A restaurant earns its reputation primarily from two things: its food and its service.
In order to deliver on both these accounts, it's critical to cultivate an environment where people — customers and staff alike — want to be. That's why it is important to learn how to motivate your restaurant employees. We are most productive and responsive when we are happy, so it makes sense to create an environment that fosters this kind of positive emotion.
In the restaurant industry, it can be difficult to maintain front- and back-of-house staff, as many will eventually move on to pursue new ventures such as school, travel, or alternate employment. Worse yet, some may leave simply because they do not feel valued or that there is no meaning attached to the work they do. High staff turnover has the potential to negatively impact your business's productivity, employee morale and, of course, the quality of product and customer service.
Although turnover is inevitable in virtually any industry, all hope is not lost. As a manager, there are countless low- to no-budget tips to engage staff and build a strong foundation for your business. Below are some of the best ways to maintain a happy, healthy workforce.
1. Be Flexible
There's more to life than work, so it's important to be respectful of your staff's obligations and interests outside of the restaurant's walls. If a staff member is going through a messy break-up or is in the thick of exam season, encourage as harmonious a work-life balance as possible. If they need to request time-off, try to accommodate it if you can still find the appropriate coverage.
2. Acknowledge Your Employees
Managers often underestimate the power of two simple words: “Hello” and “Thanks.” You can personalize your interactions even further by taking the time to learn a few key details about each of your staff members (e.g., their kids' or pets' names) and by asking questions. Sincerity is key, however; when you show genuine interest in your employees, you are implicitly sharing with them how much you value and appreciate having them as part of the team.
Recommended Reading: 5 Ways to Create an Ideal Work Environment for Restaurant Employees
3. Give Credit Where Credit Is Due
Similar to acknowledgement, a lack of recognition can quickly lead to low morale and a feeling that the work being done is not appreciated. Whether you make use of staff incentives (e.g., bar tabs, spa vouchers for tired feet) or a highlights reel at your regular staff meetings, when you share personal and professional successes as a group, you foster a cohesive community.
TIP: If you aren't already meeting as a team on a regular basis, it's about time you start!
4. Create Opportunities
This tip is two-fold: you want to create opportunities for idea sharing and for career advancement.
Your employees are the eyes and ears of your operation, so don't hesitate to canvas them for feedback and opinions. This creates a sense of ownership and accountability by embedding your staff's hard work and valuable ideas in a bigger picture context.
Another key strategy is talent management. Take note of employees who demonstrate initiative, integrity, or management potential and present them with special projects, training responsibilities, and other developmental opportunities. The idea here is to keep your employees feeling stimulated and challenged.
5. Compensate with Bonuses and Raises
According to 7shifts' Employee Satisfaction Survey, it's evident that pay is still a massive sticking point between employees and their bosses. 46% of restaurant employees earn an hourly rate between $11 and $15, and it's causing them to seek more lucrative opportunities. 35% of employees cited wages as a reason for why they have left (or would leave) a job.
With comp being a clear area of improvement, now's the time — more than ever — to consider restructuring your wage structure. If possible, direct wage increases are a quick and effective solution. If they aren't, consider quarterly bonuses. Employees can get them every three months that they stay on. These incentivize employees to stick around and perform better in order to attain their bonus.
You should also have a clearly communicated format for when raise discussions will be held, how much employees can expect to earn, and what promotion timelines look like. This clarity gives employees a direct goal to work towards in their role and what's waiting for them if they do their best work.
6. Hiring Referral Compensation
People working in the restaurant industry tend to know plenty of other people in the restaurant industry. So, why not tap into your employees' networks of hospitality professionals?
An employee referral program is a way for your restaurant to get qualified, vouched-for employees onto your payroll, while also helping a job seeker land a new role and compensating your valued workers for it. It's a win-win-win.
For instance, you might offer a $250 bonus to an employee who refers a new hire, so long as both employees stay for three months after the new hire starts. Employees will be directly incentivized to reach out to their colleagues and encourage them to apply, and will be motivated to stay until their bonus is paid out.
In the end, this means a bigger pipeline of applicants for open roles to be filled with better workers faster. It also rewards employees financially, and it allows them to work alongside those who they already know and trust.
7. Offer Paid Time Off and Benefits
Employees need to know that they're valued, and not just as employees. Their health, interests, and familial responsibilities are just as much a part of who they are as cook, host, or server.
