Forget why it happened - or continues to happen - but there is a very real shortage of kitchen labor.
You can have a shimmering five-star Yelp rating, a filled dining room, and the best craft beer list around, but without staff to make food and make drinks, you are nowhere.
Throwing your hands up in meaningless desperation because ‘there aren’t people out there!’ is less than productive. Instead, get real about plugging employment holes.
Money Is an Option, but Not the Only Answer
Engaging younger employees, for instance, is a strategically smart move. Ask what they want and listen to their answers.
Some common requests, most often heard when talking with Millennial staffers, are:
- Flexibility in scheduling - wanna bet your clutch salad guy won’t quit because he is scheduled during tomorrow’s DJ Khaled show? Be flexible or be rigid. One will break you.
- Working with friends - dangerous footing, yes. But, especially significant to the highly social, younger employment pool, find some middle ground.
- Let me use my phone - set guidelines, but don’t rip their phones from their hands. How do you feel about being out of touch?
- Feed me - staff meal, for sure. Make it something that can be photo-worthy so they can talk about it online.
- Keep me connected with something big - whether it is local charity support, a tie-in with a community group or a national campaign, social activism has spilled across many demographics. We all want to feel like we are identified with something bigger than ourselves, this can be a win on many levels.
If your restaurant is in a metro setting, parking might be an issue.
Cooks’ and servers’ wages can succumb to costly transportation costs. Work a barter deal with a garage owner to secure spaces for your crew to park.
Encourage biking by having adequate bike racks and even give away locks.
Part of identifying with a purpose or mission, treat staff like a team not by just saying that you have a team. Branded shirts, hoodies, or jackets go further than you think.
For your modest investment, the team gets to reap the benefit of getting gear that represents their place of employment and you get walking advertisements. It’s a pride thing.
Using Social Media for More Than Driving Sales
Give your crew reasons to share the virtues of their great job.
Create Instagrammable moments with community-based events, mission-based experiences, and, just a lot of fun times.
Digital natives broadcast their days. Give them fodder to share with friends; friends that could need - or want - a job with you.
Feed them a great staff meal and let them share pics.
Spending Money on Staff Doesn't Have to Be Just Payroll
Adam Marcus, owner and operator of two Chick-fil-A locations in northern Delaware has a problem we all wish to have— the restaurants are too busy! This energized operator got serious about doing what bosses are supposed to: providing employees the resources they need to be even better at their jobs.
Marcus went extreme and closed a very busy Bear, Del. location for an extensive remodel and retool, to ensure a better experience for customers, but equally important improvements for the employees.
“We’re investing in some pretty cool equipment [like] commercial dishwashers, lettuce spinners. [We] just bought a machine that juices lemons rather than hand squeeze for lemonade. We are compartmentalizing our kitchen so that everyone has specific tasks rather than overwhelming the staff,” said Marcus who believes that a direct spend on the staff works just as well to hold onto the crew. “For kitchen leadership we've increased hourly pay and have thrown in performance based incentives, offered health insurance, increased vacation pay,” said Marcus.
Shane Timmons, a Montana line cook at Bullwinkle's Saloon & Eatery, seconds Marcus’ approach. “Reward your employees. Make them feel appreciated. Give them what you can afford to when you can. But most of all, let them work towards something," said Timmons. "Let them prove themselves and work towards a possible promotion or more hours if they are good employees.”
When in Doubt, Poach
Some of the better cooks are working across the street. Cliche, but true: Desperate times call for desperate measures. Find a shortcoming with a competing operator’s employment, path and/or exploit.
If a really good sous chef is unhappy at vegetarian place up the street, what can you do to make her happier? Is it creative input for the new menu? Perhaps a little better schedule?
The obvious caveat is that poaching can be a bit nefarious and can backfire. That neighboring owner might show up at the next local business owners’ meeting and sit next to you. Just be careful. A little competition is good when it’s done right. Just remember: what you do to another can be done unto you.
If you haven’t noticed the shortage, good for you. Like most ripples, the splash will hit your operation soon enough. Be prepared by being proactive. Insulate the staff you have with good vibes, more than adequate tools - and meaningful pay - to keep them connected to your spot.
No more skipping the overtime pay or inflexible scheduling. Will a free t-shirt mend the rip in labor mesh? No. Are there steps you can take right now? For sure. There is not a singular approach to loosen the crunch.
Listening to current staff is a start, while being open-minded does more than ignoring the seriousness of where our industry stands right now.
By Jim Berman, Industry Expert