How to Build a Successful Restaurant Employee Engagement Program

How to Build a Successful Restaurant Employee Engagement Program
Ana Cvetkovic

By Ana Cvetkovic

Did you know that there are more than one million restaurants in the United States alone? These restaurants rely on 15.3 million employees to give customers the meals and experiences they crave.

The key to making customers happy is to make employees happy. When staff are engaged in their work, they perform better and generate more revenue for their employers.

Formalizing an employee engagement program helps restaurants keep staff happiness top of mind. But don’t worry; your employee engagement program doesn’t have to be fancy, expensive, or resource-intensive. Even just writing down a set of workplace culture principles for your team to follow will have an effect on staff satisfaction.

Keep reading to learn what employee engagement is and why it’s important, and to get our top tips for creating a successful employee engagement program.

What is Employee Engagement (And Why is it Important to the Restaurant Industry)?

Let’s make sure we’re on the same page about engagement in the workplace before we proceed into the nitty gritty details of creating a program that will keep your team engaged. Employee engagement measures an employee’s willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty, positive feelings about their employer, and desire to stay with their employer, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. In a nutshell, engagement shows how involved, excited, and interested an employee is about what they do.

Highly engaged employees believe in what they do and therefore generate 147% more profits than their less engaged colleagues. Their enthusiasm for work helps create a strong team culture that inspires others to perform better. Most importantly, highly engaged employees are happier and stay with their employers longer. Finding and keeping good employees is a crucial part of retention in an industry that suffers from a 73% staff turnover rate.

How do you recognize a disengaged employee? They do the bare minimum at work. Disengaged staff members do only what is required of them and nothing more. They have a poor attitude, which affects how customers feel about their dining experience and how colleagues feel about their employers. Logically, disengaged employees’ performance is worse than that of their colleagues, so they bring in less revenue. Ultimately, disengaged employees aren’t satisfied with their work and are more likely to quit than highly engaged colleagues.

The Problem with Staff Turnover in the Restaurant Industry

Keeping staff engaged is important because it combats turnover. Why does turnover matter so much? It takes a toll on your operational budget and staff morale.

Between writing and posting a job description, interviewing candidates, onboarding, and training, replacing just one employee costs restaurants about $3,500. With an industry average 73% turnover rate, a restaurant with 20 employees could be wasting more than $50,000 each year by losing and replacing staff.

Turnover affects morale by creating a revolving door culture. When employees are constantly coming and going in a restaurant, staff see their current employment as a temporary solution, rather than as a viable candidate for a long term career. Furthermore, when employees who are otherwise satisfied with their work see their colleagues leaving, they may be alarmed and seek problems and a way out. Turnover only begets more turnover.

There is a staff retention crisis in the restaurant industry. Creating an employee engagement program is a simple way to keep employees motivated and enthusiastic about the work that they do, and will reduce turnover at your restaurant.

How to Build a Successful Employee Engagement Program for Your Restaurant

Implementing an employee engagement program can help you boost morale and interest when you notice it waning. Here’s how to develop your program thoughtfully for optimal results:

5 steps to discovering your restaurant's values

1. Define Your Cultural Identity

A strong workplace culture helps employees identify themselves as part of a mission and as part of a team. Creating a cultural identity starts with identifying your restaurant’s values. Do this easy exercise to help you figure out what your restaurant stands for:

  1. Choose Who to Clone - If you could clone your restaurant’s top employees, who would you choose to clone? Think about staff members who consistently generate the most revenue, are adored by customers, and make their colleagues feel great.
  2. Identify Key Traits - List out the traits that these MVP employees exhibit. Figure out why they are so good at what they do.
  3. Get Your Team Involved - After you’ve listed out your MVPs’ star qualities by yourself or with your management team, get the rest of your staff involved. Not only will asking staff to participate generate more ideas, but it will also engage them by making them feel valued.
  4. Refine and Define Values - Take your master list of values and edit it. Choose the values that speak most to what your restaurant stands for and who you want working for you. Turn these values into actions. For example, “great customer service” turns into “our team goes the extra mile for customers by anticipating needs instead of waiting to be asked.”
  5. Roll Out Company-Wide - Introduce your restaurant’s new values with a bang. Unveil them in an all-team meeting and in your restaurant’s communication tool.