Thus, health care, paid time off, and other benefits are crucial. They offer a layer of stability for times when workers or their families face an illness or need some personal time. Unfortunately, just 31% of restaurants offer health insurance — which was a huge reason for the employee exodus restaurants saw throughout the pandemic.
Think about it — do you really want an employee who is feeling unwell to choose between a paycheck or a good day's rest, particularly when any illness they have could spread to those around them? In addition, employees — like you — need time off to travel, see friends, and pursue their hobbies without having to worry about paying rent. While more expensive than the alternative, offering these benefits acts as a magnet to the top-performing restaurant employees in your areas, and ensures those who are on your staff are likely to stay. In return, you'll have a more engaged workforce comprised of individuals who feel valued and can bring their best selves to work for every shift, creating much more value for your business.
If your workforce is smaller and you can't provide all employees more days off, consider tying extra PTO to staff competitions. For example, servers who have the fastest average table time each month earn an extra day off.
8. Get Staff Engagement Feedback to Always Improve
Regardless of which suggestions from this blog post you choose to use in your restaurant, it's imperative that you measure the results of your efforts to see if they work. And what better way to source that information than from your employees themselves?
In fact, restaurants that use measurable employee engagement software have a 13% better staff retention rate. That's because restaurants that have insights into employee engagement know where to improve their motivation tactics. They know what aspects of the job make employees most and least satisfied, which employees are most engaged, and where to view employee feedback.
Staff engagement is best when sourced proactively, as it allows you to make any necessary improvements to your business before an employee resigns. This system creates a culture of constant improvement from management, which results in more frequent change for the better in a quantifiable way.
9. Communicate Company Goals and Values
Employees have purpose when they know what they're working for and working towards.
No — not just a paycheck. Employees feel engaged when their work has purpose, such as improving the restaurant's reputation or making a customer's day. This motivation comes from having a clear goal, vision, and set of core values for the restaurant. Collectively, they provide a North Star for your staff to strive towards.
In the short term, a restaurant relies on goals for staying profitable and meeting targeted outcomes. For example, a server might contribute to the restaurant's goal of increasing app sales by 20% in the month by working on improving their upselling skills. Every time they get a plate of mozzarella sticks sent to the kitchen, they know they're helping the business meet its goals.
On a larger scale, restaurants need a vision and set of core values that persistently hold true. Terms like “service,” “customer-focus,” and “quality” mean something — and if your restaurant promises them, you'll need to lead your staff by example to make these values a priority. Communication of these values and this vision must be done with more than just words, and when you're leading the way, your staff will follow.
10. Use Tools That Employees Want to Actually Use
If you want your employees feeling engaged, then you can't require technology that makes them feel drained.
If servers have to enter orders into a dated POS system, cooks don't have an easy-to-navigate kitchen display screen, and hosts don't have a reservation software without its fair share of bugs, it's a recipe for burnout and disaster. Your restaurant technology needs to be intuitive and user-friendly so that staff can accomplish their tasks faster and make fewer mistakes.
Outside of the shift, the right tools still make a difference. For example, team communication software ensures employees can communicate with you and with each other in one central app. Without the back-and-forth across text, email, and in-person conversations, staff can come to each shift with a clear mind and agenda, motivating them to do their best work. If not, employees could show up feeling unmotivated and drained before they fulfill a single order.
11. Develop Team Building Opportunities
No one wants to work with a stranger. Teams that trust each other tend to perform better, and that's why employees need to have familiarity and comfort with each other.
Unfortunately, due to the stressful nature of shifts, it's tough for employees to form those relationships on the job in a natural way. That's why you should go above and beyond by organizing staff bonding and team-building activities for your staff. These could be as simple as 30-minute pre-shift activities each week or as extravagant as a staff appreciation event every quarter. Keep in mind that during this time, employees should be paid in addition to what the event is offering, as you'd be requiring staff to give up their personal time.
These events allow employees to break down the walls of the workplace in a less formal and more enjoyable setting. The results will spill over into each shift, where employees will learn to communicate with each other better and enjoy each others' company more.
12. Provide Ongoing Career Development or Training
In the spirit of giving employees something to work towards, consider investing in training, education, and career development programs. These programs offer the chance for mobility — something many restaurant workers crave. If they can't find it in your restaurant, they may search for another opportunity where they can.
