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A ShiftPixy-sponsored Idea Exchange in late March, facilitated by Nation’s Restaurant News, provided a glimpse into how operators early on were dealing with labor challenges.

Restaurant operators look at tools and tactics on labor

With labor squeeze, ShiftPixy idea Exchange plumbs new ideas for staffing

As restaurant operators emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and ramp up operations in the Vaccine Era, they are encountering the challenges of finding staff members.

A ShiftPixy-sponsored Idea Exchange in late March, facilitated by Nation’s Restaurant News, provided a glimpse into how operators early on were dealing with labor challenges.

The roundtable brought together:

•Joe Alvarez, vice president of sales, catering and community relations, Boston Market Corp.

•Eric Goldhersz, vice president of operations for Burger King, North America and South America.

•Carl Howard, CEO and president, Fazoli's

•Thomas Kelly, owner, Mexicue

•Roy McKinnon, director of channel alliances, ShiftPixy

•Randy Miller, president, Boston Market Corp.

•Kevin Nemeth, head of digital marketing and customer experience, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

•Scott SirLouis, chief operating officer, FSC Franchise Co. (Beef ‘o’ Brady’s)

Here’s an edited transcript from that Idea Exchange:

Moderator Ron Ruggless, senior editor for Nation’s Restaurant News:

What are you seeing in the staffing situation now as restaurants are starting to see increased capacity and traffic?

Joe Alvarez, Boston Market:

From a catering perspective obviously, which is what I run, it’s drivers; It’s very, very difficult to get drivers. Obviously with the explosion of third-party [delivery platforms] out there and, you know, the DoorDashs, the Uber Eats, gobbling up all those drivers, it’s very difficult for us to even find drivers.

Eric Goldhersz, Burger King:

We're not seeing applicants walk in the door anymore, right? We used to have an applicant come in, they'd ask for a resume, and we'd be able to almost interview them on the spot. And today, whether it's due to COVID or technology, we're not seeing that as much. And so we're really investing in sophisticated technology to help us reach and identify qualified applicants to make sure that we're finding the right people to staff our restaurants.

Carl Howard, Fazoli’s:

Yeah, so the trends are not favorable as it relates to trying to find staffing for many of our locations. Besides the competition of large-box retailers, or Amazon and some of the other groups that are coming in that are paying high wages, you know, what the federal government's done to us with unemployment.

Randy Miller, Boston Market.jpg

Thomas Kelly, Mexicue:

We really haven't had a hard time bringing people back so far. As we get back to, you know, operating at hopefully, you know, 100% capacity and no further restrictions and to have full staff in place, maybe we'll run into some challenges; but we have not had a challenge there yet.  I think part of that may be due to just our smaller size and kind of tight culture. … We pay a lot of attention in addition to culture, just to compensation; and so we are generally compensating people pretty well.

Roy McKinnon, ShiftPixy:

I could echo very much of what I'm hearing on the call. We're seeing the challenge of the stimulus, unemployment, the desire to remain on the couch for about two-thirds of that quick-serve workforce sitting out there. Third-party delivery obviously has become that great challenge, and I think, as we come through post-COVID, the gig workforce has changed how that restaurant environment looks. Thirty years ago when I walked into a restaurant and wanted to be a server or a bartender, I was excited for that opportunity; that doesn't seem to exist in the workforce as much as it did. There are some exceptions to the rule, but very much echo what I'm hearing on the call here; and encourage that as a collective group we can kind of set the compass back to north and change some of the environment and some of the challenges we're up against.

Randy Miller, Boston Market:

I'm going to echo a little bit also what Eric and Carl said. We're not getting many people coming in the door to try to apply in person. All of it is coming through our applicant tracking system online. And what we've seen is that we're getting a ton of applicant flow; however, if you're not responding to applicants within a very, very, very short window, they're gone. I've toured around the country over the last nine months and hear these horror stories of area directors who are trying to recruit for general managers or hourly shift supervisors, and they've got 50 interviews lined up and two people show. And so that's really been a challenge is in this technologically driven environment that we're all facing and it's going to continue, you've got to be agile and be very responsive to the applicants or they're going to be gone.

Kevin Nemeth, Popeyes:

I don't know that we often hear about this through our customer-facing channels. We often don't hear about staffing issues. So, you know, to my knowledge at least the channels that we observed, that doesn't come into my group; probably more through, you know, Eric's group on the BK side and our operations team on the Popeye side.

Scott SirLouis, FSC:

I'll echo what Carl and Randy were saying, this is the tightest I've ever seen. It's to the point where I have locations that are limiting their hours of operations or they're turning off online ordering during peak meal periods, taking tables out of their restaurants in an effort to try to slow things down. The problem is primarily in the kitchens. I don't have any problems with my servers; I mean, we're casual dining in both of our brands [Beef O’ Brady’s and The Brass Tap] and the servers are making a ton of money because sales are picking up as the economy opens back up. But we're really, really struggling with our kitchen crews.

Roy McKinnon, ShiftPixy.jpg

Ruggless, NRN:

And how did sales shift to off-premises percentagewise during the pandemic?

SirLouis, FSC:

So pre-pandemic we were about 10% off premises; and like a lot of casual-dining chains, it wasn't necessarily something that we had focused a lot on, although we were beginning to emphasize it, particularly third-party delivery. The pandemic obviously kicked that into over-drive and we quickly had to shift the whole business to off premises. … it steadied out at about 23%. And we've actually got a pretty big project underway to try to keep as much of that business as we can while continuing to recover our dine-in business.

