The Restaurant Industry Is Facing the Perfect Storm—But There Are Smart Ways to Weather It

Whatever you may have heard about how hard it is to find and retain employees in this market, restaurants have it worse. Much worse. More than 11.6 million people work in food service annually (including managers). Yet, a Bureau of Labor report flagged that the restaurant industry’s year-over-year quit rate jumped from 4.8 percent to nearly 7 percent, a more significant increase than in any other job sector. As a result, restaurant job openings increased from 5.8 to 8.4 percent. At the same time, inflation and food costs are rising, energy costs are spiking, supply chain issues persist, and the rent is still due. It’s hard out there for a restaurant.

And it’s about to get a lot harder.

The food industry is approaching the perfect storm of a labor shortage, a customer surge, and heightened consumer expectations about service, cleanliness and more. Business owners need to step up or find themselves losing out.

Restaurant employees have many options about where to work—plus they’re still worried about getting sick. Food service is frontline work, and this friction between demand and supply is causing significant disruptions and distractions in restaurants. Customers are excited to dine out again, but they’re also leery of visiting restaurants that aren’t visibly taking steps to ensure they’re clean, safe, and ready for the new pandemic normal. And when staff is short, cleanliness and process suffer.

Customers may complain when their meal is cold or slow. But when they get sick from contamination or corner-cutting on cleanliness, that can tank a restaurant’s reputation for good. The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick every year in the U.S. (that’s one in six Americans!), 128,000 end up in the hospital, and 3,000 die from foodborne illness each year. Many of those illnesses can come via restaurant experiences.

While restaurant health measures during the pandemic may have felt like hygiene theater (wiping down a surface with a dirty rag does not make it Covid-free), better restaurants have been getting serious about technology that makes food and restaurant hygiene easier to monitor. Visible high-end air purifiers are no longer luxuries. Sensors to ensure all foods are at safe/proper temperatures and monitoring systems that signal when refrigeration units aren’t functioning properly are now standard in most modern restaurants.

Forward-thinking restaurants are also investing in devices and sensors that can provide on-the-spot data, feedback and guidance on improving workplace cleanliness and avoiding cross-contamination and foodborne illnesses from improperly or entirely unwashed hands. Of course, consumers aren’t the only winners, either. Cleaner facilities go a long way to improve employee health and wellness, keeping workers active and on the clock.

These digital innovations also pay for themselves.

A single foodborne illness outbreak can cost a restaurant millions, which doesn’t even cover the bad publicity and reputation damage. Reducing foodborne illness by just one percent would keep approximately half a million people from getting sick each year in the U.S.; reducing foodborne illness by 10 percent would prevent five million people from getting sick. That’s a pretty good case for investing in “smart” restaurant technology. 

Meanwhile, there’s also a more direct and tangible business benefit to all this hygiene awareness: People spend more money with a restaurant when they believe it values cleanliness and restaurants with higher cleanliness also see greater operational efficiency and results in audits and scores. That’s an investment you can take to the bank.