For service staff, nailing the interview is just as important for the person doing the hiring as it is for applicants. It may take more time to find the ideal candidate but the payoff is worth it, according to many operators, leading to reduced turnover and greater guest satisfaction.
The worst time to look for restaurant workers is when you are short of help, says Bill Reynolds, owner of New Buffalo Bill’s, a barbecue restaurant in New Buffalo, Mich. “You’re pressured to find someone and that often means you end up hiring someone who is not the best, someone who probably is unemployed and not ideal for the position.”
Instead of acting in a panicked state when there’s a gaping hole on the staff roster, Reynolds prefers to keep a regular notice on the website, noting that the restaurant is always looking for good people. “It keeps a pipeline going,” he says. “You get good resumes from people who are employed but interested. It’s not two desperate people sitting in the same room.”
Reynolds’ strategy has been cultivated over many years in the restaurant industry and in culinary education as provost of the Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute in Chicago. In fact, his method might be the best way to start the hiring process, a preemptive action that improves chances of drawing from the best pool of candidates. Armed with choices and freed from having to make a hasty decision, interviews can more specifically focus on how well applicants will jive with the business.
Hiring service staff is more of an art than a science, calling on intuitive skills, creative questioning and gut feelings as much as it does studying resumes, asking about skills and calling references. Ajay Walia recalls the go-go years when the economy was at full throttle and unemployment rates dipped almost as low as they could. “A decade ago, hiring was close to impossible. You looked at bodies to fill the room,” says the owner of two California restaurants, Rasa in Burlingame and Saffron Indian Bistro in San Carlos “Then, you often had to hire pretty much anyone who applied. Now there is the opportunity to hire based on cultural fit. It is more precise,” he says.
Resumes sent in advance are carefully plotted out to look as good as gold, the successes carefully phrased and the job hopping presented as a whirl of great opportunities that came their way. “Everyone looks good on paper,” Walia notes. “It’s only during face-to-face discussion that you truly can figure it out. I’m looking for people who want to excel at what they do and who don’t necessarily think of the industry as a transitional stop. Their attitude has to be of service; that’s a mindset.”
Reynolds agrees that an innate predisposition to service is paramount. “Personality and attitude are what I look for. You can teach people how to use a POS system but the last thing I want is to hire someone who has to be told what to say, how to interact with guests,” he explains.
To that end, Reynolds looks for positive energy, a good attitude and a strong service mentality. “During interviews I give them situations to discuss, a list of ‘what would you do ifs.’ You can learn a lot about how they will interact with guests, whether they can be natural and concerned about the people they are serving.”
New Buffalo Bill’s is a limited-service operation and Reynolds is acutely aware that the frontline staff strongly influences the total experience. “Their job is not to serve mac and cheese. It is to make all of our guests feel comfortable and welcome. Whether they can do that is something you have to learn when you hire them.”