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25 Restaurant Employee Engagement Activities & Ideas

Heads up restaurateurs. There’s a simple way to simultaneously improve employee performance, reduce staff turnover, and increase sales in your restaurant. The secret? Finding the right employee engagement activities to boost staff engagement.

It’s true – when your staff feels more plugged into their work, they’ll be in a better mental space to deliver the best customer service. (Otherwise they might be offering today’s specials with a side of resentment.) They’ll also stick around longer and as the restaurant and hospitality industry continues to suffer one of the highest turnover rates in the market, that’s a big chance to save time and money.

Lastly, when staff is engaged, your restaurant’s operations move more smoothly and sales grow. If you need more convincing, a recent Gallup study found that companies with a highly engaged workforce outperform their peers by 147% in profits.

Employee Engagement Activities 2.0

Have we argued our case? Good, let’s get to exactly how different types of employee engagement activities can better engage your team. For years, employee engagement just meant having occasional small talk with your employees and sending out anonymous surveys to collect feedback.

Engagement 2.0 involves a range of activities and initiatives that foster bonding, motivation, and joy in your workplace. They elevate relationships and address the whole person, not just the person currently on shift.

While there are endless ways to get folks engaged, we’ve collected 25 ideas and activities that are best suited for those working in a restaurant environment. Here’s how you can activate your employees and wake them up from simply going through the motions:

Back of House

1. New Employee Engagement

Is there anything more isolating then starting a new job and not knowing where to turn for help? Pair each newcomer to your kitchen or back of house with someone who can show them the ropes – or at least where the extra parmesan is stored.

The key to new employee engagement is to establish boundaries by keeping the mentorship to two weeks max. With any luck (and smart hiring), the two team members will enjoy working together and keep the mentorship going much longer.

2. Celebrate Personal Events

While the entirety of your staff will no doubt enjoy having their personal milestones celebrated at work, your back-of-house staff working behind the scenes will really enjoy some time in the spotlight.

To keep them engaged, acknowledge their birthdays, work anniversaries, and the arrival of new babies with a shout out in your employee communication app, a physical card signed by fellow staff, or an on-site toast during a shift meeting. The goal is to show staff that what they do and who they are – as an individual and not just as an employee – matters.

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3. Unique Workplace Traditions

It’s important that team members connect over more than their daily duties, which can be sources of stress and competition. Consider starting a few workplace traditions to bond employees over joyful shared experiences.

As the back of house is out of sight from customers, you could get more creative in the kitchen. For example, when a line cook is hired, perhaps she is encouraged to wear a gag apron her first month. Or have the cook staff create their own nicknames and code words for actions and items in the kitchen. Traditions, however silly, will create a sense of community.

4. Expand Your Hiring Process

The cook staff functions as a tight-knit team, seamlessly working towards plating the same dishes, at the same time. That’s why it makes sense to get kitchen staff involved in the process of hiring new back-of-house employees.

Existing staff can help filter through resumes, pinpoint interview questions to ask, even be present for interviews and give manager’s valuable feedback. They can also engage with the candidate during the interview to find out if they could work together smoothly in the kitchen as things heat up – because they undoubtedly will.


Front of House

5. Happy Hour

Consider organizing a happy hour for your wait staff on a semi-regular basis and if you can, pay for the first round. By encouraging people to hang out and mingle with peers over drinks or food, you give them an opportunity to connect under relaxed, positive conditions.

People with a best friend at work are 7x more likely to engage fully in their work. Deepening those bonds can help alleviate some of the tension on the floor during shifts before it gets out of hand.

6. Recognize Family Life

Employees who are engaged at work know that management sees them as a whole person, one balancing a job with their lives at home. Add joy to life outside work and recognize servers’ families by supplying employee perks like zoo passes, day care partnerships, and care packages when a baby arrives. You might be surprised at how adding perks for the family improves employee morale, satisfaction, and retention. Only one way to find out.

7. Know Their Passions

Make time in your schedule to get to know your servers by finding out their interests. Are they into crossfit? Do they dream of vacationing in the hot springs of Iceland? Are they taking acting classes? Do they meditate? Learning personal details will help you connect with your servers and show them that you actually care about them beyond what they do on the job.

8. Make Rewards Personal

Now that you know what your servers are passionate about, you can customize how you reward them. Give your waitstaff’s biggest Ariana Grande fan tickets to her next show, or your resident sports nut seats to the big play-off football game. Send them a gift card to their favorite store or restaurant.

Rewards always motivate but personalized prizes can better inspire engagement at work, and meet your employee’s need for consideration–whether they know they have one or not!

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9. Encourage Volunteering

Deepen work relationships by bringing front-of-house staff together to help others. Brainstorm with your staff to find a charity to sponsor and then give employees a few hours a month to get paid for volunteering. A recent study found that 87% of millennials want to work for companies that give back to the community.

10. Introduce Competition

One way to strike new interest in their work is to encourage servers to treat their tasks like a game. Perhaps you’ve made it a goal for all servers to try to get their tables’ checks to include a drink, appetizer, entrée and dessert. Create a competition so that every time a server’s table check includes all four they are entered into a drawing for a cash prize.

