Once a year, restaurateurs put their businesses on simmer and head off to Chicago for the industry’s version of the world’s fair—a sprawling universe of marvels to shop, speakers to hear and foods to try. If you couldn’t make it to this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, here are some of the takeaways that might have been top of mind after leaving the education sessions in particular. As befits an industry struggling to find capable employees, many of those key insights dealt with recruitment and retention.
1. Off-premise as a labor strategy
An overriding theme of this year’s show was the growing difficulty of staffing restaurants in a nearly full-employment economy. One of the few ways the situation is being eased, speaker after speaker attested: the boom in takeout, delivery and catering.
Orders placed digitally to be eaten at home or in the office tend to be several dollars higher than the typical transaction for dine-in restaurant, the proponents explained. “So you’re doing more for the same,” said Ryan Rose, CEO of Romeo’s Pizza, whose online orders tend to be $2 to $3 higher than transactions from walk-ins.
At the same time, said Rose, the absolute labor cost for a delivery can be lower because a driver typically commands a lower wage than someone working the counter or the kitchen, and part of his pay can come from tips.
2. Delivery mandates a new labor model
Still, don’t think your absolute labor costs—the actual dollars, not a percentage—will go down as delivery sales spike, warned Fred Morgan, co-founder of the Fired Pie fast-casual pizza chain.
He recounted how one of the brand’s stores had a 60% upswing in sales after it started offering third-party delivery. “We didn’t have the labor to handle it,” he said at the NRA’s Innovations in Fast Casual & Pizza Summit, an all-day session at the show. The staff was overtaxed, and any pride in production was whittled by the need to crank.
“People didn’t like their jobs anymore, so we had more turnover,” Morgan said. “You have this turnover, and you have this big [delivery fee], so our bottom line was not good. We had to pencil out how many labor hours we needed for third-party delivery, and had to create a labor model for it.”
He encouraged every chain to do so before it branched into delivery.
3. ‘Come as you are’
With sales softening, restaurants don’t have deep resources for costly alterations to save labor, despite all the automation that was evident on the show floor, a number of presenters noted. They tried to help the hard-pressed by sharing simple, low- or no-cost remedies for finding talent.
The Red Robin casual-dining chain, for instance, recently adopted a policy called "Come As You Are"; there’s no need to hide tattoos or piercings, explained COO Carin Stutz.
“It opens up your workforce,” she said.
She also noted that the chain’s CEO, Denny Post, recently got a tattoo herself.
4. Embrace what might otherwise be a penalty
Another policy change recently adopted by the full-service burger chain was scheduling shifts at least two weeks in advance—the practice labor advocates want to make a legal requirement. They call it secure scheduling, and have already pushed the policy into law in Seattle.
Don’t wait for it, suggested COO Stutz. Employees and perspective hires will be impressed if you provide them that extended look ahead. “It shows respect,” she said.
5. ‘Employees wanted’—yawn
Part of the industry’s problem, several speakers noted, is how the business reaches out to younger people, both prospective employers and customers.
A more compelling invitation would work for both, they suggested. Stutz recounted how Slapfish CEO Andrew Gruel includes the line in every "help wanted" classified for the fast-casual seafood chain, “Food, fire and knives: How much fun could you have?”
Millennial expert Jason Dorsey was asked what pitch would most likely draw that much-targeted generation as customers, but his response would likely work just as well for describing a place to work: “As unique as you are.”
6. Not all labor competition is store-level
Crewmembers aren’t the only sort of employees who are much in demand, as Paul Damico noted in talking about the company he serves as president, Moe’s and Cinnabon parent Focus Brands.
“Our IT department used to be the department that made sure the light on your laptop was green instead of red,” Damico said at the fast-casual event. “Now our largest department is IT. And it’s also the fastest-growing department.”
Hearing the comment, an attendee from Domino’s muttered, “We’ve been that way for years.”