In this in-depth report, Nation's Restaurant News looks at the changing workforce and how restaurants can keep up.
Attracting and keeping store-level employees may start with offering competitive wages, but paychecks are only one piece of the puzzle.
We’ve detailed some of the most effective ways restaurants are transforming their restaurant-level workplace culture to encourage long-term careers instead of just temporary work, from offering out-of-the-box benefits to providing internal career counseling and experimenting with flexible schedules.
These policies and benefits from restaurant chains — many of which have surprisingly low turnover rates — are divided into four key areas: hiring/training, quality of life, career opportunities, and communication, or giving employees a seat at the table.
Hiring and training smart
Retaining the right employees starts with the hiring process. Taco Bell, for example, worked to attract younger potential employees by throwing 600 hiring parties across the country in April, complete with free food, swag and the opportunity to be hired on the spot.
But not every restaurant chain has the reputation or resources to entice employees with free T-shirts. Tennessee-based burger chain Pal’s Sudden Service — where the turnover rate as of April 1 was 23.3%, less than a third of the nationwide industry rate — is well-known for its rigorous hiring standards and training practices. The 29-location quick-service chain uses a 60-question personality test — developed with local university professors — to determine if potential employees would be a good fit.
“Our goal is to bring in people who are happy and excited to be there,” CEO Thom Crosby said.
“If [the test shows] a mismatch, we know where to slow down and focus on training.”
Once employees are hired, the training never stops. Crosby said they are in “coaching mode” every single work day, with managers given daily training targets.
At chef-driven restaurant concepts, thorough culinary training is just as crucial as customer service training. Dig Inn — the New York City-based, vegetable-forward fast-casual restaurant with a 23% turnover rate — trains employees in a five-day food safety and knife skills course. Each hourly employee knows how to work the cash register and make each recipe. Store managers, chief people officer Stacey Payne said, are given additional opportunities to train in two-day internship-like programs outside the restaurant with famous chefs like Floyd Cardoz (Bombay Bread Bar, New York City) and Missy Robbins (Lilia, Brooklyn).
Quality of life
Keeping shift employee stress levels down is a crucial aspect to hitting retention goals. At Buffalo Wings and Rings — a Cincinnati-based, 56-location sports restaurant — flexible scheduling is ingrained in the culture and hourly employees can choose their own shifts online. Although it’s not guaranteed they will get their first choice, they can also pick up shifts on the fly, all on the same restaurant management database.
On the managers’ side, a few restaurant chains are starting to experiment with a more flexible four-day workweek for supervisors including Shake Shack Inc. and Bloomin’ Brands’ upcoming fast-casual concept Aussie Grill.
“We’re doing a lot of listening,” Shake Shack spokesperson Kristyn Clark told NRN in a March interview.
Introducing a four-day workweek is one way to reduce burnout. Texas Roadhouse, a 515-unit casual-dining chain, is experimenting with another. The company reportedly doesn’t hire dishwashers anymore since that’s one of the toughest jobs to retain.
“You are sweating,” Scott Colosi, president of Louisville, Ky.-based Texas Roadhouse Inc., said during the 21st annual ICR conference in Orlando, Fla., in January. “You are getting soaked. It’s just tough sledding all around.”
Instead, the company hires multi-functional utility employees who might wash dishes one shift and chop salads the next.
Quality of life perks can extend beyond the work shift too. Chicago-based, 120-unit restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You, which had a turnover rate of 56% in 2018, offers financial assistance for life milestones. Restaurant employees will get bonuses if they are getting married, going through a divorce or having a baby.
“When you find yourself in trouble or want to celebrate a milestone, you go to your family,” SVP of human resources Susie Southgate-Fox said.
At Denver-based Snooze an AM Eatery, quality of life extends to flexibility in style. Good hygiene and a Snooze shirt are mandatory, but beyond that, workers can “let their freak flag fly,” said David Birzon, Snooze CEO. Workers at the 35-unit chain are welcome to have tattoos, piercings and wild hair colors that might not be welcome in other restaurants. “We really do welcome everyone,” said Birzon.
One way to improve retention is to help employees launch restaurant careers. At Danny Meyer’s 18-unit, New York City-based Union Square Hospitality Group, new hires are made immediately aware of their career opportunities and can meet with a team member to discuss vertical career moves as early as 90 days after being hired.
“We make new compensation levels available as you progress so that people can envision a career path and know it’s not just a job or side gig,” USHG chief culture officer Erin Moran said.
The group also offers what it calls “growth and research coaches” — team members who serve as mentors to get employees the skills and experience necessary (including free English classes for non-
English-speaking employees) to move up, become a manager and make a career within the group.
But fine dining is not the only category that provides career coaching. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has become known for its restaurateur program, which serves as a company career incubator. The program was overhauled in 2017 to focus on general managers: To develop their skill set and give them an opportunity to earn a six-figure GM salary and Chipotle equity through quarterly grants. In 2018, a Chipotle representative said, the chain was able to promote 13,000 employees.
A seat at the table
At the Washington, D.C.-based, fast-casual pizzeria &pizza, employer/employee communication is the basis for its operations. In 2017, CEO Michael Lastoria gave his phone number out to every single one of the employees at his 35-unit chain and switched to text-only communication. Employees can text him about anything from workplace issues and career advice to pizza recipe ideas.
“Our finger is more so on the pulse of what’s happening [in our stores] than I would argue any other company out there,” Lastoria told NRN in December.
Providing incentive is another way to encourage employee participation.
At the 45-location, Columbia, Md.-based Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grill, gamification is used to get employees involved and engaged. The winner of its annual Bring Your Own Bartender cocktail recipe competition will see their drink on the menu at Greene Turtle and receive an invitation to the General Managers Conference. Finalists split the $1,000 prize.
Some chains are also beginning to provide equity through employee stock ownership plans.
In December, the West Monroe, La.-based, 43-unit pizzeria chain Johnny’s Pizza House became a 100% employee-owned company, with equity shares split by employees who have worked for more than a year
at the company on a pro-rata basis.
“This has created a whole new level of loyalty among our employees,” president and CEO Melvin DeLacerda said. “They realize they’re not just providing customer service for a company’s distant owners … they are the owners.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]
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