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9 ways restaurants are leading in employee retention

The industry faces a turnover crisis, not a labor crisis

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

The foodservice industry is tougher than a woodpecker’s lips. We have an oversupply of restaurants and an undersupply of talent. We’re over-managed and under-led. We’re better at training than we are at recruiting, so we hurry-hire the wrong people and hope training will fix them — but there’s no right way to develop the wrong person.

We’re better at hiring than we are at retention, so we churn employees that should be kept and keep employees that should be churned. And it seems the only companies assured of profitability these days are the ones selling us all those “Help Wanted” signs. So what’s an industry to do to solve hiring and retention challenges? What are the best foodservice companies doing to minimize employee turnover and maximize team member tenure?

In his recent book “Cattle Kingdom,” author Christopher Knowlton notes with alarm that the annual employee turnover in U.S. slaughterhouses in 2016 had reached 100 percent. The foodservice industry eclipsed that number two years ago. While it’s frightening to conclude that Americans would rather work on a killing floor than a kitchen line, the fact is that the majority of employees who leave a foodservice position tend to stay in the restaurant business. You quit the job, but not the industry. Still, it’s a sobering comparison.    

How did we get ourselves into this turnover crisis? The foodservice industry came of age at a time when there was a huge surplus of young people looking for work — in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s — and other industries simply didn’t want them. It’s hard to believe now, but true. We operated the industry from the Deep End of the Labor Pool, and hiring people had precedence over retaining them. If someone we hired didn’t work out, well, we simply hired someone else.

But all that changed in the last 15 years as competition for young talent intensified across the labor market. As an industry, we became complacent and continued to play for today, not tomorrow. The time for change is now.

In 2017 and 2018, there are foodservice companies that are leading the way in employee retention. Here are nine strategies they use.

1. Situational awareness. Assess all of the factors that affect team member performance with your managers and compare them to how you currently supervise and grow your teams. Do you truly understand and know how to replicate exceptional performance? Are they open to new approaches and strategies for finding, developing and retaining superstars? Have you discussed at length what needs to change with them?

2. Stop managing people. Find better people who prefer to be led. Do this by creating a high-performing team that attracts like-minded performers. You don’t find talented people as much as they find you.  

3. Have a mentoring culture.  Assign mentors for every team member in every position. Yes, dishwashers too. Mentors share insight and foster connection cultures. Each one, teach one.

4. Scout the competition. Professional sports teams routinely assess the talent and performance of their competitors, and the best restaurant companies do likewise. Make a list of the companies you most admire besides your own and learn what they do differently.  

5. Make the First Day experience memorable. Demonstrate energy and enthusiasm when new team members join the roster. Managers should be visibly passionate about the company culture, values and mission. Make the Second Day experience as energizing as the first. Ditto for day three, four, five and 500. Show the same concern, energy and appreciation for your “A” players daily that you normally reserve for new team members you’ve just hired.

6. Don’t accept losing. Once you do, it’s easier to accept losing a second time. And a third time. And so on, and so on. Set standards and stick to them.

7. Team-first mentality. When your individual team members are focused on making everyone better so that the team succeeds, performance soars and retention increases.

8. Depth matters. Bench strength and a talent pipeline are the twin scaffolds of a successful business. Hire and develop ahead of the need. You are never fully staffed because the best people are still out there, working for someone else. Have a backup plan for replacing essential team members through development, mentoring and training.  

9. Re-recruit every shift. Somewhere between recruiting and retention lies the critical process of re-recruiting. This means keeping team members engaged and confident every day. It happens when managers bring focus and energy to every shift, showing appreciation and letting teams know why and how their work matters. Re-recruiting has two stages. One is done daily, after each shift, before the team member clocks out, and the other is assessed quarterly. Focus on extending the tenure of each job, as opposed to simply measuring turnover. If you know the average tenure of every single position in your restaurant (“How long have our cooks, servers, hosts or cashiers stayed with us on average over the last three years?”) you now have measurable insight on where to apply more recognition, development or advancement measures to extend that tenure. For instance, if my cooks tended to leave after an average tenure of 28 months, I’d apply additional training, recognition or pay raises at 12, 18 and 24-month intervals to see if I can extend that tenure to an average of 36 months or more. Tenure reveals more than turnover does. But you can’t manage it if you don’t measure it.

Bottom line? Employee retention is a maze in which most businesses take the wrong turn before even learning to walk. Rethink the process your company uses to recruit, hire and retain team members. (I’d suggest we all start from scratch, but where is scratch?) Now is the time to apply the same importance and resources to employee acquisition and retention as we do for food safety. Don’t settle for good. What makes teams good won’t always make them great.

Jim Sullivan is a popular speaker at GM and leadership conferences worldwide. Check out his training catalog and books at, and follow him on LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter @Sullivision.

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