11. Host Rankings

All restaurants want to make sure they consistently sell menu items with the highest profit margin. Increase servers’ engagement with this goal by rewarding top-sellers. First identify 3 dishes and 3 drinks with the highest profit margin, and then set up monthly winners for servers who sell the most. Once servers start getting competitive, host workshops to help brainstorm non-pushy ways to suggest the target menu items. Make it fun by conducting the training in a format like the gameshow, Family Feud.

12. Reward All-staff Efforts

Any customer-facing business lives or dies by their social media presence these days, so make sure your front-of-house staff is engaged in helping your restaurant get for instance, 250 likes on Facebook. Commit to when that milestone is reached, you will treat all front-of-house staff to a dinner at a nice restaurant. Keep that incentive front of mind and servers will readily ask customers to tag their photos and like social media pages towards the goal.

13. Give Employees Autonomy

When employees feel trusted, they take ownership in their actions. Empower your servers by giving them the tools to initiate shift swaps and changes themselves using a scheduling software like 7shifts. Staff can use the 7shifts app to request and swap shifts, which managers can approve with just a click on the app – no need to micro-manage.

14. Dressing the Part

As what you wear can have a big impact both on the brand and the employees’ attitude about work, consider working with front-of-house employees on the kinds of uniform that could be professional as well as comfortable. They will be engaged knowing they literally helped pick the shirt on their backs.

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Hosts and Bussers

15. Supplemental Training

Take a look at your budget and see if you can’t make room for investing in supplemental training and courses for your staff. More often than not, budgets are tight so you may want to limit the offer to positions such as host and busser.

These positions may have some of the highest turnover and offering to pay for online or local classes in bartending or management training may keep the positions stable longer. These entry-level positions are also often filled by those with more ambitious goals so it’s a win-win for all involved.

16. Walk in Their Shoes

Every few months, shadow one of your bussers to live their experience clearing and setting tables. While bussers may give feedback on any inefficiencies in how and where supplies are set-up, walking in their shoes will give you firsthand experience of their job’s specific challenges. Bussers will know you are interested and committed to making their time on the job better.

Managers and Shift Leaders

17. Welcoming Environment

They say workers quit bosses, not jobs so make sure those in leadership positions feel engaged and watch the effect trickle down to the rest of your team. For starters, you can make sure that the work environment is as catered to their preferences as possible. For example, find out what coffee they like to drink and have the ideal beans, espresso machine, and creamers etc. on hand at all times. This small gesture will go a long way toward ensuring managers and shift leaders are comfortable and functional.

18. Leadership Lunches

Managers play an integral role, translating the business’s goals into the restaurants’ actions and results. To keep their engagement level high, they should be granted special access to those who make the big decisions, particularly in large chains with multiple operations.

To that end, managers and shift leaders can have periodic lunches with leadership to have an informal space to discuss objectives and challenges. Each year, they could also enjoy a “Birthday Breakfast" with the CEO to relate as colleagues, sidestepping any business agendas.

19. Shout Their Praises

Don’t miss a chance to make a big deal when a manager has a big accomplishment. Credit their problem-solving or job success by giving them credit in a press release, a mention in the company newsletter or on the company chat group. Make sure they feel publicly acknowledged for a job well done.

20. Give “Insider” Information

Sometimes managers get direction on how to run the restaurant without any of the “whys,” particularly in large operations with multiple locations. To ramp up their engagement, explain the business thinking behind any new initiatives. They’ll be more likely to put in the extra effort needed if they can see the big picture. Make sure you keep them in the loop if and when there are any positive results from their efforts.

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Barbacks

21. Ask For Opinions

While staff surveys about major workplace issues are considered the bare minimum of engaging employees, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be asking for the feedback on more routine matters. Try asking team members to help you choose more fun options such as paint colors, specific holiday décor, or music played during set-up and clean-up. It will demonstrate you value their opinions while giving a boost to employee engagement.

Bartender & Cooks

22. Promote Wellness

Staff who are feeling healthy, both mentally and physically, are more likely to avoid burnout and are more likely to deliver exceptional customer service. Bartenders, in particular, have an intense role: They’re constantly face to face with customers, have to stay creative and attentive, must listen to barflies’ endless chatter, and manage safe levels of consumption.

Give bartenders a leg up on their overall wellness by offering complimentary gym passes. Regular participation in weight training or aerobic exercise – even just for five minutes -- has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and self-esteem.

23. Encourage Experimentation

Typically, those involved with preparing food and drink are inclined toward creative pursuits. Find out if any of your cooks are interested in developing their own dishes and then have a taste test with the rest of the staff.

The same goes for bartenders – can any develop the signature cocktail for the restaurant? A recent MIT study showed that companies that encourage employee innovation generate more actionable ideas and in turn, have more profitable growth.

Cashier and Front Desk

24. Add Whimsy

While other staff is buzzing around the kitchen, your cashier is anchored to the front counter, cycling through repetitive customer interactions. Set aside some petty cash and let your cashiers decide a way to spend it to add something unexpected to their post. You could add a small fish tank, candy bowl, sea monkeys, and other fun things to make the front desk or counter just a little more inviting.

25. Connect Feedback to Results

It’s one thing to conduct surveys to get feedback on operational issues from your employees. But do you then show them how their thoughts lead to specific improvements? If your cashier points out the shortcomings of your POS system and you wind up adopting new software, make sure he knows the important role he played.