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A Hire Calling

A Hire Calling

In this competitive job market, how can you find the best staff for your restaurant?

In late 2016, Kim Carstens started noticing some unsettling things happening in the kitchen of her Des Moines, Iowa, restaurant, Marlene's at Sevastopol Station. Food costs weren't in line with sales. Food came out of the kitchen with inconsistencies. Staff didn't prepare enough food for weekend dinner service. Then, on New Year's Eve that year, the kitchen completely broke down, sending out dishes toward the end of the night that had no business being served to diners. Ultimately, the restaurant received a lot of negative commentary on social media.

"That was the incident that set the ball in motion to bring in someone to run the kitchen," Carstens said. "I needed a strong manager who could take control and get the back of house back on track."

That started a process where Carstens ended up hiring an entirely new kitchen staff. Although it initially caused her much stress, this business decision has allowed the restaurant to survive. She hired Chicago chef Jacob Demars, who worked in the kitchens at Michelin-starred restaurants Spiaggia and Elizabeth, and is helping turn things around.

While this may be an extreme case, finding the right people to staff your restaurant, both back and front of house, has gotten increasingly challenging. Nearly 10 years ago, when the economy fell off, getting quality restaurants workers seemed as easy as placing an ad in a local newspaper or on Craigslist. Now, with a stronger economy and more restaurants opening at a seemingly breakneck pace around the country, the hiring process has changed.

"I'll list an ad on Workable, scour contacts on LinkedIn, use my own contacts and social media and put it all out there," said Martha Madison, a recruiter with One Haus, a boutique recruiting firm with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Austin and elsewhere. "Within a day or two, I'll get responses from a lot of different areas and start sifting through. We strive for quality and not quantity."

Madison has plenty of experience hiring restaurant staff. She and her husband, A.J. Gilbert, owned a number of restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles including the popular, now shuttered, Luna Park. She knows what to look for and what questions to ask potential restaurant workers — whether a host, bartender, general manager or executive chef.

"You ask questions to find out what someone thinks is hard," Madison said. "I'll ask about the hardest night they've ever worked. That shows me what is challenging for them. It could be a personality conflict with a guest or a hard day where they worked a double, which shows high volume isn't for them. I ask how they think their coworkers or staff would describe them because that gives me insight into their self-awareness. I ask about weaknesses; if they say there's nothing wrong, I can tell they're a mess."

That's where checking references plays an important role. Any worker worth their weight in salt will happily list a few references on their resume or application. If not, you have reason for concern.

"If someone doesn't have references, that's a huge red flag," said Franco Francese, owner of Mattone Restaurant and Bar in LaGrange Park, Ill. "If they can't produce references for anyone who is willing to talk on their behalf, we'll skip that person. And we avoid resumes that have many jobs over a short period of time."

Francese said his hiring process has changed over the last five or so years. He still uses Craigslist, but also places ads on Zip Recruiter, which doesn't always yield qualified people. To attract local workers, he uses an old-school tactic: placing a sign in the restaurant's front window. Something new, however, is offering financial incentives to current staff to help find capable new workers.

"If they refer someone we hire and they stay for six months of longer, we'll offer our staff a $250 gift card," Francese said. "We've found two people through referrals and they've worked out very well. And the coworker is motivated to help talk through difficult situations and it incentivizes them to keep people on staff. It's been good for us."

While front-of-house staff should have enthusiasm, good personalities, strong service skills and quickly think on their feet, back-of-house staff need to understand ordering and how to work with vendors, how to control waste, properly prep for service and have precision when it comes to plating. That's what you look for in team members. What about what they want?

"Our best franchisees are those who focus on what the company can offer the employee," said Lance Vaught, vice president of operations for Cincinnati-based Penn Station East Coast Subs, a fast-casual operation with 310 stores across 15 states. "That's been a game changer for us. Instead of looking to fill spots, we're looking for real talent. We want to bring people up through the ranks."

Because if you can hire the right people from the start, you can build a satisfied, qualified team that will be with you for the long run.

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