Tech’s the focus, but labor practices grab a spotlight at FSTEC

A main-stage session looked at the intersection of technology and updated personnel strategies.
FSTEC labor
Photographs: W. Scott Mitchell

Cooks at Luna Grill now get half the tips left by customers, a facet of the fast-casual chain’s all-out effort to recruit and hold staff. “We’ve tasked every department with, ‘How can you help?,’” explained COO Steve Holliday.

That includes having “our entire marketing department” strive to keep the brand top-of-mind among prospective hires, he added.

Among the remedies Smokey Bones has discovered is paying employees at the end of every day they work. No work, no pay. The tactic “reduces turnover by 30-40%--those are big numbers,” said Chief People & Culture Officer Rachel Kelly.

Holliday and Kelly were speaking at FSTEC, the restaurant industry’s technology conference, about how digital advances can ease the business’ labor shortage. But they and fellow panelists served up proof that the solution isn’t replacing people with technology. Every presenter, including one from a robotics company, attested to the need to address human factors along with shifting work to machines and software.

Not that Luna Grill or Smokey Bones have balked at using tech to help in easing their labor situations.

At Luna, equipment advances have allowed the brand to cut the cook time for its kabobs to three minutes or less, a steep drop from the 12 minutes needed with old technology. The benefit Holliday cited wasn’t a jump in throughput but a lessening of the stress a cook might feel.

But the presenters spent considerable time during the discussion on labor remedies that have little to do with tech.

Kelly described how Smokey Bones decided to streamline the recruitment and hiring process. Promising candidates were interviewed without delay and hired with speed.

“Because we didn’t have the money for technology, we put humans against that,” Kelly said. The rapid recruitment increased Smokey Bones’ headcount by 20%--or 11% from pre-pandemic levels.

The casual-dining chain is also screening brand enthusiasts to find prospective brand ambassadors and then train them to be walking testaments to the chain’s positives as an employer.

The discussion during the panel, “Technology and the Workforce,” touched often on the importance of culture in building a stable workforce.

“Culture is the most important thing there,” said Massimo Noja De Marco, the former operator who now serves as CEO of Piestro, a company that supplies pizza-making robots to restaurants.  “If you can make an employee understand that you have their best interest at heart, you can potentially create lifers.”

The industry faces a struggle in convincing its workers to persevere through just another week, stint, Noja De Marco suggested.

“They’re at a point where they say, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” he said. “That’s why there’s been such a huge movement out of the restaurant industry. People are kind of fed up.”

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