Reimagining the Restaurant Experience Is a Recipe for Success in Staffing

American restaurant operators have arguably never faced such uncertain times as now. After coping with a once in a generation pandemic, most have struggled to adjust to the post-COVID period of inflation, unsettled supply chains and most of all, a shrunken pool of human resources. 

While labor shortages themselves are nothing new, the current competition for workers is particularly fierce, and its daily impact on operations is palpable. The National Restaurant Association observed steady job growth after the huge losses of 2020, but things noticeably slowed in August, and many markets have still not recovered from the closures of more than 100,000 restaurants during the pandemic.

A number of operators have had to reduce hours or operating days due to a lack of available staff. Others worry they cannot compete with eye-catching incentives offered by competitors, like full or partial college tuition or hefty sign-on bonuses. With all this in mind, the idea of attracting new talent, much less retaining existing workforces, can seem daunting. Finding solutions starts with taking stock of a few key areas, and it’s important for restaurants to be frank about conditions within their control that are feeding the current situation. 

Perception plays a significant role. Right or wrong, would-be employees perceive restaurants as potentially stressful environments in which to work. And median wages throughout most of the U.S. are not livable ones. However, raising wages and incentives alone are akin to simply placing a Band-aid on an open wound. Instead, there are several actions that restaurants can take to change this paradigm. The three biggest measures are embracing technology, reimagining the employer-employee relationship as a personnel development model, and looking at restaurant culture with fresh eyes.

First, while technological solutions are not a cure-all, they can give restaurants significant relief for various operational pressures they face. The latest digital tools generate improvements in team communication, staff scheduling and shifts, and compliance with health and safety regulations. 

For time-pressed establishments, implementing and managing more advanced technological systems are likely better to be outsourced to experienced providers. All this is, of course, dependent on a restaurant’s ability to budget for these investments. For maximum cost-effectiveness, technological tools should be adopted with specific goals and in mind, and not with the expectation that overlaying it onto existing operations will magically fix issues.

Second, a purely skills-based employment model should give way to a more holistic approach that emphasizes workers as an investment in human capital, whose skills are continuously developed and refined. This approach is closely interconnected with a sense of ownership and belonging at work, all of which can sustain the restaurant environment at a time of operational pressures. Indeed, a Michigan State-University of Minnesota study of nearly 1,000 workers concluded that a sense of psychological “ownership” on the part of employees was positively associated with stronger attitudes and work behavior, as well as increased performance. 

With the labor market’s current fluidity in mind, employee exit interviews are a good way to take the pulse of workers’ feelings about and relationship with your restaurant. Implement these interviews, and take the findings to heart, even if some cause discomfort. What resonates the most in what departing workers say? When the feedback is less than positive, what changes can be enacted to prevent others from having similarly dissatisfying experiences? 

The third and final approach is to perform a culture check to ensure all spaces of the restaurant are ones of collaboration and fairness. Disagreements can and will happen, and restaurants can be stressful places no matter how strong the culture is. But a healthy workplace is one where dialogue between employees, as well as the employee and manager, is open and respect-based, and where people treat one another with understanding and empathy. 

Competitive pay levels are only one component of culture. Manageable hourly shifts and adequate breaks are another. A “right to disconnect” should mean work is left at work unless an emergency arises. And restaurants should encourage their employees to embrace healthy and active lifestyles. If operators want their employees to stop viewing their jobs as a transaction, then they must look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are transactional in how they are treating their employees.

The winning recipe for success in this industry takes adaptability and openness. While there are no quick-fixes when it comes to staffing challenges, restaurant operators can position themselves for future periods of disruption and external shifts by embracing an experience-based operational model. All operators, large and small, will need to leverage their unique culture as a differentiator. 

To set themselves apart, operators must demonstrate to current and prospective employees how the culture of the organization will translate to a fulfilling experience. In short, conditions, benefits and culture must all answer the question, “Why should someone work here?”

This column originally appeared in Modern Restaurant Magazine and was written by Tye Reedy, the Director of Business Development for Adams Keegan.