An employer's guide to reducing FOH turnover
Nick Meyer
Five years and five service jobs later, I can confirm that the age old stereotype of the restaurant industry could not be more truthful: turnover is alarmingly high.

To be fair, restaurateurs and managers can only do so much to remedy this situation. In many cases, disgruntled front-of-house (FOH) staff leave their job knowing that finding a new position elsewhere is not the most daunting of tasks. The fact of the matter is that high demand for low-paid restaurant labor drives a market in constant flux.

Still, any responsible business owner should recognize that staff turnover can hurt their business big time, even if they can find a replacement soon after a vacancy opens up. Training new staff is costly and time consuming, more often than not slowing down your best servers already well versed in your operating standards. Your regular customers may begin to take notice
as well, wondering why exactly their usual waiter or bartender suddenly disappeared without a trace. Add to that the prospects of your new hire not getting along with the team and you have yourself a recipe for disaster.

Of course there is no "standard" FOH experience. However, I have definitely been able to track some constants from place to place in my half decade of serving. This guide is designed for you, the restaurateur and your management staff, to put yourself in your employees' shoes. Believe me, they appreciate the extra effort that shows you care for their wellbeing.

Your staff are more than just salespeople

You should be well versed in performance reviews and setting sales targets for your staff. KPIs such as these give you measurable means of ensuring your staff are helping your business grow.

But consider how these processes can make your employee feel. If you
see your staff merely as salespeople, then this may be a major source of your turnover. You have worked hard to build your business into something you are proud of, so it is only natural to acknowledge that your success is not possible without a top-class FOH team. Be sure to show your staff they mean more to you than a number.

True, in an industry with such low margins, it can seem you are taking a hard hit if one of your servers missed the monthly sales target by a few hundred bucks. Refrain from acting brashly though. While it's perfectly fine to politely "nudge" your underperforming servers in the right direction, try to keep it as low key as possible to avoid alarming or offending the staff member in question. If underperformance becomes a recurring issue with that employee, then pull them aside and work together to reach a more appropriate target.

Feedback goes both ways

You may be at the top of the pecking order in terms of seniority, though you should actively seek feedback from your employees. As noted, performance reviews--however formally or informally your restaurant may treat them--are an industry standard that allows you to open a dialogue with the staff. Be sure to make this dialogue truly open.

Performance reviews may seem mutually beneficial on the surface, yet without letting your employees speak their minds, they can appear to be one-sided, superficial
gestures. By allowing your FOH staff to voice concerns and recommendations, you empower them without compromising your authority. Such recommendations can even be good indicators of which employees should progress in the hierarchy.

Consider using tools such as anonymous surveys to your advantage as well. Naturally, some employees may hold back on expressing their thoughts in person, especially if they are negative. The anonymity factor encourages blunt honesty. Your FOH staff will take notice of your intentions and will be particularly pleased if their feedback leads to direct change.

Create incentives

This is a tougher one, again considering the industry's low margins. FOH staff shouldn't expect "perks" such as free espresso or a 50% discount to be standard with the job. But don't be stingy either. Your turnover rate is likely to decrease if you provide more than just a paycheck.
Free coffee before each shift is a huge crowd pleaser. Other popular choices include generous discounts, family meals--another staff favorite that tends to bring the team closer together--and sales competitions that award top-selling servers with free meals. The bottom line is, your staff will never say no to anything that makes their job more enjoyable.

There is of course a catch. Be sure not to let your employees get too comfortable with their perks. If you start to notice servers drinking more than one coffee, packing their family meal up to take home or abusing their discount privileges, that's when it's time to step in. Until then, make your restaurant feel as comfortable as possible for your team.

Set up an advancement scheme

Tying into my earlier point about two-way performance reviews, consider developing a set roadmap for employee promotions. True, some FOH applicants are looking for quick, easy cash rather than trying to work their way up the foodchain. True as well that under certain circumstances, you may need to hire someone on the fly and won't
be as concerned with that particular applicant trying to become the GM.

Nonetheless, key to reversing your turnover will be targeting applicants who truly want to work at your restaurant. An excellent way to do so is to present a clear path for personal growth. A prospective applicant you want to hire is one that realises their own potential; sees that their wages won't stagnate, they won't feel "stuck" in any way and that they can actually reach upper management through hard-work.

Prove to your employees that they are fully purposeful. So long as your employees have realistic prospects, they'll probably want to stick around.

Educate your employees

Provide your FOH staff will opportunities to learn skills that can changed their lives. Your regular training protocol will prepare your employees for everyday service, there's no doubt about that. Keeping them constantly engaged is another issue entirely. Be sure to find creative, yet topical courses that will help your employees create
a better executed dining experience, while setting them up with life skills.

It's entirely up to you if these classes are mandatory. Some of them such as menu tastings, wine pairings and cocktail masterclasses will probably be included with your training anyway. I'd advise not forcing your staff to attend classes unless absolutely necessary for service training. For this reason, your optional classes should be events that your employees would want to attend anyway without being directed by upper management.

Think cocktail master classes for your servers, charcuterie tastings for your bartenders and inviting the whole FOH staff to sample when a new distributor comes along and offers a better product. The idea is to build a community around your brand that your FOH will be enthusiastic about. I can guarantee you the quality of your service will improve, your turnover will drop and your employees will be happier.
    So be sure to keep in mind:
    1. Treat your staff as more than a sales team;
    2. Listen to your employees if they have advice for you;
    3. Incentivize your staff to outperform minimum expectations;
    4. Ensure employees are able to progress in the hierarchy;
    5. Create a dynamic, educational work environment.
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