Big Crowds, Not Enough Staff

It has been an incredible couple of years. COVID shut down the hospitality industry from March of 2020 to mid-2021. Gradually, states let operations resume, but no  matter where you are, we are all now in the same boat: no staff!

 In my last article I discussed how robots will transform our industry in a big way, but that is a few years off. We must develop some strategies to deal with today’s reality of lack of staff. In this article I will discuss the strategies that I have implemented with my clients across the country.  

 I am Short Servers AND I am Getting a lot of Complaints!

I don’t have one client who has all the servers necessary to run their operations, which results in a lot of complaints about long waiting times once the guest is seated. The first question is, how do I give the quality service that our guests expect? This is going to be a tough answer to swallow, but in the end your guests will be happy, your complaints will go down and your social media scores will go up (Yelp, Google, etc.). 

If, you were doing great in 2019 with a full staff, we need to look at the model that made you successful. For a lot of my clients, it meant that one server worked a station of four to five tables. Today we are all so shorthanded, we know that guests hate to see empty tables, and we feel the pressure to seat those stations to the point where our servers are now trying to handle 10 tables. For a few minutes, the guest feels better because they are in a seat, but the big problem is on the horizon. Because the server is trying to handle so many tables, those guests could spend 10 minutes or more just waiting to be acknowledged. 

 Quality Service Above All

If we know that a server handling four or five tables is the magic number for high quality service, then we must not waver from this program. If we only have enough servers to give high-quality service to 50 percent of the dining room, then we can only seat half of the dining room. If possible, send guests to the bar while they wait 30 or more minutes for a table. If you don’t have a bar, the guests will either have to wait or come back when you have space.

It is not easy to watch guests walk away, but look at it this way: A guest who leaves because you are busy will return, but a guest who leaves because they could not get service at their table will never come back and they will top it off with a terrible review.   

Improve Service Through the Menu

Very often service slows down when we seat parties of eight or more. I have worked with my clients on creating menus designed to improve service to large parties, increase food check averages and, more often than not, get that all-important second cocktail to the guest. 

We have created appetizer packages that offer a nice selection of our menu at a reasonable price per person. We strongly encourage guests with larger parties to choose the package that works for them, letting them know that the food will be brought out family-style and will allow the guests more time to enjoy a cocktail and then choose their entrees. In addition, we offer a family-style dessert package. Most often, desserts are a tougher sale for tables of two to four, but offer a large group a wide variety of desserts for everyone to enjoy and they sell. Faster service, more food options and a higher check average sound great to me!

 Lack of Managers Is Cause for Guest Complaints

Just as all my clients are hurting for staff, they are also suffering from lack of managers. Not having enough managers on the floor hurts in many ways, but the two most important are when they need to address a guest complaint and when they need to address a server issue (comps and voids). I have been working with all of my clients as we try to hire managers, but we have now woken up to the reality that we will not be bringing on any managers anytime soon. 

My solution is that if we can’t find managers to come and work with us, then we need to build managers with the staff we have. It is a multistep program that will require time and effort on the parts of owners and managers who we do have on staff. I just started this program with a client last week. In reality they need five managers, but unfortunately, they only have two. I have created a program that starts with support for managers, implements a training program for all new servers, builds supervisors and eventually produces strong managers. 

STEP 1 – Meet with the staff and ask if any would like to participate in a training program that will make them “server supervisors.” This position will allow them to keep their tables while giving them additional responsibilities that will support the managers. 

STEP 2 – Do very focused training with the volunteers on how/when to support other employees with comps or voids. Busy managers don’t always have time to interrupt a busy service with staff support. Giving these server supervisors the ability to do this for managers takes care of the guest more quickly, thereby improving service. At the end of the shift, the manager reviews all comps/voids to ensure that each one is legitimate. Also, server supervisors cannot do their own comps/voids. 

STEP 3 – After 30 days, choose the best of the server supervisors and train them in how to handle customer complaints tableside. This is not a one-day training, and the trainee should be shadowing the manager each time they deal with a guest complaint. Once this person is fully trained, their position moves to supervisor and additional management training should start. 

None of this is easy and it will certainly take time, but developing your current best employees to become your best future managers is a sound investment. Unfortunately, the lack of employees and managers is not going to change, but you can change and decide that your time is better spent building managers rather than waiting for the right manager to appear.