Navigating Talent Gaps Across the Foodservice Industry

This edition of MRM's "Ask the Expert” features advice from Buyers Edge Platform. Please send questions to Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine Executive Editor Barbara Castiglia at

As restaurants open back up, operators are ready to hire, and in some cases, rehire, employees – but many are finding it difficult to find candidates willing to return to work, and the search for good talent is tougher than expected. With the unemployment boost extended through the beginning of September, unemployed foodservice workers don’t seem motivated to return to work. And since hospitality was one of the hardest hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are on the hunt for different kinds of “pandemic-proof” jobs. 

While restaurant employment has risen each month this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, despite the broad-based gains, restaurant employment remains below pre-pandemic levels in every state. New York (-31 percent), Vermont (-30 percent), Hawaii (-28 percent), Massachusetts (-27 percent) and California (-27 percent) are well below their pre-coronavirus restaurant employment levels.

So, what can operators do to navigate the changing workforce and hire quality talent? Let’s look at a few ideas. 

1. Communicate Safe Work Environments 

Eased up restrictions are one reason why restaurant operators are seeing a gap in talent as potential employees are reluctant to return to dining establishments because of the close quarters, lifted mask restrictions, and more stringent hygiene mandates. Worries of unvaccinated staff and the opening of more tables only puts more stress on already overstretched staffs. To any new or returning employee that doesn’t sound like a fun environment to work in. Operators can help ease these employees back into work by over communicating the safety of their environments and the benefits of jobs, overall. 

2. Highlight Opportunities and Incentivize 

Let’s face it – when candidates are ready to apply for a job, they are looking for companies with incentives not offered by other businesses. Young people are driven to jobs with interesting work cultures, competitive benefits, flexible hours, and employee amenities. Some restaurants don’t have budgets to offer those kinds of incentives and it’s a lot harder for independent restaurants to offer competitive advantages. But there is hope.

Even before the pandemic, people that were typically drawn to restaurant jobs were funneled in different directions. Some people get into it as a passion while others get into it because it’s attainable to those who are not necessarily college educated or skilled in specific trade jobs. Back-of-house staff will always appeal to that workforce. However, with the gig economy, those looking for work are opting to drive for companies such as Uber and DoorDash, and the ability to be their own boss. Restaurants across all categories must take a much more proactive approach to highlight what employees are looking for in today’s work environment. This includes incentives such as enhanced benefits, sign-on bonuses, or flexible hours.

3. Target Your Strengths

To help alleviate the fears of lifted restrictions, target your strengths. Promote your contactless work environment, highlight your company culture or communicate your brand’s ability to turn a job into a career. Have flexible hours? Communicate that, too. In today’s new operational environment, those interested in working in hospitality will appreciate a workplace that a.) uses technology to minimize contact between staff and guests, b.) stands up for what it believes in and/or, c.) offers flexible hours. Or, a mix of all three. 

Restaurants need to establish more a concrete growth path for someone new coming into their business for a job. Sometimes people turn to restaurants for a career or a side hustle, but the fact of the matter Is restaurants needs to communicate with employees where there is room to grow and give them the security of knowing they won’t lose their job again and be unemployed. 

Make your brand stand out from the crowd so everyone can get back to work and you can get back to business.