Retaining Staff
Nick Meyer

James, once your most dependable AM line cook, has been slipping up lately. At first he was showing up late to shifts. Then, last weekend he was a no-call-no-show for your busy Sunday brunch leaving your kitchen backed up on orders and your floor staff overwhelmed with guest complaints. To make matters worse, it's now Thursday and he's missed his last four shifts in a row. He finally shows up on Friday only to pull you aside, muttering "I quit," before walking off in the middle of service.

As a restaurateur, chances are you've dealt with at least one James at some point in your career. Granted, employee turnover is hardly a unique occurrence in the restaurant industry, though there's no denying that lower standards in professional courtesy, extreme seasonality and long hours are all contributing factors to restaurants facing chronic staffing constraints. 2018 data from the National Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that restaurants are hit particularly hard by turnover. Compared to a reasonable 48.9% turnover rate for the private sector as a whole, the national average for the restaurant industry climbed to an alarming 74.9%.

Admittedly, I am guilty of quitting a barista gig when I was 17, leaving the coffeeshop short-staffed at a critical time when many of the seasonal employees were returning to their studies. My manager scheduled me to work three shifts in a row during the first week of school, to which I had to utter those dreaded words. When I turned 23 and it was my turn to manage a busy cocktail bar, I knew I had to reflect on that moment or else I could easily make the same mistake. Yes, he had scheduled me for those shifts out of necessity, though critically he never asked if working after school would be an issue. In due time, I soon learned that forging a dialogue with your staff, listening to their specific needs far beyond simple scheduling concerns, can crucially help minimize turnover.
Restaurant wizard Danny Meyer is widely recognized as a master of hospitality who cares deeply for his employees' wellbeing. He explained to CNBC in a 2019 interview that,"the way you make people feel is the most telling factor in who's going to want to work for you." Clearly then, as important as it is to take care of your guests, it's equally important to take care of your employees, something I couldn't agree more with. From a staffing standpoint, the happier your team, the lower the risk of turnover. Sure, we've already established that turnover will happen regardless of your best efforts. Yet, a well trained team with high morale may be the greatest asset you have.

1. Use seasonality for internal development
A good place to start is understanding how to turn seasonality into an opportunity for promoting internally. If you don't prepare yourself well in advance--if even just a couple of scheduling cycles--then you'll likely be left understaffed and overwhelmed like the manager from my earlier anecdote. But don't just reshuffle your schedule to accommodate for staff leaving. Instead, use this transitional period to promote your most promising employees. Now I'm not saying hand out promotions willy nilly as you'll end up rushing people into positions they're not ready for. Realize though that increasing your remaining staff's responsibilities without compensating them accordingly is a dangerous game to play as you'll make them feel under-appreciated. So, tap the right people for the right roles with enough time to properly train them before they step up to the plate.

2. Be on the lookout for top talent
Still, seasonal transitions should hardly be the only time of the year you promote your staff. Always be on the lookout for top talent and be sure to let your staff know that advancement opportunities exist. It's not as if every one of the staff are looking to move up, though being vocal about internal advancement helps to shine a spotlight on more ambitious employees. You'll notice that in providing structured opportunities for your staff to move up--be that from server to AGM or CDP to sous chef--rather than just promoting when there's a vacancy, they will be more inclined to prove their worth. Even though the revolving door will still be unavoidable, turnover becomes less of an apparent issue when your staff know their drive will not go unnoticed.

3. Provide training opportunities for your staff
On that same note, don't forget that the restaurant industry is grounded in passion. While you may have to focus on business realities such as ensuring rent is paid on time and suppliers are kept happy, try to introduce special training programs for your employees. You'll be happy that you have a more knowledgeable, competent team, while your employees will feel all the more appreciated for learning new crafts. Wine classes, butchery courses, farm visits--the list goes on and will depend on your restaurant. Regardless, the concept holds just as true for nose-to-tail bistros as it does for neighborhood wine bars. Chances are your employees will feel less inclined to leave if they're taking home topical skills rather than just a paycheck.

4. Staff perks go a long way
Training aside, try to foster an environment that provides an appropriate level of staff perks. You shouldn't feel pressured into giving away "freebies" so to say, but again be aware that employees take notice when they feel undervalued. Discounts tend to be one of the most popular perks that restaurants will offer, allowing their employees to sample the food and drink they serve each and every day without having to pay a premium. Why not give them each a House Account, so they can manage themselves how they enjoy the amount of free food you are willing to give, and also encourage them to gift House Account credit to friends and family, to come and check out where they work--increasing your exposure and making your staff look good in front of friends. Budget accordingly for providing these perks; you likely won't regret the small cost to cash flow if it helps you retain your staff.

5. Compensate fairly and openly
Compensation is always going to be a contentious issue, especially when it pertains to the age-old BOH/FOH divide. As a restaurateur, it's important to bridge the gap between the kitchen and the floor, however this is notoriously difficult given the pay differences between the two. The National Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average cook made $12.12 an hour in 2018 compared to $10.46 for servers. That said, tips/service fees--which are oftentimes dubiously reported--skew these statistics, illustrating an alarming inequity between the two. Data analytics firm Payscale has found that these hourly pay rates are likely closer to $11.10 for line cooks and $15.60 for servers once the [reported] fees are factored in. Danny Meyer actually lost as much as 40% of his FOH staff after he replaced tipping at his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants with a standard service fee distributed proportionally to all staff, though did so as an investment in closing that gap. You don't have to be quite that bold, just start by increasing transparency with fairer pay rates to help prevent pay-related turnover.

6. Listen to your out-going staff
Performance reviews no doubt will help you retain staff as you can provide pointed feedback in an environment that welcomes open dialogue. However, exit interviews are equally as important when someone unfortunately moves on from your restaurant. You likely won't be able to convince an employee to stay after they've made up their mind to leave. Still, understanding their mindset, in particular the reasons why they're leaving, can help avoid similar departures in the future. The last thing you want is a mass exodus fueled by issues you are unaware of.


Let's now return to the story of James, your trusty line cook who just quit on you. Perhaps he felt undervalued because he was always passed up for promotions and pay raises even as his responsibilities increased. Maybe it was the fact that he wasn't seeing any cut of the service fees on customer bills and to make matters worse, he found out he could be making 20% more at the restaurant down the road that offers a competitive profit sharing scheme. Then again, it may have just been that he wasn't learning anything new on the job along with the allure of a sad 15% discount fading after two years on the job. You'll never know what you need to change to reduce turnover unless you politely ask for an explanation.
Key takeaways
  1. Use seasonal staff transitions to promote internally
  2. Don't forget to look out for talent on your team so you can tap the right people for the right roles
  3. Train your staff in more than just the essential skills needed to run your restaurant
  4. Offer staff perks your team will actually appreciate, like a House Account
  5. Be careful not to have too much of a discrepancy between how your FOH and BOH are paid
  6. Conduct exit interviews to get a better understanding of the changes you may need to make
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