Skip navigation
Best practices in restaurant employee retention

Best practices in restaurant employee retention

Jim Sullivan is a keynote speaker at foodservice leadership conferences worldwide. His newest book Fundamentals is available at Amazon or Check out his leadership video series at This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News. chief executive Jim Sullivan

“Want to reduce turnover 10% immediately? Hire really, really, bad employees. They never leave.” –Spencer Johnson, author, Who Moved My Cheese?

The restaurant business’ perennial black eye (and Achilles heel) is employee churn.

In 2014, the foodservice industry’s annual turnover rate across segments was 94 percent for hourly employees and 34 percent for managers, according to Dallas-based People Report. Those numbers speak volumes about how we hire, pay and treat our rank-and-file crew and supervisors.

Given those statistics, consider the stress that unit managers face trying to direct the complex process and procedure of a high-volume foodservice operation in the face of nearly 100 percent turnover. It’s like laying track while the train is running. Maybe the only real surprise is that management turnover is only 34 percent. I guess the old saying is true: if you don’t spend all your time training, you’ll spend all your time training.   

So why do foodservice employees take off quicker than Justin Bieber at an O’Doul’s kegger? The short answer is a lack of dignity, respect, meaning, clear career paths and a workplace devoid of a culture of kindness. Or worse, we substitute generational bias for better leadership. Misguided motivational speakers emerge and point a crooked finger of blame at The Millennials’ supposed “sense of entitlement” as a reason for employee churn. They tell us this “lazy generation” is averse to hard work, wants special treatment, and are not as committed as “we” are.

Then how do you explain companies like Chipotle, Starbucks, Shake Shack and Apple being so successful with a majority of Millennials in their ranks? Every time I hear a speaker spout that mush it sounds like a manure salesman with a mouthful of samples.

The extraordinary turnover numbers are not due to a large cadre of entitled employees but rather a tsunami of disengaged and uninspired ones. People leave bosses, not companies. We don’t have “turnover” problem; we have a retention problem. Since it’s cheaper to retain than it is to recruit, here are some smart strategies to keep great people on your team.

Begin with the end in mind. Assess your current talent gaps, leadership bench and future expansion plans. Determine what the near-term (six months) and long-term (three years) hiring needs are. Now determine what processes, resources, leadership and talent pipeline you have in place to meet those needs. Play the long game and focus first on the desired outcome: being the employer of choice for talented people who will go and grow with you.

Begin with these questions: “What kind of people do we want on our team, what kind of culture will attract them and enable their best performance, how will we maximize our bench strength, and how long can we get talented people to stay with us?”

Talent retention is a complex, multi-stage process that does not begin or end on Day One of the new hire. It must be built in to your values, culture, career-pathing and processes, and every manager must know their penultimate goal is to build their own replacement.  

Making it count

(Continued from page 1)

Measure tenure not turnover. Turnover numbers, the annual percentage of people who leave you, are important, but just as important is tenure, the average period of time employees stay with you in a specific position.

Compile and compare tenure numbers for every position in your restaurant. If you know that a typical grill cook stays an average of, say, 27 months in the job, you can then design process milestones to help extend the tenure. For instance, I may want to institute mandatory pay and performance reviews for my grill cooks at six-month intervals, give them free branded apparel at 20 months, an automatic pay raise at 23 months, and a small bonus check at 26 months. For every six months you can extend tenure of the right people, you’re saving tens of thousands of dollars in recruiting, hiring, training and management time.

How do you minimize turnover at your restaurant? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Make the first 100 days count. A detailed 100-day development plan should be laid out for every single position, from dishwasher to district manager. Defining these onboarding milestones helps sustain enthusiasm, re-recruit your team members and maximize retention.  Once you have a 100-day plan in place, create a 10-year development plan with periodic training, recognition and rewards aligned to each person’s potential career path.

Conduct “stay” interviews. Everyone knows about exit interviews, but when’s the last time you polled your veteran superstar team members to gain insight into why they stick with you? Find out what makes their days difficult, what they value most in your brand, what they’d improve or change, and what their biggest concerns are. Weave the feedback into your training curriculum. One of the best ways to learn why people choose to leave is by polling those who choose to stay.

Identify critical job stressors. Pinpoint which aspects of each position in your restaurant create the most stress and anxiety for team members and then 1) identify best demonstrated practices for successfully alleviating those stressors and 2) show trainers and supervisors how to alert and then help employees through those pressure points of the job. Knowing how to minimize stress fractures extends tenure.

Improve communication. Junior managers earn a supervisory role by being skilled at a particular hourly job, but it’s likely that their communication skills are not as polished as their position skills. Knowing how to motivate, direct and engage every team member before, during and after each shift is critical to minimize turnover and maximize retention. Make it a priority to have the best communicators in every supervisory role.  

Here’s the thing: employees want to be happy at work, be treated with dignity and respect, and be paid fairly. They also want to know that what they do matters. It’s that simple — and that hard. Foodservice companies with low turnover keep their teams happy, engaged and inspired. They practice reciprocal caring, the foundation of servant leadership. They’ve learned that ROR (return on retention) may be as significant an analytic as ROI.

Jim Sullivan is a keynote speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide. The third edition of his bestselling book Fundamentals is now available at bookstores or Check out his training catalog at and follow him on YouTube or Twitter @Sullivision.

TAGS: News
Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.