Ruggless, NRN:

Are you seeing any tools out there to help you recruit staff, fill the holes that you're seeing?

SirLouis, FSC:

There's a lot of tools available to us, but I tell you the first thing that we've started doing, is really to communicate better with our existing team members and find out what motivates them? Why are they staying? Why would they be leaving? So we're doing surveys of all of our team members, both front of house and back house, and then we're also doing focus groups next week to try and gather ideas on what we can be doing beyond the usual of do better ads, do more employee recognition.

Miller, Boston Market:

We did do some employee culture analysis surveying and talking to our team members in the restaurants. The thing that came out through that is that there are three basic things that drive not only hiring, but also retention; and it was, you know, having a clear development path professionally, more money and better benefits. Those are the things I think, are the traditional, well-known … We've actually added more in-house recruiting in order to try to address what I mentioned earlier which is being really reactive to the online applicant flow that we are getting; so that's probably where we're at right now.

Howard, Fazoli’s:

And what's that person doing? Are they actually doing the interviewing?

Miller, Boston Market:

They are. We have them very focused in the markets where we have the most need, Carl; and then we've actually authorized them to hire. So if we ran into a situation where GMs were not getting to it because they were -- you know, we reduced staff during the pandemic in those, you know, spring and summer months last year and we began to layer staff back in; but it got to a point where the managers had so much they were juggling that they weren't able to get it done, and not through their fault, just through what we were asking them to do. … So we actually unleashed our recruiters, for certain positions, Ideally, you'd be able to meet the person in person and see if they smile and, you know, have a great personality for interaction; but utility, servers, cashiers, things like that, we were letting the recruiters hire right on the spot if need be.

Ruggless, NRN:

How do you empower them with that? Can they contract for that employee right there and then?

Miller, Boston Market:

Well, they have the ability to extend the offer; and then we have our online system that we used for direct onboarding. They have a range -- they know what the range and what the salary target is -- our hourly-rate target for that position; and so that's where it starts.  And then, like I said, if an hourly shift supervisor position -- that's an important position and one that we have to have, so they spend time looking in those areas and they work closely with the regional vice presidents and their area directors. But they're able to really move a lot forward internally that we didn't allow previously. And, you know, once things return to a more normal environment, we'll probably rein that back in.

Kelly, Mexicue:

At this point, with five restaurants, really small teams, you know, I'm in all the restaurants all the time, my director of operations who's here today is there all the time. It just makes it -- it's just not a pain point for us right now.

Scott SirLouis, FSC.jpg

Howard, Fazoli’s:

We use them — Snagajob and Workstream — and some of the other tools that are out there. But a couple of things that we're in the process of doing -- and I liked Randy's idea, I'm going to talk to our team about that, but Randy made a great point is that if you're not doing on-the-spot hiring or communication, you lose that individual because so many people are hiring that if you don't show the urgency, they'll just find somewhere else to get a job. I'm trying to get something set up to where as soon as an applicant signs up online, it sends a notice to the general manager on their cellphone with an interview time that goes through Zoom. I also think part of the opportunity is actually getting the worker to come in to do the interview. If I can knock that barrier down and have it all done over the phone, you know, via Zoom-type or Google Hangouts-type of environment I think we can really expedite it. … The other thing that we're ready to launch is, you know, we have now a million-plus mobile app users. … We're actually now communicating to them in a very soft message saying, "If you have any interest, we have immediate restaurant opening positions in your area," and that's doing OK. But, you know, we're seeing some of our current guests that get that message and inquire about an opportunity; and it really helps out the franchisees, as well, because we can broadcast that message out in a single click.

Goldhersz, Burger King:

We're seeing technology really has and will continue to play a pivotal role in staffing. I think on top of the ATS [applicant tracking system] platforms that everyone's talking about, and knowing our business is mostly a franchise business, I think kind of three key things we're focused on. The first is that we're really focused on providing a better training process for our team members. I think today our team members come in and sometimes it's hard for them to connect the dots on how they can build a career at Burger King; and so really putting together a development path for restaurant team members so they can see themselves in an opportunity to grow. I think, second, we're looking at ways to automate that can help both the service process be more seamless, which at the end of the day affects both the team members and our guests. And then finally, as we look at guest-facing technology, the lens that we're using to make an impact to our guest experience, we're looking at if a team member can better tailor the experience for the guest, in turn the reward of their job, and the impact of that are more tangible to everyone.

Alvarez, Boston Market:

Well, we've had to think out of the box in the catering world. One of the things that I've learned at Corner Bakery since kind of taking on that responsibility is that they do a great job with — and they've done a great job with engaging their current staff and certifying them to be able to drive. Because from a driver perspective and catering everyone wants their lunch between 11:30 and 12:30 or 1. There's a very limited time that you have the need for those drivers. What we've done is we've cross-trained some people that might be — at Corner Bakery — that might be morning bakers and things like that, and then they add an hour and a half to their day and go deliver a couple of deliveries; and so it's like added incentive to them. And the good thing is that, you know, post-pandemic, they are actually making a good amount of money because of tips. It's engaging them to want to do it. So that's how we're thinking out of the box. And on the Boston Market side, it's a little bit more challenging, but doing the same kind of thing. The other thing we've done on the Boston Market side is we've had to engage a third party to actually assist us with some of those catering deliveries, because no matter how many drivers you have, you only have a set amount that can go out at a certain time.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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