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Tips on how to find and keep the best talent for your restaurant in 2021—and beyond

Published June 24, 2021

Don't settle for less, recruit the best employees who want to grow with you

Recruiting qualified team members is extraordinarily challenging and once you have a solid restaurant staff in place, you must exert just as much energy into retaining them as it took to get them onboard. “A great employee is like finding a four-leaf clover, hard to find and lucky to keep,” as the saying goes.

As restaurant operators across the country are dealing with the current labor shortage for restaurants and high turnover in the industry, many are finding themselves in the tough spot of tolerating or spending time coaching low performing employees, just to keep an extra set of hands around. The mere thought of finding another replacement can be daunting, especially if you’re already short-handed.

No matter how understaffed your restaurant may be, negative or toxic behavior by one or more employees affects the entire team—if there’s one thing that can quickly demotivate a good employee, it’s tolerating a bad one. Your laser-focus has to be on maintaining the morale of your best employees and cultivating a positive culture to retain these valued team members.

Your management team works hard every day, doing their best to keep your restaurant running smoothly and a high-performing team is central to your overall success. So, what’s the secret sauce for cooking up a positive culture of motivated, long-term employees? Here are six ideas to keep your employees engaged, so they’ll stay with you long-term and provide the best quality service to your guests.

Start with your hiring decisions—it's more than just a job
Begin with the end in mind by hiring people who align with your brand. If your goal is to have long-term employees, avoid hiring people who are looking for a job. You’ll spend time and money training them, only to have them turnover after a short period of time. Instead, look for career-minded candidates by asking probing questions to uncover if they are self-motivated and eager to learn additional roles within the restaurant. If they indicate a willingness to take on responsibilities outside the scope of the specific role for which they’ve applied, it’s likely they’ll be a great team player. Even better, during the interview process look for clues that they have an earnest interest in learning the hospitality industry and you just might strike gold in hiring an employee who will be with your restaurant for a long time to come.

Related: 6 ways to set your restaurant apart to attract great employees

Treat employees like owners and give them more responsibility
Empowering your restaurant staff to act like owners inspires them to be vested in your success and creates long-term employees. Consider establishing a program, if you don’t already have one, that provides visibility into everything it takes to keep the restaurant operating smoothly, so your staff can learn about business management, budgeting, inventory, purchasing, technology, and more.

Giving employees the opportunity to develop proficiency in these areas prepares them to take on increased responsibilities and allows you to focus on others. As team members grow, many experience a correlating shift in their mindset from just working a job to developing a career, which makes them far more engaged, so they want to continue working for you for a long time.

Keep them safe and show them you care
Given the current environment caused by COVID-19, restaurant workers are concerned about their own safety, as well as that of your guests. Show your team that you care about their well-being by prioritizing safety, supplying personal protection equipment (PPE) and ensuring guests adhere to your restaurant’s safety protocols, like requiring masks when guests aren’t eating. To keep all your employees safe, provide daily temperature checks and, if possible, offer paid sick time, so team members don’t risk coming to work ill and potentially infecting others. When employees feel their employer cares about them, they’re more loyal about returning.

Listen with new ears and be open to their ideas
Keep the lines of communication open. Your team’s feedback is one of your most valuable assets, so encourage their honest, candid feedback about any opportunities for improvement. Allow the team to share responsibility for developing recommendations to resolve any of the issues they raise, so they buy into the outcomes. Your management team’s responsibility is to listen without judgement, ensure individuals feel heard, and most importantly, that they feel safe to share their honest opinions. Divorce yourself from holding onto any existing processes that aren’t working and demonstrate your willingness to accept new ideas as a means to generate more dialogue. Implementing this open communication model contributes to your team’s commitment to be a part of helping your restaurant thrive.

Related: Experiencing a labor shortage in your restaurant? Here's how technology can help

Create a team culture and family-like feeling
As a leader, everything starts at the top. You are responsible for creating an environment in which all team members feel respected. Always project a positive attitude, no matter how stressful the situation. Emphasize how each role is a critical part of a healthy functioning team. Give team members an opportunity to rotate into different roles, so they can experience what’s entailed for each one. This helps them develop a greater appreciation for the unique pressures of what others on the team experience. Encourage an “all hands-on deck” philosophy in which everyone is expected to pitch in wherever they’re needed most. As your restaurant staff works together, teamwork fosters a bonding experience similar to that of a family. Working in an environment where co-workers feel like family is one of the reasons people most often give for staying with an employer long-term.

Make it hard to leave with unique perks
Offering incentives like medical benefits, paid time off, recognition awards, and fun team building exercises all contribute to making your restaurant a great place to work. Sometimes it’s little perks like these that go a long way in your restaurant staff feeling appreciated, making it harder for them to walk away.

One of the ironies about the food service industry is that many restaurant workers experience food insecurity, despite them working around it every day. Offering your restaurant staff free meals and giving them surplus food at the end of the day helps workers who may be struggling in this area and contributes to employee satisfaction. Some restaurants even allow team members to purchase groceries from them at cost. Your employees will appreciate you for providing these options and you’ll earn their loyalty as a result.

Think long term for the ultimate reward: Employees that want to stay put
With the industry continuing to undergo changes, you’ll need to continue refining your best practices for hiring and retaining team members. To attract and keep the best talent, make it a daily practice to show appreciation for your restaurant staff and reward their hard work. The cumulative effect is ultimately your reward in the end—happy and satisfied long-term employees.

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