Restaurant Hiring: Navigating the Labor Shortage

Restaurant Hiring: Navigating the Labor Shortage
D.J. Costantino

By D.J. Costantino

Table of Contents

    If you're having trouble finding great people to work in your restaurant, you're not alone.

    There's a labor shortage impacting the restaurant industry, made tougher by the pandemic. Early on in 2020, we were scrambling to figure out ways to get food to customers and how to give staff enough hours and keep them on the payroll. Now as we enter a recovery stage, the biggest challenge that's emerged has become finding enough staff to fit the demand. According to 7shifts' restaurant industry data, shifts scheduled are recovering at a slower rate than sales.

    The operator of Chengdu Taste and Mian, with 13 locations, told the New York Times that they may have to close multiple restaurants due to the lack of staff. The same New York Times story found that 80 to 85 percent of Crafted Hospitality group's kitchen employees have moved out of New York City.

    Many workers are not returning due to personal safety concerns, and many have left the industry altogether. Unemployment benefits—augmented by federal government support—are providing security that restaurants have not been able to over the past year.

    As Adam Ranier writes on Restaurant Manifesto:


    As we start to welcome back workers, doing things as they were before isn't going to work—especially in hiring. Some restaurant workers have found new careers outside of the industry. As we start to bring on a new group of industry workers, restaurants need to provide workers with something better than before. That all begins at the hiring level. Here are some best practices to make sure that you can find great workers and give them a reason to stick with you—shortage or not.

    1. Determining what roles you actually need to fill

    The past year has turned servers into expert delivery packers, challenge chefs' creativity, and flipped the role of a restaurant manager on its head. The traditional front of the house to the back of the house divide has closed. Restaurants are employing more delivery drivers than ever. Before you can even put out a job posting make sure know exactly what you'll be hiring for. Set expectations for yourself and for potential team members. Do you need a host to seat guests or someone to hello pack up delivery orders? Do you need a prep cook or a chef to help develop a new patio menu? Do you need someone to make deliveries part-time?

    Do some planning and get a clear picture of exactly what you need to hire for. It may not just be as simple as a server or line cook anymore. This will also help as you begin to write your job description—the foundation of making a great hire.

    2. Writing a good job description

    One of the hallmarks of the restaurant industry is the “Help Wanted” sign in the restaurant window. That may have worked decades ago, but it's not enough anymore. Online job postings are often overlooked in the hospitality industry. Lack of clear info, wide ranges of pay, and an absence of any sort of “sell” are pervasive.

    “When you're writing a job ad, you have to realize that it is marketing. Write it in a way that's attractive and bouncy and gets people's attention. When people think about marketing, they think about attracting customers. When they put up a job ad, they don't think about it that way,” says Jack Hott, Senior Product Manager at Poached, a job board built for the restaurant industry.

    “The food doesn't matter,” says Jensen Cummings, chef, and founder of Best Served Creative. This, of course, doesn't mean it's ok to serve bad food. But workers aren't going to want to come work for you or stay for the same reasons that customers do. Keep that in mind as you position yourself to potential employees. Look to what sets your restaurant apart. If you haven't already. Now is a great time to put your restaurant's core values onto paper. Narrow it down to a few—hard work, punctuality, acting like an owner—and put into words what those values look like at your restaurant. If you're having trouble, chat with some of your longest-tenured employees and get their insights. Every restaurant across the country is hiring at the same exact time. You have to stand out, clear and proud.

    Qualities that may help set your restaurant apart could be:

    • Competitive wages compared to others in your area
    • Benefits like health insurance, pet insurance, or retirement plans
    • Paid vacation and sick days
    • Low employee turnover rate
    • Seasonal employees that are eager to return
    • Opportunities to learn and advance careers

    Another factor to represent is your restaurant's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion: highlight the efforts your're making to make a happier and healthier workplace for everybody.

    Safety and sanitation efforts also deserve a callout right now. Let potential employees know what you're doing to keep them safe as they return to work, or start a restaurant job for the first time. And a first for the restaurant industry—signing bonuses—have become much more popular, according to Kirk Thornby, founded and CEO of Poached. If you can swing it, a few hundred dollars bonus may be the difference between a submission and a glance over.

    3. Where to look for restaurant-specific candidates

    You have a job description that you're proud of—but where to post it? You may be inclined to post it in as many places as possible, but that may yield you dozens of unqualified applications. More to sift through, and more time to get someone on the clock. According to a report from CareerPlug, the traditional job boards such as Indeed or Monster bring in a large number of resumes, but they rarely convert to a hir.—just a 2% success rate.

    However, this doesn't mean all is lost when it comes to job boards. There are many great job boards built for the restaurant industry. Many have databases of qualified resumes, and some even help connect you with great candidates. Here are a few to consider:

    Consider your website

    Another place to consider is your restaurant's website—more specifically, the career page. According to CareerPlug, company careers pages have the highest return on investment for the restaurant industry, bringing in 11% of applicants and resulting in 43% of hires overall – the highest of any industry in their study.

