Anyone out there have too many applicants for too few open jobs? Anyone? Experts say restaurant staffing hasn’t been this difficult in at least two decades. Restaurateurs say the same thing, but with considerably more curse words.
They know the situation has slowly festered into a full-fledged crisis. Consider this gem from the labor news ticker: Restaurants will need to pay an average of 33% more for temporary help if they hope to staff up for this year’s holidays, according to Snag, the job-placement service. And 86% of them will still have a tough time finding candidates.
Still, not every restaurateur is opting for robots or trained otters. Necessity has midwifed a slew of new ideas for attracting and keeping employees. Here are 10 that caught our fancy.
1. Playing games with prospects
Free food has been a lure for prospective restaurant hires since the industry’s earliest days, and is still touted by such employers as In-N-Out. Now another sort of giveaway is catching hold, an opportunity for employees to try the entertainment that guests pay to enjoy. Restaurant-arcade hybrids such as Topgolf, Dave & Buster’s and Main Event are giving job candidates and employees access to their computer-based games in hopes of getting more young people into crew uniforms.
Topgolf uses the opportunity to try its games for free as a way of introducing prospects to the concept, which is positioned as a golf aficionado’s adult playground. As part of what the fast-growing operation calls Mission: Ambition, would-be applicants are invited to visit a store on a particular date, sample the golf simulators and other games, speak with the unit’s leadership, and get a feel for the team. The introductory visit also serves the same function as an initial interview, providing the employer with a chance to check out the candidates in a relaxed, more realistic setting. Candidates are encouraged to wear street clothes, not fancy duds, and to drop the usual stilted language of an interview and just be themselves.
“A Topgolf Mission: Ambition hiring event is one of the most unique ways one will ever interview for a job,” the chain tells would-be applicants on its website. “Cloaked in mystery, but full of intrigue, these events are Topgolf's special way of showcasing its culture of fun and energy.”
Dave & Buster’s recruitment pitch mentions that staffers can play the games in its arcade for free before their shifts begin. And Main Event used the promise of a game pass to entice workers who were losing their jobs at Toys R Us, the retailer that is closing all of its stores.
2. Finding opportunity in others’ failures
When Taylor Gourmet abruptly shut all 19 of its restaurants because the sandwich shops weren’t covering costs, a lifesaver was tossed to the employees who were put out of work. Cava, another fast-casual chain based in Taylor’s hometown of Washington, D.C., announced that it would hold a job fair four days after the mass layoffs for the displaced workers.
The publicity prompted another local concept, Bub and Pop’s, to come forward and say it was hiring. Three other fast-casual employers would quickly do the same.
They’re prime examples of operators who are landing employees (and often favorable publicity) by targeting employees who were left jobless by the high-profile failures of their former employers. The pool of prospects can be a big one. After Toys R Us announced that it was closing all 735 of its stores, the Main Event fun-and-food operation invited the 31,000 people who would lose their jobs to attend a five-day job fair specifically for them.
3. Wordsmithing ‘help wanted’ ads
Recruiting right is the first step in meeting today’s labor challenge, say some operators. And that starts with the wording of the help wanted ad.
Kory Samuels, executive director of dining services at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, runs an operation that feeds 15,500 students and 3,500 staff daily. To fill kitchen positions, he no longer advertises for a production cook or production coordinator; he now recruits with more user-friendly and appealing keywords.
“We found that on sites such as Indeed, the term ‘production cook’ dropped the ad way down to the bottom, but when we used the word ‘cook’ or ‘line cook,’ more applicants responded and they had better talent,” he says. The same strategy worked in recruiting production coordinators. Applicants really didn’t know what a production coordinator was, Samuels reports, but by changing the job title to sous chef, he was able to hire employees with skills that matched the position.
Similarly, at nine-unit Velvet Taco, “When we recruit for a dishwasher, we advertise for a ‘dishwasher/prep cook,’” says Grant Morgan, corporate chef for the fast casual. “The dishwasher is really a prep cook who does dishes too.”
Elevating job titles and responsibilities in help wanted ads also improves retention rates, says Jeff Powell, CEO of Razzoo’s, a full-service casual concept with 23 locations. “When dishwashers are recruited, we give them a small prep list too, including threading food on skewers and assembling ingredients for menu items,” he says. “This shows new hires that there is opportunity for advancement and speaks to retention.”
4. Doing right by moms
Restaurants lag far behind other employers in the maternity benefits they offer, according to People Report, the labor-focused division of researcher TDn2K. According to its data, 82% of chains don’t offer that form of leave to hourly employees—a marked improvement over the 94% who didn’t provide it a year earlier, but still a turnoff to job hunters looking to start or expand their families.
That’s why heads were turned by the benefits package Noodles & Co. announced in mid-September. In addition to providing six weeks of paid leave to new moms, the fast-casual chain intends as of Jan. 1 to let pregnant employees scale back their work time to 80% of a regular schedule for the four weeks leading up to maternity leave, while still collecting 100% of their usual pay. The same break is extended for the four weeks following the leave. The program is known as phase in, phase out, and Noodles claims to be the first fast-casual operator to offer it.
5. Coverage for Fido
Customization isn’t just for foodservice customers at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. “Different employees are motivated by different things, and that’s why we offer a range of excellent benefits, like health care, family leave and tuition reimbursement, as well as community-building events that foster strong local and national connections that align with Kimpton’s corporate social responsibility commitment,” says Scott Gingerich, Kimpton’s SVP of restaurants and bars.