Incorporate your newfound values in your hiring, training, and performance reviews. When staff members understand that their work stands for something beyond preparing and serving food, they can rally behind a vision and get excited about what they do.

2. Ask for Feedback

When you ask for and receive feedback from your employees on a regular basis, you will have a better understanding of workplace satisfaction from your team. And when you know who is happy at work and who isn’t, you will be better prepared to take action against dissatisfaction and disengagement.

Ask employees to give you feedback about every shift to see how they feel about work. 7shifts’ Engage feature automates feedback collection and gives managers insights into trends in employee sentiment over time so that they can track how it changes.  

Managers can use this data to hold one-on-one meetings with employees whose satisfaction at work is declining, or has been low for some time. They can use these meetings to ask staff members why they are unhappy and what would improve their shifts and feelings about work.

3. Get Employees Involved

Beyond asking employees for feedback about their shifts, you should get their input on as much as you can. When employees feel like they make a difference, they feel ownership over their work, which boosts performance and engagement and decreases turnover.

Your staff are your restaurant’s eyes and ears. Front-of-house staff know your customers really well and back-of-house staff know your menu really well. If servers tell you that the majority of customers can’t finish their salads, you could use this feedback to make portion sizes smaller and increase your profit margins. If a newly hired line cook with chain experience joins your family-run operation and suggests ways to optimize your kitchen's layout, you should take those suggestions seriously.

Create an environment that welcomes ideas as ways to improve the workplace for everyone. Encourage feedback during team meetings, in a suggestion box, via your team communication tool, etc.

Illustration of someone wearing apron in front of screenshot of employee feedback

4. Create a Family

Making your employees feel like family goes a long way in increasing engagement, happiness, and performance in the workplace. When employees feel like family, they feel a sense of belonging and don’t see themselves as replaceable employees. They’ll want to work harder because they’re not just doing what their boss wants them to do; failing would also be letting their team members down.

Creating a sense of family involves getting employees to work together beyond what their roles entail. Create rituals, like a family meal before shifts, to bring the team closer together. Shadowing and mentoring are other great ways to encourage employees to bond.

5. Invest in Your Employees

With restaurant staff turnover at an all-time high, it’s easy for restaurant employees to see their roles as temporary instead of long-term commitments. While on-the-clock bonding is important, bonding outside of work is a crucial part of making employees see that their work is more than just a job.

According to our research, the average restaurant employee is a 20-year-old woman in college working as a server. She most likely has this job to help her pay for her education or for living expenses while she is still a student.

If her manager were to implement an employee engagement program that involved programming outside of work - such as industry happy hours, field trips with educational opportunities, or social events - the server could see that management is invested in her current and future wellbeing, and she may be motivated to seek a position in restaurant management or business operations instead of leaving the restaurant after graduating.

When restaurateurs see their employees as more than just workers and invest resources into getting to know and supporting them off the clock, they’re paid back in loyalty and hard work.

Restaurant Employee Engagement Program Takeaways

Your restaurant’s employees are its most important assets. Employees make or break the customer experience. Keep them happy, and they’ll treat your customers well and will stay loyal to you and your restaurant. When you invest in your employees by defining your values, encouraging feedback, welcoming ideas, and creating a sense of community, you’ll be rewarded with staff loyalty and customer retention.

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Ana Cvetkovic
Ana Cvetkovic

Ana Cvetkovic is a freelance writer. She is also the CEO of BLOOM Digital Marketing, a creative marketing agency that helps the hospitality and tourism industries reach millennials online.