Turning Restaurant Staffing Challenges Into Opportunities

As Americans reach for a potential post-pandemic world, the restaurant industry continues to reel from two years of economic, staffing and supply chain chaos. Of these, one of the biggest challenges facing independent, franchised and fast-casual restaurants is staffing. 

According to the 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry report from the National Restaurant Association, more than half of restaurant operators believe it will be a year or more before business conditions return to normal, with one of the dominant factors being labor costs. A recent article in The New York Times cited a 5.7-percent increase in average US hourly wages in 2021, specifically noting a rapid rise in wages for leisure and hospitality workers. Increased labor costs, in combination with other economic factors, are adding tremendous pressure to an industry whose recovery remains both tenuous and emergent. 

Communicate Better

Facing multiple headwinds, restaurant owners and management must employ the most effective tool available: effective communication. When issues are discussed constructively with input from those on the team, a stronger sense of cohesion can be achieved. If workers feel they have a role to play, it is more likely the team will function better, more productively and with a greater sense of purpose. In chaotic times, clear and consistent communication can make all the difference. 

In chaotic times, clear and consistent communication can make all the difference. 

A good starting point for addressing many issues is use of a manager’s log. Like a diary or journal, this is a great way for shift managers to relay key issues, concerns and even potential solutions from one shift leader to another. 

Team meetings can also be extremely helpful. Whether through a five-minute huddle at the start of a shift change or finding ways to incorporate team meals, managers should look for opportunities to collectively discuss top issues with the team and solicit input. This can include asking for recommendations or referrals for new hires, as well as checking in on the morale and mental health of the team. Employees who are invested in solutions are less likely to leave, saving the tremendous time and expense involved in staff turnover.

And don’t forget a long-time, well-established business management tactic: the employee suggestion box. Providing a means for employees to provide anonymous input, especially in challenging times, can help management stay ahead of a problem before it becomes a crisis.

Managers are already busy. Taking time out for one-on-one check-ins, daily team huddles and taking the pulse of the organization’s workforce likely feels like just one more thing to try to accomplish in an already hectic restaurant environment. However, ensuring employees feel heard, considered and valued can make all the difference between retaining good workers and trying to manage a smaller, less flexible workforce. 

Have ‘The Talk’

The most fraught conversation in any workplace involves compensation. However, in times like these, restaurant managers can turn this biggest of industry challenges into a potential positive. 

Make time to bring the staff together, either at times when they aren’t scheduled for a shift or, if possible, before or after restaurant hours. Invite the staff to share their questions or concerns. And, if as expected, the issue of wages comes up, don’t try to dodge the matter. Instead, tackle it directly.

Without getting into the specifics of any one staff member’s compensation, and as clearly as possible, outline the restaurant’s compensation strategy. Based on objective criteria, outlining salary or hourly wage ranges offers transparency about compensation and reduces chances of gossip or misunderstanding.  Of course, these conversations are only effective if staff are being paid a fair and competitive wage. If the restaurant has not been providing competitive wages or if recent wage growth has outpaced the restaurant’s current compensation strategy, every effort should be made to remedy the situation quickly. 

In addition, talk about any staffing challenges the restaurant is facing and how they might impact hours for the rest of the team. If the restaurant’s margins have slimmed significantly with inflationary pressures, be honest about that reality and how management is addressing the situation. Importantly, ask for suggestions on issues of concern for the staff. Let them know what’s happening with supply chain issues, sales and the overall health of the organization. 

Get Creative

The simple fact is not every restaurant can afford premium wages for every member of their team. And with inflation and wage growth driving a majority of the country’s economic discussions, this reality will add to the pressures on restaurant owners and managers to find ways to recruit and retain workers. 

First and foremost, restauranteurs should explore every available option to ensure they are compensating staff fairly based on prevailing market wages. But there is more to staff recruitment and retention than bottom line salary alone. This is where keeping the lines of communication open between management and staff can make all the difference. Understanding the needs and priorities of employees is important. Getting creative helps, too.

Considering the full picture of potential benefits for restaurant employees can help creative restauranteurs find solutions.

Some restaurants in 2021 added additional fees to every customer check to support either staff wage increases or simply to avoid having to furlough staff as diners stayed away from restaurants. As the 2022 economy continues to pose challenges to the industry’s recovery, some restauranteurs might consider adding such fees. Alternatively, they might also consider adding a default minimum tip to customer checks. And letting customers know this is part of a strategy to ensure workers can earn a fair wage can, in many cases, rally supporters — and therefore more customers — to the restaurant’s cause. 

Another tactic taken by a Denver restaurant owner who surveyed his workers was to bring in a therapist as a resource for the restaurant staff. According to news reports, having access to reliable mental health services for the restaurant’s staff has proved popular in a climate where most standard healthcare plans do not adequately address the costs of mental healthcare.

Considering the full picture of potential benefits for restaurant employees can help creative restauranteurs find solutions. Other benefits to consider include transportation subsidies, expanded employee meal programs or discounts, increased sick leave or paid time off, childcare stipends, and, of course, cash bonuses. 

Promote Yourself

Whether through loyalty visits or robust tipping, many restaurant patrons have continued to step up to try to help their favorite establishments and their staffs. This provides an opportunity to restauranteurs who are proactively working to help their workers, and subsequently themselves, to promote their efforts.

Getting the word out about how the restaurant is supporting its staff offers a number of benefits, as well as risks. A little positive attention can not only help attract needed workers to both the front and back of the house, it can also help existing workers better appreciate what they have. This promotion can be done through social media, as well as reaching out to local journalists if what is being done on behalf of employees is genuinely outside the norm among other area restaurants. 

Where customers might once have perused a restaurant’s Facebook or Instagram for a bit of food lust, savvy restauranteurs can also use those spaces to highlight unique benefits, happy workers or tell their story of trying to survive and thrive as a business in unprecedented times. A note of caution, however: Those who choose this path should consider potential blowback from current or former staff members unhappy with the restaurant, as well as members of the public who might make unreasonable demands or otherwise find fault with the restaurant. If you decide to share your stories on social media, be sure to closely monitor your social channels and be prepared to respond to potential negativity in a manner designed to deescalate and take the conversation offline. 

And don’t forget to reach out to your local news station, daily newspaper or local food blogger. Sharing a well-told story of supporting workers in difficult times can provide a significant uptick in reservations and overall patronage. Don’t underestimate the power of sharing your story. 

The restaurant industry will continue to face many challenges in the months ahead. Restaurant owners and management must embrace a better communications strategy backed by thoughtful actions if they are to turn things around. If they follow this approach, and ensure they communicate effectively with employees and the public, restauranteurs may find one of today’s biggest challenges – staffing – can also become their greatest strength.