One such perk: pet insurance. Knowing many employees consider their pet a part of the family, the company decided coverage (through a private company) for unexpected veterinary expenses provides an appreciated financial safety net. Pet bereavement leave is also offered to Kimpton staff.
In helping its employees prepare for the unexpected, other benefits available to Kimpton staffers include back-up child and eldercare, as well as an employee assistance program designed to help employees handle personal problems that impact their health and well-being or ability to work.
6. Rethinking a standard schedule
Though identifying the right people for a job is tough in today’s market, the real challenge is retaining those folks once you do find them, Marge Kipe, director of nutrition services at Reading Hospital in Reading, Pa., told attendees of this year’s Association for Healthcare Foodservice national conference. And beyond merely keeping employees on your payroll, how do you ensure they stay engaged and energized? To address some of those concerns, her team contracted with a company to redo staff scheduling (employees now work 40 hours in four 10-hour days, resulting in an extra day off). They also considered salaries across businesses competing for her team’s foodservice workers—not necessarily looking at hospitals, but companies like Walmart—and made adjustments. In around nine months, the department went from 30 open positions to about four, Kipe said.
Aloha Hospitality in Alabama has taken a similar approach to improving retention, recently implementing a four-day work week for managers. Beginning in October, about 60 managers of the company’s Baumhower’s Victory Grille locations could enjoy three-day weekends, a perk the company calls the “Aloha Factor.”
7. Staying ahead
Howard Schultz said he planned from Day One to make Starbucks a standout employer, a commitment forged in his boyhood, when his family was forced into public housing after an on-the-job accident put his father out of work with no aid. So what does that imperative look like today?
Last spring, the coffee giant announced that, after a decade of effort, it had reached complete pay equity among U.S. employees of all races and genders. And early in 2018, Starbucks said it would spend $120 million to give all workers raises, along with stock grants and upgraded sick leave benefits.
Starbucks has continued that labor innovation in recent months, rolling out multiple programs designed to entice new employees and hold on to existing staff members.
In August, the coffee giant announced a six-month test of the Starbucks Service Fellows program, which allows three dozen selected employees to receive full salary and benefits while serving at nonprofit organizations in their communities half of each work week. The program is made possible through a grant from The Starbucks Foundation. Company leaders said one of the program’s goals is to keep partners engaged so they’ll stick with the coffee chain.
Though it affects a small number of employees, Starbucks—which has included gender reassignment surgery in its health plans since 2012—expanded benefits for transgender employees in June to cover a variety of procedures once considered cosmetic. For the past several years, the company has allowed employees to use a name other than their given one at work.
8. Tech to improve employee experience
Sure, restaurants can use kiosks and smartphone apps to improve labor efficiency on the consumer-facing side of the business, but back-of-house innovation can be crucial for the workforce, too. It’s why KFC is testing a series of employee-facing BOH technological innovations, including voice technology and QR codes to improve training and job satisfaction.
“It’s becoming table stakes as you’re dealing with millennials,” says Ryan Ostrom, KFC’s chief digital officer.
The company is conducting three tests of employee-facing technology. One is a voice-activated training program at restaurants in the U.S. and Australia. Employees can ask questions and watch videos while they perform tasks, even messy ones that require gloves, such as hand-breading chicken.
9. A guest-to-kitchen pipeline
The huge gap between front- and back-of-house pay has turned recruitment for kitchen jobs into an exhausting task for full-service restaurants. Instead of working on a better pitch for prospective hires, a husband-wife team in Denver decided to try narrowing the gap.
Last year, Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin tacked a 2% customer surcharge onto tabs at their Duo restaurant. As the couple carefully explained to patrons, the funds would be distributed to kitchen employees as a way of connecting their compensation to sales, a linkage that tends to push servers’ take to about double what a cook or dishwasher might make. They call the fee the 2% Kitchen Livable Wage Surcharge, and describe it in detail on their website—not in an employment section, but on a page aimed at customers.
Arnold and Bonin acknowledge that the surcharge is essentially a price hike, but a qualified one that’s channeled directly to the back-of-house staff. Fifteen months into the program, the surcharge is still in place.
10. Benefiting bottom lines
Average household credit card debt is approximately $5,000, with the median debt at more than $16,000, according to Nasdaq. Harvard Dining Services partnered with Working Credit NFP, a not-for-profit credit-building company based in Chicago, to present a program that teaches employees how to manage their debts. The initiative was so successful that Susan Simon, senior HR consultant for dining services at the Cambridge, Mass., university, gets requests from other university departments about how to duplicate it.
Since it launched at Harvard, 112 dining services workers have joined the program, 73% of whom remained engaged for 18 months. At the 18-month mark, 67% of participants had increased their FICO scores and 57% had a prime score (up from 41%). In addition, 66% of participants (up from 51%) were in a position to handle a financial crisis, which is defined by Working Credit as having $1,000 available on one or more credit cards.
"I swear to God I would see people walk in with their heads hung," Simon says. "And they'd walk out with their heads held high."
Earlier this year, KFC Foundation, a nonprofit organization funded by KFC franchisees, began to offer a personal finance program, MyChange, as a benefit for employees at participating KFC U.S. restaurants. MyChange combines a confidential financial wellness app with a personal adviser.