Do you walk around with butterflies in your stomach and mild nausea after making business decisions you wouldn’t dream of 10 years ago? That’s just a sign of the times and tight labor market, said Sarah Robbins, chief hospitality officer for 21c Museum Hotels. “As long as you aren’t truly ill, you’re probably OK,” Robbins said at Union Square Hospitality Group’s James Beard thought-leadership event.
Right now, human resources is anything but business as usual, according to Robbins and other operators. Check out these recruiting and retention strategies from industry experts whose concepts or employees have raked in at least one James Beard nomination. Don’t forget the antacids.
1. Double down on referral programs
At the opening of restaurants in low-unemployment markets, Robbins found herself short several team members. 21c Museum Hotels upped its employee referral bonus for some of its restaurants from $250 awarded after 90 days of the recruit’s employment to $400 after the first 60 days. “I’d rather pay my employees than Craigslist or Zip Recruiter,” she said.
2. Sell education
On the other hand, Mike Lata, chef-partner at FIG Restaurant and The Ordinary in Charleston, S.C., said that paying staff to find people to work for the operation might send a negative message. Instead, his operations are marketing themselves as a best-in-class learning institutions for restaurant workers. “We present a list of everything they would learn in the interview—everything from how we sweep the floor to how we treat purveyors when they walk in the door,” Lata said. “We tell them, you can go anywhere, but you will get an education here.”
Donnie Madia, managing partner and owner of One Off Hospitality Group in Chicago, said some of his employees cannot afford to eat at the higher-end concepts in the group and had never tried them. He gave the entire company 50% off their meals at Blackbird, one of its concepts, so they could get a more holistic view of the restaurant group.
3. Jump on the best candidates
Lata said his restaurants never stop recruiting and don’t get too comfortable. When someone comes around that they like, they hire them even if they are near capacity, because his workforce is constantly in flux. Madia encourages his staff to do the same. “If an extra person comes by that you like, hire them today,” Madia said. “If I’m down one and lose someone else, I am going into overtime. And you can’t ask your sous chef to work the sixth and seventh day.”
4. Invest in star team members
If millennials can’t grow with you, they will grow away from you, Madia said. One young player on Madia’s team said that he wanted to develop his own concepts within the restaurant group, and Madia told him that he wasn’t ready quite yet. The employee came back with another of Madia’s top performers and said they were leaving to start their own ventures. One Off Hospitality Group did not want to lose them, so instead the group is partnering with them for new concepts, where they will be 50% owners. “We were too slow in bringing them along with us,” Madia said. Now, One Off’s mantra is mentor, invest and partner.
Similarly, Robbins urges operators not to wait until annual review time to show talented staff members that they are valued. “Giving them just a little unexpected raise is about sending a message,” Robbins said. “It goes such a long way to make sure someone will stick with you and not leave for that extra 50 cents.”
5. Spend time on scheduling
Creating flexible schedules is an important exercise in customer service, Robbins said. “Bending over backwards for a schedule is about taking care of the customer and not having someone on the floor who doesn’t want to be there,” she said. Both Robbins and Madia have also approved employees with wanderlust to take a sabbatical to travel. Madia even paid for one staff member’s flight. “If he comes back inspired, it goes directly back to guests.”
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.