Restaurant Hiring Woes:

Practical Solutions

Attracting restaurant workers for minimum wages is becoming more difficult. Restaurants face higher costs due to health insurance costs and industry pressure to pay higher wages and salaries. Improving economic conditions mean more jobs, and many restaurant workers leave their jobs for higher paying careers. Restaurants have trouble finding enough qualified help to staff their businesses and are increasingly forced to raise salaries and pay to train new hires, which costs up to one-fifth of most workers’ annual salaries.

The only practical solution to these increased costs is to hire better people and replace human resources with technology. We covered that issue in a recent article, so we’d like to examine the other approach: finding restaurant workers, recruiting them and keeping them.

Use a Marketing Approach for Hiring

Don’t hire people only when someone leaves. Savvy restaurateurs recruit constantly, keep files on prospects and maintain hiring channels for taking regular applications and referrals. Restaurants that only hire when job openings become available usually rush the hiring process and choose unsuitable candidates just to fill staff vacancies. That’s not the way you market your business and shouldn’t be the way that you staff it.

Finding Qualified Staff

You can find qualified staff at job fairs, advertise on Internet forums like Craigslist and find older people working as volunteers at churches, food banks and social groups. You can find young restaurant workers by approaching school vocational programs, hiring culinary students from local colleges or finding potential entry-level workers at 4-H clubs and scouting meetings, local gyms, health clubs, church youth groups and athletic teams playing at local parks.

You can also find loyal and appreciative workers in unexpected places, such as organizations for the physically and mentally handicapped, local chapters of AARP and probation and parole offices. Some states supply financial incentives, bonds, training expenses and other kinds of support for the disabled, parolees and probationers, but you could risk a negligence lawsuit if you place these workers where they could cause injuries to workers or customers.

Another option for finding restaurant workers is local welfare recipients. The 1996 Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) Program provides a tax credit of $2,100 for hiring a welfare recipient and $1,050 for hiring qualified kids during the summer.

Use Statistics and Demographics to Target Your Hiring Efforts

Statistics and demographics can play important roles when hiring restaurant staff. Key statistics include the following observations:

  • More than 80 percent of hourly workers live within five miles of their jobs.
  • Almost three-quarters of these workers want to work 30 hours of less.
  • More than 28 percent of hourly workers are 45 and older and often make loyal employees.
  • Most hourly workers looking for jobs apply to three or more employers.

The above observations should tell restaurant managers to recruit low-level staff from the immediate neighborhood, consider older people for jobs and hire qualified applicants quickly before another employer hires them. Demographics can tell upscale restaurant managers where to find willing low-level workers in the area and fast food and neighborhood restaurant owners in distressed neighborhoods which geographic areas to target to find more qualified people than might be available in the immediate area.

Recruiting Workers with Marketing-Style Efficiency

Use persuasive language when crafting job descriptions. Your recruiting language should be just as well-considered and powerful as your menu descriptions. After all, you’re selling the applicants on the job and restaurant. It’s also important to recruit qualified workers by using all the resources that are available.

Current and former employees understand the job’s requirements better than anyone and often know people who could do the job and would appreciate the opportunity. If a current or former employee were effective workers, it’s likely that their referrals would be good choices. Loyal customers, food vendors, local farms and nearby businesses are often good sources for recommending workers to recruit. Many of your neighboring retailers might have kids that want summer or part-time restaurant jobs. You can also post an in-house, outdoor or digital sign that mentions you’re always hiring qualified people.

Recruiting 101

Constant recruiting supplies a stream of candidates to whom you can turn when someone leaves or is fired. Restaurants can conduct an ongoing hiring process that finds the best candidates for each type of restaurant job. Dishwasher jobs are especially critical in restaurants because nobody enjoys the work. Finding someone willing to scrub mountains of pots and pans, clean toilets, load supplies work in a physically demanding dishwashing job can prove difficult. When you find an ideal candidate for any of your restaurant jobs, you should hire him or her. It never hurts to have someone available to fill in for sick people, substitute for vacationing staff or step into a job when someone leaves. In the meantime, you can cross-train the promising new hire in multiple restaurant jobs.

Make It Easy for Qualified People to Apply

Taking applications online is a great way to screen candidates and allows them to apply on their own schedule. Some restaurants limit people’s options by taking applications only in person and usually between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. This policy prevents the best people — who are usually already working — from applying.

Keeping People for Long-Term Employment

Retaining employees often depends on the restaurant’s atmosphere and work conditions more than salaries. That’s why many fast casual restaurants seem to retain millennial workers, even though many of them earn relatively low salaries. Keeping workers happy often depends on matching the right person with the right job, offering flexible work shifts and providing higher status and rewards to workers who meet the company’s standards.

Many of these ideas come from gamification. Everybody knows somebody who’s obsessed with gaming, and many top companies are applying game theory to retaining employees. Researchers are studying key people motivators to create real-world business value. Techniques that transfer from gaming to restaurants include investing workers emotionally in your restaurant, focusing on getting each job done promptly and fostering pride in the company.

Teach Skills and Manage Attitudes

Restaurant managers can’t change inherent personality traits or deeply held beliefs, but they can teach skills to motivated workers, regardless of their education and background. If you find someone with the right personality, work ethic and attitude, don’t get hung up on the skills. Every owner and manager has his or her own way of doing things, and an untrained worker can be like a blank canvas with no bad habits to change.

Another mistake managers make is forcing people into unsuitable work. For example, restaurant workers with outgoing, people-friendly personalities often distinguish themselves in the front of the house. Desperate managers decide to promote them to essential kitchen jobs that become available. Unfortunately, the hardworking and outgoing FOH worker quickly becomes a frustrated, under-qualified and unhappy baker in the kitchen or basement, when he or she works alone in a stiflingly hot environment. Conversely, the immensely talented but outspoken kitchen manager quickly gets in trouble when dealing with customers and FOH staff.

  • Managers should assess each worker on personality, skills, attitude and ability to learn.
  • Cross-training is fine for any restaurant worker, but permanent jobs should complement a person’s attitude and personality.
  • Skills and ability are factors that must be considered, but skills can be taught to people who can learn.
  • Successful restaurant managers teach the appropriate skills while managing attitudes.

The best people don’t usually just wander in off the street, although good people do walk into restaurants and apply. If you want to find, hire and keep restaurant employees, take a proactive approach to hiring and treat it the same way you’d treat a marketing campaign. Plan your strategy, fine-tune the plan if it’s not working, abandon plans that aren’t producing and analyze why some strategies succeed and others don’t.