Restaurant Staffing Crisis Solutions: Experts Weigh In

While staffing has always topped the list of restaurant owner/manager pain points, it now seems to be at crisis proportions. And the situation isn’t likely to improve soon as more competition in the battle for talent is anticipated. According to the latest Yelp Economic Average (YEA) report, there were more new businesses openings than at any other period over the last 12 months and business reopenings are at the highest level since the second quarter of 2020.

Instead of belaboring the issue, Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine went to the experts for some solutions. 

“This is no doubt the highest profile issue facing the industry today,” said Robin Gagnon, co-founder of We Sell Restaurants. “Our conversations with restaurant owners across the country confirm they cannot adequately staff their restaurants.  March restaurant sale surged 36 percent year-over-year and nearly reached 2019 levels.  However, operators are having to resort to short and long-term fixes to address the fact that they cannot find team members.”

Gagnon noted short-term solutions including sign-on bonuses and quick pay options.

“Wages across the country are definitely up for the industry, in virtually every location.  The $15 minimum wage is a myth – most restaurants are having to pay close to that now,” she said. “We are seeing sign-on bonuses at fast food and fast casual locations, something never seen before in the industry. Some operators are willing to have you work today, get paid tomorrow in order to get people in place to handle their minimum requirements. This has overarching impact on the ability of full service, most drastically affected by the pandemic to ever recover.”

The $15 minimum wage is a myth – most restaurants are having to pay close to that now,

Her longer-term predictions include:

  • Operators are leaving “small” menus developed for delivery in place in order to cut down on the complexity of orders and training required.
  • Restaurants are switching out dinnerware for full paper and plastic to eliminate the need for a dishwasher (it’s one position but it’s one of the toughest to fill).
  • Fast casual will continue to push out full-service brands because they can assemble food in front of you and get food to the customer more quickly.
  • Robotics are being tested at every single position in the restaurant from cooks to table service. 
  • Order at the table through apps and kiosk ordering for fast casual/fast food is being embraced to reduce the need for wait staff. Customers are embracing it the same way they have embraced self-checkout in grocery and big box stores. 
  • Customers can order and pay without speaking to a human and a runner delivers the food.
  • More concepts will move to prep in advance and assemble rather than full service.  They will embrace technology to set par levels and pre-package necessary ingredients to assemble a meal quickly.

Westgate Resorts, the largest privately held corporation in the Central Florida area with 27 locations across the country, and that employs more than 10,000 has found on-demand pay  to be a valuable tool for attracting and retaining talent.

Following implementation of DailyPay’s earned wage access platform, Westgate experienced a  boost in employee satisfaction and loyalty. A recent case study highlighting the impact of DailyPay among Westgate employees shows:

  • A 115-percent increase in tenure
  • Two-thirds of new hires signing up for DailyPay
  • Employees check their balance approximately seven times per week, allowing them to manage their budgets and take control of their finances.

“Finding and keeping staff has always been a hurdle and staff churn is already high in the restaurant industry,” said Hoang Nguyen, Director of Client Services at Menufy and owner of Bánhwich Café. “In my restaurant, I feel lucky that during Covid we were able to make a lot of hires. People were in between jobs or suddenly out of work. Now more people are back to work and everyone is hiring. That’s why being creative and flexible has been a key mindset for hiring.” 

Being creative and flexible has been a key mindset for hiring.

Nguyen identified roles and cross-trained staff where possible to wear multiple hats. For example, dishwashers could bus tables, and the hostess could take customer orders. People with various skill sets can fit into new roles, which allowed him to widen the talent pool of people he could hire from. He taught staff how to effectively train new team members to speed up the learning curve during the onboarding process.

“Be creative about how you set up your shifts but you need to understand what you need first,” he said. “Before we hire, we identify positions that need to be filled. Be open that you might not need to fill the same exact job. Maybe finding a part-time person is the solution and look for every opportunity to cross-train so you are prepped when you do lose people. 

Nguyen also created flexibility in the work schedule: Traditional shifts were trimmed into shorter shifts to accommodate employees' lifestyle needs, such as students or workers needing supplemental income. This flexibility has been successful in retaining his staff. For example, a student might decrease shifts during finals week, but work full-time during school breaks.

“If you can accommodate people’s lifestyle needs instead of being rigid in set schedules, that can attract new types of employees,” Nguyen said.

He got creative on how to source employees. He used his restaurant's Facebook business page to recruit fans who already understand and appreciate his brand, posted information on his website and at the register. Nguyen also created “We Are Hiring” cards and placed them in take-out orders. Other tactics he used: reaching out to community centers, reaching back to former employees for temp help and recruiting marketing or culinary students.

With the increase in online ordering, he suggests creating a new front-of-the-house role of Takeout Specialist to process orders.

“Online orders are typically paid in advance, so the training is simplified for a person who handles only takeout orders- no need to handle money at pickup and no phone calls,” he said. “You don’t need to say restaurant only when you may just need a good communicator for a logistics role.” 

Before COVID, Nguyen said his restaurant handled approx. 200 online orders a month with one to two people. During COVID, he now processes 700-plus online orders and expects this will continue. 