    If you don't already have a careers page on your site, add one and list any open positions you may have. You can link to the page via your social media profiles or on other job boards to bring potential candidates to your site. There, they can easily see what your restaurant or restaurant group is all about.

    Get help from your team

    One of the best places to find qualified candidates is to ask your existing team. Many restaurant workers have friends in the industry that they can refer to you.

    Set up a referral program for your existing employees to get their industry friends to help fill open roles. If a hire is made based on the referral, offer an incentive such as a cash bonus or gift card to the team member that made the connection.

    If all else fails, sometimes, you may just have to put yourself out there in creative ways:

    4. What to look for in the ideal employee

    By showing off what makes you stand out, and getting your job posting and company in front of the right eyes, you'll start attracting the right people. But once you have them, making the right hire is critical. With the average cost of hiring just under $6,000—not to mention workload costs—you don't want to be in the same position 90 days from now, looking again. The best way to do this is by using a hiring process that prioritizes fit over skill.

    In his classic book, Setting the Table, Danny Meyer outlined his process for hiring at Union Square Hospitality Group—the 51% solution. The 51 percent rule is Meyer's personality-based hiring principle that he used to grow his business.

    “It is in my firm conviction that an executive or business owner should pack a team with 51 percenters because training them in the technical aspects will then come far more easily. Hiring 51 percenters today will save training time and dollars tomorrow,” writes Meyer.

    When deciding who they want to hire, 51% of the weight goes to a candidate's personality. The other 49% is based on skillset. There are just some things—like emotional intelligence— that just can't be taught.

    Meyer outlines the five emotional skills as follows in his book:

    • Optimistic warmth (genuine kindness, thoughtfulness, and a sense that the glass is always at least half full)
    • Intelligence (not just “smarts” but rather an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning)
    • Work ethic (a natural tendency to do something as well as it can possibly be done)
    • Empathy (an awareness of, care for, and connection to how others feel and how your actions make others feel)
    • Self-awareness and integrity (an understanding of what makes you tick and a natural inclination to be accountable for doing the right thing with honesty and superb judgment)

    When coming up with interview questions, make sure they are designed to get insights into these skills (more on that below). Just keep this mantra in mind: prioritize fit, and train for skill. The last thing you want is someone with a ton of experience that no one wants to work with.

    5. Ask Great Interview Questions

    When it comes time to interview candidates, make sure your questions reflect your values as a restaurateur. Don't ask someone if they're hard-working—have them demonstrate it through answers to your questions. Questions should leave room for explanation and storytelling—not be simple yes or no answers. To design questions that garner more thoughtful answers, use the STAR framework.

    Use the STAR Method

    Interview questions that use the STAR method help get answers that can tell you a lot about a candidate's values, emotional intelligence, skillset, and attitude. Questions should outline a situation, task, action, and result. Here are a few examples of questions that utilize the STAR method to great effect:

    • Can you tell me about a mistake you've made on the job and how you handled it?
    • Can you tell me about a time where you and a coworker clashed and how you resolved it?
    • When was a time when you went out of your way to delight a guest?

    Ask nuanced questions that get at who a candidate is and what their values are. Skills are much easier to explain in a rèsumè than how a person carries themselves. By weighing emotional intelligence over skillset, your chance of making the right hire is much, much greater.

    6. Ace Onboarding and Training

    You've got the right person who ticks all of your boxes—hard-working empathetic, and self-aware. But their skillset needs a little work. That's what training is for. Once your new hire has agreed to a role, the onboarding process begins.

    Employee onboarding is the process of welcoming a new employee to your team. The purpose of the onboarding process is to teach new hires how to do their jobs successfully, and to catch them up on the company's culture and procedures. Check out the 7shifts guide to creating an effective onboarding process to ease your new employees in and set them up for success.

    Once onboarded, have a solid plan for training in place. An employee isn't going to find success being thrown into the fire. 7shifts guide for how to create a great staff training program is a great place to start.

    “We need to flip the 73% turnover rate to 75% employee retention and satisfaction,” says Chef Jensen Cummings. A great place to start is better hiring, onboarding, and training workflow.

    Restaurant Hiring: Navigating the Labor Shortage: Closing Thoughts

    There is no denying that we're in the midst of a labor shortage. By understanding some of the reasons why: lack of job security, better opportunities elsewhere, more job requirements, and personal safety, we can improve our offerings to meet the workforce where it is right now. That all starts with the approach to hiring and figuring out how to make your restaurant stand out.

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    D.J. Costantino
    D.J. Costantino

    Hi! I'm D.J., 7shifts' resident Content Writer. I come from a family of chefs and a background in food journalism. I'm always looking for ways to help make the restaurant industry better!