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Get your staff to multi-task

Multi-tasking your staff can maximize productivity and minimize layoffs.

Last fall, the day after Lehman Brothers imploded, Dante de Magistris suddenly saw customers avoiding his upscale Restaurant dante in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lucrative holiday bookings soon disappeared. "We knew we had to readjust the concept and make it more accessible," Dante says. "And we knew we would have to handle it with a smaller staff."

Similar scenarios have played out all around the country. The People Report Workforce Index, which surveys more than 80 restaurant companies, posted 27,000 job losses in November 2008 and 25,000 in December. While those numbers are since decreasing—9,000 jobs were lost in March—fine dining is still struggling. The number one strategy now is talent management—to have the best trained, most efficient and passionate people in place, contends Shyam Patel, COO of the Dallas-based People Report. "The key to leveraging this recession is to eliminate poor performers and take advantage of the soft labor market to upgrade your talent."

Although de Magistris handed out a couple of pink slips, he was able to keep layoffs to a minimum, thanks to some creative juggling of staff. "I put two people 'on loan' to chef friends then took them back when we opened il Casale in April," a second restaurant that had been planned before the recession. "This works well in Boston, where we have a very tight-knit restaurant community," says de Magistris. "I also ran the kitchen with one hourly dishwasher and required him to peel garlic and do other prep work."

At the more casual il Casale, everyone cross trains: the dishwasher rolls pasta, the sous chef teaches knife skills and the servers sweep up the front of the house one night a week. "Employees who multi-task learn more about the business and take more pride in what they do," he adds.

While hourly employees are often eager to take on additional tasks to expand their hours and skills, Rockit Ranch Productions, a Chicago restaurant company that operates several concepts, cross trains its managerial staff at Sunda and Rockit Bar & Grill. "We're making sure each member of our management team—from assistant manager to GM—also performs a marketing function," reports Arturo Gomez, president of Rockit Ranch. "Now the operational side is not only fostering customer relations, they are doing data acquisition and promotional activities."

Dave Danhi, president of the DD Factor, a professional hospitality recruiting firm in Southern California, is an advocate of moving chefs out from behind the stove to cut labor costs and enhance their resumes. "Instead of hiring another manager, have the chef put on a suit and tie and work the front of the house one or two days a week," he advises. "The sous chef and cooks can then take on more kitchen responsibilities." Assistant managers can also sub for GMs and hosts for servers, especially during slower times. Job shadowing is a good place to start.

Giving employees "stretch assignments" also makes them think more seriously about restaurant service as a career path. "Not only will these workers be more committed and enthusiastic, they are already part of your culture and present less risk and expense than hiring someone new," says Shawn Boyer, CEO of SnagAJob.com, a site that currently lists 40,000 hospitality-related jobs. 

Since last Fall, Dante de Magistris has become smarter about staffing and he intends to stick to some of his strategies after the economy improves. To keep labor costs in line, the kitchen at il Casale will serve as a commissary for both restaurants and he'll continue to double up dish washing and prep work. "Talent management is a key best practice right now and it is pertinent that strong talent management continue after the recovery," reiterates Patel.

Staffing strategies

  • Have workers do an "observation shift" before they move into another position.
  • Tie pay or benefits—like scheduling preferences—to the completion of training modules.
  • Develop an in-depth training manual.
  • Invest in technology. "Foodservice is way behind retail and grocery in using technology to increase worker productivity," says Patel.
  • Talk to employees about their career goals, recommends Boyer. "If your needs dovetail with their goals, this is a good time to give them an opportunity to move ahead."
  • Use a recruiter to fill managerial jobs. There's a glut of talent out there right now and it saves time and money if someone else can sift through the resumes and find the right fit for the long term.

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