“I need four people now upfront,” he said. “A bubble tea person, a sandwich person, a dedicated register person and I’ve introduced a new role, front of house takeout specialist, to organize the online orders so I hire for that skill set. Every restaurant has different needs and unique staffing requirements and circumstances. First, see what you have in your current staff and then be innovative on how to hire and train, that helps set you up for success in the long run. This is what has been working for me.” 

Technology is providing some solutions and enabling staff to focus on hospitality, according to Hope Neiman, Chief Marketing Officer for Tillster.

“At Tillster, we continue to note increased interest in pay-at-the-table technology, which can cut down wait time and frees up staff to manage other tasks,” she said. “A customer can read the menu, enter their order and pay for the meal, all from their phone or table device. The wait staff is still there to answer questions but can also refill drinks and bring food. Restaurants should continue to move towards more digital and automated solutions such as pay-at-table technology to free up employees to focus on other tasks.”

Restaurants should continue to move towards more digital and automated solutions such as pay-at-table technology to free up employees to focus on other tasks.

Kiosks offer up similar advantages, she said. “This self-service technology can replace a counter employee entirely, allowing onsite employees to engage with customers and create a sense of hospitality while removing the need to stand close and take orders, which is especially important as we continue to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital tools continue to prove their benefits across restaurant operations, including support during the current staffing shortage. While short-term solutions might be QR codes and pay-at-table processes, these things can quickly become long-term with the adoption of other automated solutions, which elevates the role of staff to focus on customer experiences and the completion of orders.”

 A more unique technology—self-tap alcohol delivery is helping with staffing issues for some eateries.

Jim Wright, Chief Operations Officer of Stanley Beer Hall , The Golden Mill, Malcolm Yards and Broadway Market has implemented PourMyBeer technology in four locations.

“The addition of self-pour technology saved our business,” he said. “This allows us to serve more guests per employee than a traditional full-service restaurant. Our servers have the capacity to serve a significantly increased number of guests.  This is due to the fact that guests ‘self-serve’ all of their beverages freeing the servers to focus on taking food orders and giving great customer service.”

Wright said it helped retain our long-time employees since guests’ tip on all sales, our staff earn gratuity on the self-tap beverages as well as the food they serve. 

“This effectively doubles their sales production and subsequent tips earned per hour worked,” he said. “This creates a very financially rewarding job helping us to retain our long-time family of employees.”

Greg Staley, CEO of SynergySuite, suggests using technology designed to make employee scheduling more efficient, promoting health and wellness and creating a culture that engages employees and the community.

“Use good scheduling systems that don't require employees to come into work to look at the schedule,” he said. “Today’s systems allow employees to easily swap or pick up shifts, and don't require managers to remember texts about PTO or rely on sticky notes about shift swaps.  These features help make employees' (and managers’) lives easier.”

To prioritize health and well-being, don’t promote a company culture where employees are expected to work through illnesses, he said. Also, offer paid sick time, make it easy for employees to swap shifts, and don’t “punish” staff for taking sick leave.

Staley said promote your differentiators can be a way to attract talent.  

What do you offer that the others don’t – referral bonuses, paid time off, user-friendly digital tools, a supportive culture, etc.  Spotlighting these distinctions will help you attract – and keep – good people. 

“What do you offer that the others don’t – referral bonuses, paid time off, user-friendly digital tools, a supportive culture, etc.  Spotlighting these distinctions will help you attract – and keep – good people.  Also, leverage your employees to find hot prospects. Take an intentional approach to referrals: emphasize that you want to hire more employees like your current (stellar) staff. Explain what you’re looking for and why newcomers should want to work for you. Offer a generous referral bonus. Acknowledge employees who make referrals – praise them at staff meetings, give them gift cards, provide bonuses.”

He added that volunteer with local organizations and at local events by providing meals is a great way to meet potential applicants, demonstrate your caring company culture, and drive sales.

Sunny Ilyas, CEO/Founder of Vale Food Co, a healthy fast-casual restaurant with six locations in Florida and plans to expand, offered his practical advice.

"During the pandemic, we looked internally and leaned in on our current staff for recommendations on hiring and recruitment,” he said. “We came up with a reward system to incentivize our team members with bonuses for recommending and onboarding new employees to Vale. It was a successful solution to both keeping our team members happy and in turn bringing in viable candidates. We also used our social media platforms to spread the word when we were hiring and it was a good tool when hiring platforms fell flat."

Joe Fontana, Fry the Coop owner, noted that the pandemic showed how vulnerable restaurants are from a financial standpoint with labor increases going to put even more strain on the restaurant business as it recovers.

“As restaurant owners, we want to pay our staff more. Provide great benefits, 401k, life insurance, etc.  However, with historic low-price points on food along with the typical financial structure of a restaurant, it does not allow restaurants to pay out truly reasonable livable wages in urban cities.”

One way to do so: increase menu prices.

“Menu prices need to jump into the future overnight and unfortunately, I don't believe the consumer is ready for those sticker shock prices,” he said. “The $30 lunch is going to be a reality soon everywhere! $15 sandwich, $7 fries, $5 drink, add sales tax and a few bucks tip and you're at $32.50!  My grandfather would roll over in his grave if he paid that much for a burger and fries! However, to build a sustainable restaurant in the new roaring 20's, and to be able to pay a real livable wage, it needs to happen sooner than later."