Yes, the restaurant turnover rate is extremely high these days. If you want a case study in holding onto restaurant staff, consider Terrain. In 2019 Shana, Randy, and Jenna Minish opened the restaurant in a small upstate Michigan town called Bellaire, a summer and winter playground for the disposable income set from downstate. The hospitality industry vets knew they wanted to run things differently, better than what they’d been through as restaurant workers. That idea was baked into the culture from Day One.
Then, Covid. Through closures and pivots, Randy worked the line every night, while Jenna and Shana took turns bartending, hosting, and serving. As Michigan reopened and they were able to hire people again, they set out to, in Shana’s words, hire good people who care about food, ask their opinions, give them the tools they need to succeed, and let them see the owners working hard. In sum, she says: “Treat them like partners in your project.”
By summer 2021, customers were back to pre-pandemic numbers. But with pandemic staffing, the three owners continued working as hard as they had in 2020. As proprietors, though, they didn’t pocket their tips — they put them in a “bribery fund.” They bought ice cream and gatorade for their staff, offered incentives for covering shifts, and stocked community snacks like hummus and candy.
At summer's end, when most other Bellaire restaurants close and furlough their staff until ski season, the owners did the math and paid their workers to stay at home. Yup, three weeks of paid vacation. Sure enough, the entire staff came back. Good vibes all around, plus zero money wasted on re-training new hires.
The past few years have been tumultuous in our industry. For most of its modern life, hospitality was every city’s quiet (or not so quiet) pirate ship. It was where your supervisor popped you with towels and his boss leered at your uniform. It was where the line cook was liable to take his title literally and snort coke through penne before, during and after the shift. And it’s where only the toughest among us held on for the booze-fueled rage ride. Women tolerated being hit on relentlessly by coworkers and customers, everyone got yelled at by the chef, and toxicity reigned.
Me Too thankfully curtailed the rampant sexual harassment and was forcing some hard conversations about what it meant to have a career in restaurants. But it wasn’t until the pandemic’s staffing shortages that we are finally addressing the broader culture of treating people poorly. People quit out of exhaustion, they quit because of poor pay, they quit because of unpredictability. But they also quit because the people running their workplaces saw them as disposable, and didn't care to create environments where they could thrive.
So how can you beat the average restaurant turnover odds and hang onto your valuable staffers? For starters, don’t be a … jerk. It’s really that simple.
Except, it does get slightly more complicated. So here’s a crash course keeping the staff you have and fostering an environment that makes everyone happy.
It’s never been harder to hire restaurant workers, this is true. But all the more reason to get the process exactly right from the jump. In your restaurant job interview, be upfront and realistic with people about your expectations. If you need someone to do brunch on the weekends, don’t pretend they will be working Saturday nights. This starts in your restaurant job posting. Once you have them in the dining room, get to asking the right questions, which ideally ought to tease out their relationship with customers. Lo and behold, you’ve got a great group of people. How do you keep them?
On a very basic level, treating people like people is the glue. Especially in these “unprecedented,” “unpredictable,” “unsettling” times, the things that used to seem important are being reshuffled. Let go of old, rigid thinking. If your best server has childcare issues and can’t make it right at 4, but when they show up at 4:30 they are a superstar, maybe consider staggered in-times for the entire staff. You have someone who will pick up every shift and work doubles, but wants five days off in a row every other month? Before you reflexively say no, ask yourself, Why not? Entire restaurant groups build HR departments around coming up with novel ways to set themselves apart with perks other businesses simply don't consider.
It’s easy to be shortsighted about staff. And the truth is, it’s easy to be a jerk. Most of the things that really make a difference to workers takes a little more effort on the part of managers. But if you think you can replace people in a snap, consider the expense of training, the strain on the remaining employees, and the injury to your overall customer service. Spend three minutes on a staff retention calculator to peep the math on turnover. Pretty soon even a dyed-in-the-wool jerk can get onboard with basic kindness.
One of the upsides to our nationwide understaffing is that, more than ever, it doesn’t pay to chase off employees. A reckoning is upon abusive managers. When everyone is hiring, why would anyone stay in a toxic environment?
Even if you think your organization is doing everything possible to make your workplace attractive, you can always take stock. Start by talking to your senior employees. Just knowing you value their input can go a long way to making them feel appreciated. After basic safety, this should be your top priority. The staff should know you appreciate them. Everything else flows from this principle. There are easy ways to take such a squishy concept as “appreciation” and live it in the everyday:
Set their schedules. People can plan their lives, months in advance: child care, second jobs, date nights, vacations! The very life they’re working to afford! If it’s not your strong suit, reach for a scheduling software. It’ll make your life easier along the way, and will help you keep things equitable for the crew. If it’s a year where Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day all fall on a Thursday, have a convo where people pick the one that’s most important to them and they help out their comrades for the other two.
Don’t yell. We are all adults. Explain what’s been done wrong and ask them to fix it. It’s hard to screen for common sense, and what may be obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else. Take a second and make sure they understand.
Respect their time away from work. As restaurant managers we are always doing random things early in the morning or in the middle of the night — before and after service is when we get things done! Even a simple acknowledgement (e.g., “hey, sorry to bother you on your day off”) shows empathy. Email is less invasive than text, and that’s a two-way street.
Don’t get defensive. If someone comes to you with an issue, hear them. If it’s ridiculous, explain why it’s not feasible and move on.
Listen to your employees. You can’t be everywhere at once, and they’re not simply drones. They will see things you don’t. If your workers can air their gripes without fearing reprisal, they’ll keep you informed.
Protect your workers’ ability to do their jobs safely and profitably. Start by keeping out interlopers. Do you have investors who waltz in and treat the servers like servants? Put a halt to that. An absentee owner’s drunk son takes up a table all night and leaves a great server feeling shafted? You want to know about it.
Play to your workers’ strengths. It’s not a magic bullet, exactly, but that premise has worked well for Alla Lapushchik, who in 2013 opened OTB in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Eight years into running the stylish tavern, all but one of her original staff hires still works there. Staff members who are treated well get invested. They pick up shifts, they don’t let things fall through the cracks. And customers who keep walking in the door know the difference.