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  • VOL 08, ISSUE 01 • WINTER 2020
Sacred Staff

Sacred Staff

In 2018, how hard is it to find—and keep—quality employees?

Do you feel like all the good restaurant workers are taken? If so, you’re not alone. Across the United States, restaurants feel the weight of a dearth of skilled workers, whether hosts, servers, bussers or line cooks.

With new restaurants opening daily in markets from coast to coast, employers consistently find it harder to find quality staff.

In 2017, according to the National Restaurant Association, 30 percent of its members reported they had difficulty filling open positions. In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the restaurant and hospitality industry experienced a staggering 72.9 percent turnover rate. So not only are restaurants having difficulty recruiting and hiring good team members, but retaining them proves difficult.

“Staffing issues are so high because unemployment is so low,” says Erik Niel, chef/owner of Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats, both in Chattanooga, Tenn. “Everyone who wants a job, has a job. The economy is growing and many new restaurants are opening. We are all scrambling to find new people.”

Niel says he and his management team scout quality staff and work hard to keep them around. They will often meet salary requirements, or get as close as possible, and he says he’s also an advocate for the government raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour because it’s getting increasingly difficult to remain competitive with other blue collar or tech-related entry-level jobs offering a higher hourly wage.

“I’m taking the long look here (into the future),” Niel admits. “I’m sure other restaurateurs will shoot me for saying this.”

“Your training programs have to be in place and your managers have to be good teachers, coaches and mentors.”
– Erin Phillips, senior director of operations for Boka Restaurant Group

Meeting or beating wage requests is one way to stay competitive. The other is offering incentives. Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group (BRG), which operates 18 restaurants, bars and cafes, including Bellemore, Girl & The Goat, Somerset and Boka, has quarterly field trips to farms, distilleries, breweries and coffee roasters; offers fun educational initiatives; and started providing free weekly guided yoga classes on the roof of its Little Goat restaurant. More than anything, however, is giving team members the ability to grow with the organization.

“If you have been at your location for two years and maybe want to work with a different chef,” says Erin Phillips, senior director of operations for BRG, “we can offer opportunities internally to give our own people new offers before we look externally.”

Phillips says with so many new restaurants opening combined with less available workers and cost of living increases in many cities, you can’t just operate a restaurant, but also be mindful of the work spaces you foster in order to retain workers once you hire them. Part of creating a positive atmosphere is listening to your employees’ needs and mentoring them to help them grow within their jobs.

“The thing that gets me up in the morning is the development of teams and allowing someone to grow,” Phillips says. “Your training programs have to be in place and your managers have to be good teachers, coaches and mentors. You have to constantly touch base with your team: what successes they’ve found, what challenges they’ve had, what their aspirations are. It’s important to show them you have their back and that we’re dedicated to their growth and happiness.”

Many people get into restaurant work because it is transitional and allows them to earn a living while sometimes in school or while they’re in between other jobs. But more people see it is possible to have a career in the restaurant industry and Niel wants to continue to shine a light on that.

“We try to retain culinary professionals to give them a taste of what’s out there for them if they work hard, stay in the business and succeed,” Niel adds. “We show people they can make this their career. We listen to their needs in terms of family life and what they need for time off. We can’t beat up people until they break and go somewhere else.”

So yes, you do need to look for skilled workers, but don’t discount someone with passion, drive and a great personality who can end up being your best employee.

“When you see someone go from dishwasher to line cook to manager and you helped foster that, it’s amazing,” Phillips says. “But you have to have the systems in place to allow that to happen.”

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