fined?
You’re understaffed and want to tread lightly, but also don’t need fines or fights. Threading the needle is hard, but it’s worth it. If you hire well enough, you won’t have to hire again for a while.