Burn, Burning, Burnt: How to Avoid Losing Kitchen Staff in This Industry

You want a sharp staff, but they are worn dull and nowhere near as effective as when their utility shirts still had the Dickies tags on them. Kitchen staff work hard, under extreme conditions and pressure, and keep production rolling. Not to mention, they are leaving this industry in waves as burnt-out shells of their former selves.

We want them to run specials, for instance, but operators aren’t engaging the process to give them breathing room. Creativity suffers, tempers wear phyllo-thin, and then there is the inevitable exit, at a rate around ¾ of your staff per year.

How can the holes in your foodservice business be plugged to ensure that it doesn’t keep happening?

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The Trifecta of Failure

Overworked, underpaid, and undervalued are repetitive themes when talking with staff members, across segments, and across the country.

Over 60-hour work weeks are not infrequent, as much as they are the norm. Pay is supposed to be on a merit, right? Isn’t that how a craft trade works? And the people working hands-on in a hot kitchen are dealt body blows when it comes to being praiseworthy.

The trifecta of failure has been woven into the fabric of chefs’ aprons at an incredible cost and as an anchor that drags down loyalty.

“I think lots of it comes down to ownership realizing how to treat the cooks; we have a problem with that sometimes, but at the end of the day the kitchen is the restaurant,” said Matt Hallgren, chef at Everyday People in Douglas, MI.

Empowerment and recognition are taken from the Management 101 playbook. But we are forgetting those fundamentals.

Crush

Another recurring theme is that cooks simply aren’t happy. Do more for the business, they are told. Expect less from ownership. Cut food cost. Lower labor cost. Futility sets in and the doors close behind exiting staff.

Money is not an incentive. Money is not an incentive. Money is not an incentive. Worth repeating and, again, from Management 101. Increasing engagement, like meaningful responsibilities, is a start. Recognition is a boost, too. An incentive to escape the crush of the demands of the day comes in many forms; empowerment, sharing in some decision making, and promotions are all motivation.

Money is rent paid for hours provided; it is compensation for time worked. Weather is to climate change as salary is to an incentive. At first, they appear the same, but they are undeniably different.  

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Staffing Will Forever Be the Squirm

“Appropriate staffing - the best you can,” said  Allison Robinson, a general manager at Tyler’s in Delaware.  

Staff move on when opportunities exist. Opportunities exist when staff move on. The cycle is glaring. With the hiring, onboarding, and training costs, by some estimates, to be around $4K per kitchen staffer. Making an investment is wise to keep the ants from marching.

Samuel Morales, a culinary manager in Shreveport, LA, agrees. “ I treat my guys like people; I always remember where I came from [and to] treat people the way you want to be treated. Pay attention! Don't burn them; stay properly staffed,” said Morales.

When a cook calls out, another has to cover the hole, at best. At worst, a manager, the chef, or other salaried staff has to leave a vacancy elsewhere in the operation to keep the Friday lunch rush from falling into a heap of stinking Yelp piles left on the sidewalk for future visitors to see. It wears down the hourly crew and devalues managers. Yeah, yeah, you always step in when needed. That’s not the point.

Appropriate staffing means that the busy Friday lunch doesn’t suffer because we operate with too lean of a schedule. Covering a shift from time to time is noble and can even be invigorating. Doing it too frequently leaves voids elsewhere. It is not compatible with long-term care for a solid operation or to keep staff engaged in keeping your business gaining ground.

Oh, That Power Struggle

The usual deflection of responsibility and decision making to the front of the house can be troubling for the kitchen. Often, the staff crafting the food isn’t folded into the decision making of how a dish is presented to a customer, the marketing of an item, or even the description that is included in print.

Bringing the back of the house into an up-front role doesn’t shift responsibilities as much as it raises meaningful engagement.

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Sometimes the First Step is Hardest of All

Start with a “creative, encouraging work environment,” said Robinson. “Avoid it becoming ‘the grind.’ People work with purpose and want very much to be a part of something bigger, a team; in a family sense [and] less in a work sense. Some are more sensitive than others and their threshold for bullshit is lower. But the really good ones get it in the right environment.”

Is there a connection for staff to latch onto other than profit, food cost, sales per labor hour, and check average? Something in the community that is bonded with your operation? Perhaps a non-profit? An environmental initiative? Cooking classes or another extracurricular distractor that makes your crew feel important and necessary? Creativity and imagination don’t come with a cost, but if they are forgotten, the toll is dear.

The attraction of the restaurant as an exciting dining experience is as important for the customers as it is for staff.

As reported to the extreme, unemployment is at a nearly 50-year low. That is almost always good news. Except when trying to staff a kitchen that has a revolving door. Our industry is dealing with a turnover rate of almost 50% higher than other industry averages. Burn-out is real and finding more cooks to stand to face the fire is getting harder — and costlier.