The payoffs and pitfalls of keeping Gen Z restaurant staff

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Keeping more of the young people who pass through restaurant jobs may be less of a moonshot than the industry suspects, with low-cost remedies such as mentoring programs proving a long-term brake on turnover, according to a major new study of the labor pool’s most recent entrants.

The report on Gen Z—persons ages 21 or younger—shows the restaurant industry is drawing a larger share of those job-pool newcomers than other industries, with 19% of Gen Z workers holding restaurant jobs last year, compared with 15% in 2000. Only retailing beat out foodservice as a job choice in 2017, and by only a percentage point.  

The foodservice industry was a particularly popular choice as a first job, with 84% of Gen Z saying their initial paid position was in a restaurant.

Despite a reputation of being slackers, the youngsters also tended to take a restaurant job at a younger age than the generation preceding them. The average age of a first-time restaurant hire was 16.5 years old among Gen Z, compared with a mean of 18.6 for millennials.  


Top 8 ways Gen Zers search for restaurant jobs

  1. Asking friends who work in restaurants
  2. Asking family and friends
  3. Searching job sites
  4. Searching restaurant websites
  5. Visiting restaurants and asking
  6. Seeing a Help Wanted ad
  7. Job fairs
  8. Social media

Source: Serving Gen Z: The Next Generation of Restaurant Leaders


A key finding of the study was the high level of satisfaction that Gen Zers found in their restaurant jobs. Roughly two out of three (64%) gave their experience a thumbs-up, while only one in five (20%) said they found it a disappointment. Among the payoffs they relished: learning how to multitask, work in a team and please customers. 

“This is very important because although they might be working their very first job, they often have their sights set on long-term advancement and success and believe the restaurant industry can offer skills and training they need,” observed the study, which was jointly conducted by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and The Center for Generational Kinetics.

“Our new study shows that we have the opportunity to purposefully foster longer-term relationships with Gen Z,” said Rob Gifford, EVP of the NRAEF. “We need to make sure every young person who works in our industry has an overall positive experience to encourage them to stay.”​​​​​​​


Top 5 reasons for applying to one restaurant vs. another 

  1. Better reputation as a place to work
  2. Recommended by a friend or relative
  3. Offers on-the-job paid training
  4. Positive experiences as a customer
  5. Reviews on employee-feedback websites like Glassdoor

Source: Serving Gen Z: The Next Generation of Restaurant Leaders


The report noted that Gen Zers working in restaurants often have a career map drawn inside their minds. They most often work as cashiers, servers, hosts or cooks but aspire to be bartenders and managers, or to move to the front of house if they’re currently in the kitchen.

They also expressed an interest in moving up either into restaurants with higher levels of service or, for reasons not explained in the report, to bakeries.

One-third (34%) of the more than 1,600 respondents said they aspire to someday own a restaurant. Yet fewer than half (47%) said the industry affords that type of opportunity.

A key factor in showing workers otherwise, according to the study, is a mentorship program, in which older and more experienced restaurant employees coach their greener colleagues, either informally or in a structured way. Three out of five Gen Zers in positions of higher responsibility reported having a mentor. Yet overall, 47% have not found that person to guide and teach them.

Higher compensation would be the most effective way to keep members of Gen Z in their positions for at least six months, the study concluded. That finding jibes with increasing indications that restaurant pay, once a factor far down the list of reasons someone leaves a restaurant job, is becoming far more important. The study found that influence was particularly strong for Gen Z because of its concern about financial stability.  

Although the study revealed that young people’s perceptions of restaurant jobs may not be as grim as conventional wisdom holds, the authors noted that only 17 million of the 67 million people in that age group has plunged into the workforce. And they state that the number of people who will fall within the bracket will shrink by 1.3 million between now and 2028.

That translates into roughly 250,000 fewer persons aged 21 or younger entering the restaurant labor pool in 10 years, the study concluded.

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