The good news for many restaurants and bars is that business is returning, and according to the National Restaurant Association, food and beverage sales are projected to reach $789 billion in 2021, up by nearly 20% from 2020. But while this uptick is encouraging, many operators are struggling to keep up with demand, as many of their employees have decided not to return. The industry is looking to fill nearly one million jobs.
Despite the many challenges now being faced by operators, the NRA reports that 3/4 of them say that recruiting employees is their top concern. And while there are reasons to be optimistic (July was the seventh straight month in a row of job gains), many owners and managers are rethinking how to accommodate the needs of their employees in more profound ways, and to fundamentally shift their approaches to hiring and retention that can have lasting results.
Joe Printz, left, owner of two concepts in Sparkill, N.Y., has seen his business ebb and flow greatly over the past two years. Thankfully, he is diversified, owning both a restaurant and a retail wine and spirits shop, with the sales at his retail shop having been a “rocket launch over the past year,” he said. But with all the ups and downs, staffing has been the constant challenge.
“It’s been a nightmare trying to find and keep staff,” Printz said, “Especially starting over the winter and into the spring of 2021. I think many people reevaluated what they were doing in their life, as they had lots of time for reflection and redirection, and, for us, it just became impossible to find anyone. We are just now starting to see a few candidates return to the fold.”
Printz, like many long-time operators, has recognized that times are changing, and so must his approaches to his staff. And while he has always considered himself a boss that prioritizes his employees’ needs above his own, he’s now doubling down on that approach.
“The staff is way more important than the owner,” Printz said. “A good staff directly reflects the heart and soul of the operation. I’ve worked for many people in my career whom I have wanted to emulate, and many whom I have not. I decided a long while ago to be the boss everyone wanted to work for. Family time, vacations and time-off are high priority. I also give out spot bonuses when the store or a particular person crushes it, and gratitude and appreciation are a central focus.”
These approaches that Printz and others are offering do not go unnoticed by potential employees who are trepidatiously re-entering the industry, many of whom now have multiple job offers to choose from. They’re assessing not only which type of operation to work for, but also what type of culture they want to be a part of, and what values the business upholds.
Alexandra Stang, left, has worked in management and beverage-focused positions at some of Seattle’s top restaurants for more than 10 years. And after helping usher the Hitchcock Restaurant Group through some of the worst days of the pandemic, she left the industry altogether to welcome her first child into the world. A period of intense reflection followed where she began to explore non-restaurant careers, but after some soul-searching, she decided to return to the restaurant floor. But it wasn’t just any job that brought her back; it was one that she was able to help craft and design around her needs.
“As a new mom, I thought it would be impossible to find a management position that didn’t require a rigidly scheduled 60-plus hours a week of long days and late nights,” Stang said. “It’s also relatively rare in Seattle to find an employer that offers a comprehensive family health insurance policy, and a management position with a true focus on wine. Cafe Juanita changed my mind.” Stang recently accepted the position of wine director and general manager after a number of conversations with chef and owner Holly Smith, who opened the restaurant in 2000, and won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northwest in 2008.
“I was surprised to find a position that could meet my needs and genuinely excite me as an opportunity for growth,” Stang said. “Many restaurants are looking in the opposite direction: Trimming inventory and giving their beverage managers more and more hats to wear. And working for an employer who is, herself, a mother also is a highly relevant factor that I considered when taking the job. This informs how we relate as humans, and as professionals in business partnership. I feel supported and understood; I know that my boss won’t question my commitment to our program, staff, and guests, just because I prioritize my family. This is so valuable.”
The Metropolitan Grill opened in Seattle in 1983, and its long success can be attributed not only to its great steaks and seafood, but also its approach to taking care of its staff. Many of its employees count their term on the floor there not just in years, but in decades.
“We have always celebrated the family nature we have here,” said Aaron Wood-Snyderman, left, the restaurant’s wine director and an employee of the restaurant for more than 10 years. “In general, ownership of the restaurant puts us first. The belief, from day one with this restaurant, is that their employees are their most important asset, and this didn’t change with the pandemic.”
The Met has been known to stay on the progressive side of changing trends around employee recruitment and retention and offers a number of perks and benefits that ensure they’re not only leading the industry, but also creating a long-term benefit structure for its best and brightest staff members.
“Compensation structure is excellent here, for both front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house employees,” Wood-Snyderman said. “When we realized the minimum wage structure in Washington State was going to change, ownership and management spent almost two years coming up with a commission structure to ensure that employees would be making a comfortable wage, and working around the idea that work/life balance must be of primary importance here.”
The Met has seen good results recently, too, with their implementation of a referral and retention program created to help solve labor challenges. They are offering a $500 payment for any employee who refers a new hire ($250 upon hiring, and $250 after that new hire completes their sixth week on the job). Additionally, all employees who stayed with the company through the pandemic have been given a $500 retention bonus.
Through creativity, understanding of employee needs, and a little generosity, restaurant operators can create new frameworks that lead to both loyalty and gratitude from staff — two sentiments that are often hard to come by, but once earned, lead to long-term security for all.
David Flaherty has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.