MRM EXCLUSIVE: New Research Reveals Restaurant Managers Are Key Ingredient in the Recipe for Staff Retention

Restaurant employees play an integral role in the dining experience, representing the building blocks of delightful guest experiences, ultimately creating loyal patrons who come back for more. However, in today's economic environment, restaurant staffing is being put to the test, posing a bigger challenge today than ever before. Restaurants not only face a labor shortage, but employee wages have been rising, and worker productivity across industries has plunged to a historical depth.

Regardless of how long employees intend to stay in a role — whether a seasonal job or a more permanent passion—restaurant operators have a common goal to keep staff happy, productive, and loyal. Fueled by this backdrop, Toast's Market Insights team sought to better understand restaurant employees' perspectives—from bright spots to challenges faced—by conducting a survey in February and March 2023 of more than 1,000 US restaurant workers.

So, what did we find?

Along with more obvious employee morale boosters like higher pay, what struck us most in the data was how managers often play an outsized role in staff retention—they can make or break continuity, depending on how they go about their jobs. With that in mind, here are a few key learnings from Toast’s new research underscoring the need for excellent managers in the restaurant industry.

Higher Pay Helps but Empathy can Pay Dividends 

So, what can restaurant operators do to minimize employee churn? First up—compensate workers competitively based on the local market. Toast's research identified that money talks,or employees walk. A desire for better pay is the No. 1 reason cited among employees planning to leave the restaurant  industry in the near-term. Nearly 60 percent of those planning to leave the industry in the next year are motivated by a desire for better pay.

That said, while pay is top-of-mind, it's not the only lever at restaurants’ disposal to keep employees onboard; empathy and acknowledgment also go a long way. One easy (and bottom-line-friendly) tactic to boost retention efforts may be as simple as an acknowledgment of hard work from higher up the food chain. Toast’s survey reveals that, aside from pay (41 percent), a lack of recognition (41 percent) is a top reason to consider seeking work elsewhere. The presence of difficult managers (39 percent) or co-workers (37 percent) can also factor into employee attrition. The good news? These concerns are controllable and can be addressed, improved, and maintained by fantastic restaurant managers.      

Frontline leaders who offer support in day-to-day tasks, help educate, motivate, nurture and advocate for advancement (through promotions and raises) can boost chances of keeping employees happy and employed. 

The importance of (and need for) managers’ frontline leadership spans both back-of-house and front-of-house, extending from the kitchen when cooks need help to the dining room handling guests’ needs. For managers, empathy and soft skills are key to helping problem-solve solutions to whatever situation arises.

But having such emotional intelligence is no small feat. In fact, according to Gallup poll on the subject, nearly half (48 percent) of restaurant managers are not engaged with their work. While this reality is problematic for multiple reasons, it may have an outsized impact on the restaurant community (and operators’ ultimate success) as its presence (or absence) can impact employee morale and ultimately retention. 

One of the realities of operating any business is that employees may quit due to not enjoying the person they report into or interact with the most—in the case of restaurants, that person is often the manager. Toast research reveals that a “bad manager” tops the list of reasons why employees left a previous restaurant job, even above compensation (45 percent cite bad managers as reasons for leaving while 42 percent cite low pay). 

However, while seasoned restaurant employees may remember bad experiences with a manager, the good times will stick as well. Frontline leaders who offer support in day-to-day tasks, help educate, motivate, nurture and advocate for advancement (through promotions and raises) can boost chances of keeping employees happy and employed. 

The ‘Player-Coach’ Model Fosters Strong Relationships

The best restaurant managers serve as workplace role models, leading by example and modeling desired behaviors such as keeping the guest experience front and center and being well-versed in menu offerings. This type of healthy leadership environment creates the space where employees can mimic their manager’s behavior and often become management material themselves. Sometimes the best future managers and leaders are already working the floor or kitchen.

Steps to becoming a great restaurant manager can mean taking on the role of player-coach that we sometimes see in sports like baseball, soccer, or basketball. This can translate to a restaurant manager who is consistently in the dining room and the kitchen, overseeing operations and pitching in any way they can. This support can mean everything from filling a guest’s water glass to changing the french fry oil to having a tough conversation with a guest that is upset about their experience. By participating in every facet of the business, the player-coach—or restaurant manager, in this case—shows a team mentality, promoting unity and an empathetic culture—where the ultimate victory comes from a satisfied guest.

It can make a powerful statement when player-coaches—restaurant managers—communicate to employees that they understand (and value) their lives outside of work. 

Player-coaches often lead with empathy instinctively, as they’ve “been there, done that” and can see when a staffer's needs go unnoticed (and know sometimes a small gesture can go a long way to remedy.) For instance, if a manager has a cook whose daughter is about to graduate from high school, the manager can take it upon themself to ensure that the employee has the extra time off needed to prepare for their child’s celebration. The same goes for a high schooler working the Saturday lunch shift even though she has a big basketball game that night— if the manager makes a concerted effort to help get her out of the restaurant as early as possible, it shows that her employer cares about her dreams, hopes, and hoops, even if that means picking up the slack themselves.

It can make a powerful statement when player-coaches—restaurant managers—communicate to employees that they understand (and value) their lives outside of work. Toast research found that 56 percent of full-service restaurant (FSR) workers and 54 percent of quick-service restaurant (QSR) employees value flexible schedules more than any other factor when first joining.  By elevating personal responsibilities, commitments (and successes) to the same level as work responsibilities, restaurant managers send a powerful message to their employees that they are valued holistically. 

Attention to Detail Can Make a Huge Difference

Every employee retained is one less you have to hire (which is paramount, especially in a tough economic environment). Keeping the employee experience top of mind as a way to boost retention is critical considering that Toast research reveals 64 percent of employees—who stated they are interested in switching employers—feel it would be very easy or somewhat easy to find another restaurant job. 

When it comes to keeping employees happy, staffed and not looking elsewhere, the “little things” can make a world of difference. Restaurant managers have the unique position of seeing employees both from a personal and professional side—and it’s up to managers to exhibit empathy, acknowledge a job well done and celebrate wins. Intentionally shifting managers’ mindsets to delight employees as much as they would delight guests may hold the recipe for success. 

To help better understand the restaurant industry, Toast conducted a blind survey of 1,011 restaurant employees from February 27, 2023 to March 19, 2023. Respondents were not made aware that Toast was fielding the study. Respondents were a mix of front-of-house and back-of-house employees in 41 U.S. States working in both quick and full-service restaurants. Most employees who responded to the survey have worked at their restaurant for one to five years. Panel providers granted incentives to restaurant respondents for participation. Using a standard margin of error calculation, at a confidence interval of 95 percent, the margin of error on average is +/- three percent.