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Two industry leaders on how to "win" the new workforce.

Portillo’s chief human resources officer Jill Waite, former Taco Bell global chief people officer Frank Tucker: Strength of unit-level restaurant staff will be a greater determiner of success going forward

Effective workforce retention and recruitment strategies will be multifaceted, they indicated during a Restaurants Rise webinar

In a restaurant world made more challenging by the coronavirus pandemic’s business disruption and associated safety measures, quality human resources will win out.

That was the suggestion of a recently retired Taco Bell HR executive and the human resources leader of the Portillo’s fast-casual chain during the closing Restaurants Rise webinar, “How to Win in the New Restaurant Workforce.”

Lisa Jennings, Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality executive editor, moderated the discussion involving Jill Waite, chief human resources officer for Portillo’s, whose restaurants generate NRN-calculated sales per unit of more than $8 million per year; and Frank Tucker, a 27-year Taco Bell Corp. veteran, who, until his retirement in March, was that chain’s global chief people officer.

“What I see from a restaurant standpoint, is that restaurants that have really great leaders – leaders who are positive, capable, calm, solutions oriented – those restaurants are thriving, they are doing well and they can recruit people to come back and work for them. They are doing significantly better than average,” noted Tucker.

Regarding such restaurant general manager leaders, he added, “While it has always been a truism in the restaurant industry that if you have a great RGM you have a great restaurant, I think that is going to be even more true going forward and we are all going to have to invest to have great restaurant RGMs because they are going to be more important than ever to create that glue and positive culture that really makes everything work.”

But even great leaders need good employees to succeed, Tucker indicated.

Alluding to reduced traffic in many restaurants as the pandemic continues and possibly after it ends due to changing consumer preferences or ongoing health concerns, he added, “While we have may have fewer interactions (with guests) overall, those interactions are going to be more important than ever. We all can’t afford to have a bad interaction between a customer and a team member. The customer experience never exceeds the team member experience, so we really do have to make sure the team member is being taken care of.”

Tucker further observed, “All of us are introducing all of these new procedures and processes to make sure the restaurants are clean and safe. So you’ve got this tandem thing going on where you need better quality interactions in a more complex restaurant environment, which means you need better quality people.”

Portillo’s Waite offered some examples of how her chain is motivating and retaining employees.

“We had started this journey last year of creating our purpose and values [statements],” Waite said of a key piece to the motivation puzzle. “We’ve been working very hard keeping everyone focused on how they make a difference and create life-long [guest] memories with our unrivaled food and experience — that’s our purpose.”

With her brand having ultimately defined its values as treating employees and guests as “family,” aspiring to “greatness,” working with “energy” and having and creating “fun,” Waite said leadership leveraged those concepts and “spent a lot of time helping our team members understand why they may want to work for Portillo’s.

“Helping team members know and feel that we treat them as family has been really important in how we overcome any challenges we may be having,” she added.

Waite made clear that Portillo’s support of staff, or “family,” goes beyond enlightening or encouraging words, as she explained that during the pandemic, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based chain has done more than supply requisite masks and gloves. She said Portillo’s ended the practice of sharing outerwear among employees, including drive-thru vests and rain or snow gear, through the purchase of more of those garments, and likewise invested in more communications headsets, such as those used on the line, and that it created effective social-distancing protocols for its most complex operations.

Referring to the company’s previous policy of offering workers a 50% discount on food purchased during a work day, Waite also noted, “We took it to 100% because we didn’t want our team members to wonder where their next meal was coming from.”

Among pandemic-related workforce developments at Portillo’s with positive implications for the future, Waite pointed to increased cross training, new forms of e-learning and the company’s investment of time in the assessment and training of its leadership teams to ensure that their skills and talents match today’s evolving demands.

Asked by NRN’s Jennings about successful recruitment strategies during the “new normal” and beyond, Tucker offered: “It’s going to be a lot of the culture stuff that Jill referenced, probably more money for people, as well, and I think it is going to have to [include] a great work environment.”

Waite agreed with Tucker that there likely was “no silver bullet” for successful future recruitment and reported that among the insights Portillo’s has recently gleaned from desirable job candidates, were these: today’s candidates want to know that they are signing on with a stable company; they want assurances that “they will be safe and not exposed” to coronavirus out of concern for their own health or a family member’s; and that they believe corporate culture is important, as is “knowing that the leader they are working for and with, is also somebody who cares about them personally and professionally.”

Tucker predicted related to evolving training technology, “I think that given all the investment the nation is going to make in e-learning during the next 12 to 24 months, a platform will emerge that we will all basically migrate to” in the manner in which the masses have taken to Amazon and the use of Google search.

Both HR execs agreed it it is likely wages will rise going forward, be it from federal, state or local mandate or natural forces in the labor market.

This is part of special coverage of the Restaurants Rise digital summit taking place online Aug. 11-13 and Aug. 18-20, powered by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at

Title sponsors for Restaurants Rise include Campbell’s Foodservice, GrubHub, Idaho Potato, ShiftPixy, Wisely and Impossible.

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @AJ_NRN

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