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Here are five current lessons to integrate into your leadership GPS.

5 strategies to fix the restaurant labor problem

Jim Sullivan shares leadership lessons

First it was a global pandemic. Close on its heels came a restaurant industry staffing and labor crisis that still rages unabated. And now foodservice is getting hammered by a series of supply chain shortages and logistic crises that has driven up prices and reduced product availability and has both distributors and operators wringing their hands over what to do next.

Conversely it appears that the worst of the pandemic is behind us in the United States and consumers are flocking back to restaurants. But factor in the aforementioned staffing shortages, rising prices, and supply chain challenges and you get either half-staffed dining rooms and limited operating hours or the paradox of record sales in quick-service and iPads being dangled as employee bait for simply coming in to interview.

It’s an understatement to say that we’re facing unprecedented times as an industry. To paraphrase poet W.B. Yeats: When things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Times like this require foodservice operators to be both tougher than a pump handle and able to navigate this triple squall. What’s needed is some fresh leadership direction.

Here are five current lessons to integrate into your leadership GPS.

Re-assess your hiring process from top to bottom. Solving the staffing challenge is not simply a matter of “finding people.” In 2021 and beyond it means taking a holistic and strategic approach to rethink how we hire, who we hire, and how effective our team member training and development programs are.

Make certain there’s a cultural fit first with any new employee; one wrong hire is far costlier than being one person short.

Leverage technology — over 60% of foodservice employees apply for jobs via their smartphones and prefer to set and access their schedules the same way. Make that process easy for them.

Finally, don’t put the cart before the horse. Before you embark on a journey to find new people, you first need a solid strategy in place for retaining the good ones you have.

Service is simple. Simple is hard. We all know that customer service is our invisible product. And I’ve long preached that you don’t improve service in “general,” you improve it in specific. Without specificity all process is subject to interpretation in both practice and application.

Apply the profoundly simple but highly effective Net Promoter Score evaluation to every customer visit: “Based on your experience today, how likely are you to come back to our restaurant again with family, friends or co-workers?”  

While you’re at it, apply the Employee Net Promoter Score question to your team members: “How likely are you to recommend our restaurant as a great place to work to your friends or family?”

I’ve literally written a book on the fundamentals of service, but I’ll boil it down to the following sentence: If you want to improve the customer experience you start by improving the employee experience. See next point.

Reassess your training process from top to bottom. Learning and development are the table stakes for continued growth. Invest in the right tools and resources to enable team member engagement and communication.

Always leave your people better than you found them.  Your training programs — whether analog or digital — should be oriented first to teaching people how to think instead of merely telling them what to do.

Ninety percent of the corporate foodservice training programs I’ve seen do just the opposite. They’re focused on compliance and checklists. So please chisel this in stone: If you train only to a process, all thinking stops. (And thinking seems to be exactly what corporate training is trying to eradicate.) Were your training programs designed for today’s workforce or for a workforce that no longer exists? (Hint: if your training materials are more than four years old, they’re more than four years out of date).

A good place to begin a training program redesign with the question “What are the most critical skills my restaurant managers must have and routinely deploy to add value to our business?” If your 2021 answer would match the same answer you’d give in 2019, ask the question again. You’re not being honest enough. All improvement starts with the truth.  

Now ask yourself what your best managers and team members routinely do that your worst ones fail to do. The responses will point you in the right direction to design your new effective training program.

Prioritize team effectiveness as a competitive strategy. The pandemic (or any critical challenge) will either cause a team to stretch upward and grow or expose and widen cracks in its foundation which can cause the team to collapse.

It’s no coincidence that the foodservice companies who succeeded the most in 2020 were those who had strong cultures built on foundations of dignity, care, respect, equity and trust. If your team isn’t cohesive, respectful, and routinely learning and growing together in periods of stability it’ll likely crumble in periods of sustained crisis or instability.  

Put a premium on team engagement and team progress. One step forward by a hundred people is more effective than a hundred steps forward by one person. All work is teamwork.

People First. Our managers and above-store leaders will continue to be called on to navigate the unpredictability of staffing, supply chain interruptions, pricing, health and safety concerns and a changing consumer. Make certain your team learning and development needs stay current with and ahead of the new challenges they’ll face.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: companies don’t build business, they build people. People build business. Adapting to a changing environment and new challenges isn't something a company does — it's something that people do. Treat them as the appreciating asset they are.

I’ve been in this business long enough to testify to an eternal truth: It will never get easier; we just have to get better at it. So proactively identify and share the lessons in leadership that your managers and hourlies teach you every day. Scale that innovation and those ideas across all your stores. Leverage technology wherever possible to automate process and integrate culture, learning and development. None of us are as smart as all of us.

Companies using Jim Sullivan’s training resources and live seminars include Wendy’s, Domino’s, Panera, Chipotle, Starbucks and Texas Roadhouse. His bestselling books Fundamentals and Multiunit Leadership are available at Amazon and Audible. Join his 400K social media followers at LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter for daily lessons in leadership, or visit his websites at and

TAGS: Workforce
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