Plus, a better-trained staff in more areas can only serve to benefit the restaurant as well as its employees.
For example, if a host or a busser expresses interest in becoming a bartender, pair them up with an experienced staff member behind the bar for advice on what they can do to get there. In addition, consider giving them occasional barback shifts so they can get acclimated to what's needed to succeed.
Thinking outside of the box, don't be afraid to ask your workers what they may want to do outside of the restaurant world. If, for example, someone on your staff wants to go into marketing, work with them on event planning and ask them to develop a social media strategy for the business. This gives employees work outside of their normal day-to-day that still helps out the restaurant.
13. Get Staff Buy-in On Scheduling
56% of the restaurant employees we surveyed said that more flexibility in their scheduling would make them happier on the job. This makes complete sense — if your mind is on the party you're missing or the friend's graduation you're unable to attend, chances are you're not going to feel very motivated during your shift.
Within reason, give your employees ownership over their scheduling format. With the knowledge that not all requests can be granted, consider allowing employees to choose whether a fixed schedule, rotating schedule, or 9/80 schedule is the best fit for them.
If you can't accommodate specific time off or scheduling requests, the least you can do is make it easier for employees to swap shifts. That way, the restaurant can have coverage but your staff can handle their out-of-work matters.
14. Have a Custom Staff Menu to Spice it Up
Tap into your staff's creative side! Between the culinary skills of your cooks and the resourcefulness of your front-of-house workers, restaurant employees are some of the most inventive folks in the workforce. One way to channel that aspect is by encouraging them to make custom staff creations in the kitchen.
For example, workers can turn a mundane break at 3:00 in the afternoon into a brainstorm session of new flavors and ideas. These creations could be “staff-only” menu items, or better yet, you could turn it into a competition. Perhaps each month, workers break up into teams and get to submit a new menu idea to be judged by the owner. The winning submission becomes a special for the month that guests can order, with credit given to their inventors.
Who knows? This activity might result in the creation of your next big menu item.
15. Prioritize Workplace Health
The COVID pandemic hit essential workers in the restaurant industry hard, so as we emerge from it, it makes sense why 47% of restaurant workers say sanitation is of ultra-high importance to them on the job.
Everything from unclean surfaces to a sick policy that doesn't restrict unwell employees from working a shift can be extremely unsettling to restaurant workers. Seeing a messy kitchen or a coughing coworker can be enough to distract employees from doing their best work, or even consider leaving.
To put employees at ease, remember to be extremely thorough with your workplace health rules. Creating a restaurant cleaning and sanitization process (and sticking to it) — alongside a sick time program that requires ill employees to stay home — are two essential first steps to putting your employees' concerns at ease.
16. Empower Staff with Independent Shift Trading
When employees are up for a shift trade, the last thing they want to do is leave voicemails or emails asking for their manager to approve the swap, only to find out 20 minutes into the shift that it wasn't approved.
Shift trading is one of the benefits of restaurant work. When something comes up and you can't make it, a coworker has your back — and vice versa. Restaurants that have these policies put trust in their employees, which motivates them to work with their peers more closely.
If you have a shift swap policy — or if you don't, but plan to get one — make sure it's tied to an employee scheduling software that allows for independent shift trading among lateral roles. Sometimes your approval will be needed (to avoid overtime, for example), but in most cases, employees should have the option to take ownership over their schedule when it comes at no cost to the business.
17. Work on Yourself
Last but not least, remember you're always serving as an example to your staff — whether you're aware of it or not.
As such, make a point to work on your own performance on the job. Although scary, ask employees to provide you with feedback so that you can proactively source honest opinions about your skills and opportunities for improvement. Having a positive attitude on the job is infectious, and if your employees see you consistently putting your best foot forward for the sake of them and your customers, it's more likely that your staff will do the same.
Motivating Your Restaurant Employees
As restaurants strive to hire and retain workers, the ones that manage to do so successfully are those that are employee-centric and stick to their core values. On the bottom line is pay, clear growth opportunities, and benefits, but that's not to diminish the role of health, culture, and team camaraderie that many have come to rely on to do their best work. Ultimately, restaurant employees do their best work when they feel personally and financially valued — and the right combination here will foster a group of motivated and enthusiastic restaurant workers.
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AJ Beltis is a freelance writer with almost a decade of experience in the restaurant industry. He currently works as a content manager at HubSpot, and previously as a blogger at Toast.