Ultimate Restaurant Payroll Guide 2021

Ultimate Restaurant Payroll Guide 2021
Ana Cvetkovic

By Ana Cvetkovic

Did you know that payroll/labor makes up almost one-third of a restaurant's operating costs? While most restaurateurs are experts in hospitality and customer service, payroll makes many savvy business owners scratch their heads. Understanding the ins and outs of paying employees, observing labor laws, and complying with the tax code is critical to running a business.

While payroll has historically been the source of a lot of stress for restaurateurs, there are a number of tools and resources to make it easier. Payroll jargon and processes aren't intrinsically complicated; they're usually just presented in difficult-to-understand ways. We're here to demystify payroll so you can spend more time every week growing your business and doing what you do best.

This restaurant payroll guide will teach you:

Restaurant payroll guide: What is payroll?

Payroll is a list of restaurant employees and how much they’re owed in wages and benefits. "Doing payroll," or “running payroll,” encompasses the following:

  1. Calculating how much money (including tips) your business owes employees and contractors during a specific pay period.
  2. Calculating how much the business owes in payroll taxes.
  3. Calculating how much the business needs to withhold from employees' paychecks for taxes and benefits.
  4. Paying employees what they are owed on time.
  5. Paying into benefits on behalf of your employees.
  6. Paying taxes on behalf of the business and its employees.
  7. Updating your payroll records in case of an audit.

Going through the payroll process is critical because it helps you avoid trouble with tax and labor authorities. Paying employees under the table (as in, without reporting their earnings to tax authorities and evading employment taxes) is a serious crime that can lead to hefty fines and time behind bars—don’t do it under any circumstances.

Doing payroll is a vital part of running a business because your restaurant is nothing without its team. If you pay employees accurately and on time, they'll keep showing up to work. And if you don’t... you’ll be left to fend for yourself.

How to create a payroll payment schedule 📅

Decide how often you want to pay your employees. There are a number of timelines that businesses use, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a few common options:

A monthly pay cycle, which means operators only have to run payroll once per month. This timing is not usually favored by employees, as it leaves them to rely on one check each month.

A weekly pay cycle, while favored by employees (who doesn’t want a check every week), can be burdensome for managers who have more than a handful of employees.

A two-week pay cycle, resulting in a bi-weekly pay schedule. This payment schedule involves 26 pay periods in a calendar year. This strikes a nice balance between the monthly and weekly, and is the most common pay period in the hospitality industry.

Another emerging payment schedule is the “real time” payment option, led by financial technologies like Clair. These technologies enable a daily pay period, giving workers access to their wages as soon as their shift is over. Getting paid daily means workers are never stuck waiting for money that they’ve already earned, and helps to lower turnover rates—a huge issue in the restaurant industry.

After choosing a payroll schedule, set up direct deposits into your employees’ bank accounts. ACH bank transfers are a convenient, low-cost alternative to writing checks. Collect bank information from employees during the onboarding process and deposit payments directly into their accounts on payday.

Payroll software is an invaluable tool that helps automate payroll processing that saves tons of times and makes sure you never miss a payday. When your staff scheduling tool integrates with your payroll software, doing payroll is a breeze.

man using computer for restaurant scheduling

You’ll need to collect a variety of information from your staff to run payroll properly. This is usually done during the employee onboarding process. Ask them for:

  • Personal contact information, including a legal name and address.
  • Tax forms that include a Social Security number and requested tax withholdings, like a W-4 for employees and a W-9 for contractors.
  • Direct deposit information such as a bank routing number and account number.
  • Health insurance plan opt-in forms.
  • Ultimate Restaurant Payroll Guide 2021 for retirement savings plans, such as a 401(k).
  • Forms for any other benefits plans.

Your payroll duties as an employer will look different depending on where your restaurant is located. Look into legal guides and consult a payroll specialist (lawyer, accountant, HR specialist, or another business owner) to make sure you understand your responsibilities.

Restaurant payroll guide to calculating payments 💵
Figuring out how much to pay your employees isn’t as straightforward as multiplying hourly wages by hours worked, especially in the restaurant industry. As an employer, you're responsible for withholding taxes from your employees' wages, which is where payroll gets tricky. First, you must determine the hours worked by each employee from your time clock or timesheets. 7shifts users can use our 7punches time clocking system to easily integrate their time clock, schedule, and payroll, making tracking the numbers of hours worked easier.

One you’ve collected accurate data on the number of hours worked, here’s how to calculate payments for your payroll:

  1. Calculate your employees’ gross pay: how much they earn before taxes are withheld. For salaried positions, like managers, gross pay will be the same every pay period, determined by their annual rate. For hourly roles like servers, multiple hourly rates by hours worked during the pay period. If an employee has worked more than 40 hours in a single week, you must compensate them for overtime at a rate of at least 1.5 times their normal hourly pay.

For example, let’s say that you run a restaurant in the seaside town of Ocean City, NJ and you want to calculate payroll for your server Max. After tips, Max makes the state minimum wage of $10/hour. If they worked 40 hours one week and 45 the next, you would calculate their wage as follows:

  • 80 hours at $10/hour = $800
  • 5 overtime hours at ($10 x 1.5) = $75
  • For a total of $875
  1. Distribute tips to tipped employees as per your tip pooling agreement. If a tipped employee’s wages don’t meet the state minimum wage after tips, your business will have to make up the difference out of pocket.

Tipped employees are classified by the U.S. Department of Labor as anyone who regularly makes more than $30 a month in tips. This constitutes most front-of-house restaurant employees such as servers, runners, hosts, and bartenders. Some states have their own qualifications. Check your state’s rules to make sure you’re compliant.

  1. Calculate withholdings for the following taxes and deductions:
  2. Federal income taxes: These taxes range from 10-37% based on an employee’s annual income and their status as single, married, or head of household.
  3. State income taxes: Check your state’s tax code to find out if your employees are subject to state income tax withholding.
  4. Local taxes: Some cities and municipalities charge professionals an added income tax on top of the state. Philadelphia, for example, imposes a 3.87% tax on people who work in the city..
  5. Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes: Employees and employers split paying into Social Security and Medicare. Withhold 6.2% of an employee's gross pay for FICA taxes. You'll cover the remaining 6.2% out of pocket.
  6. Deductions for benefits like health insurance, 401(k), dental, vision, etc. Employees should elect how much they want to be deducted from their paychecks for these programs during onboarding.
  7. While employees pay for many of their own payroll taxes through withholding, there are some costs that restaurants have to pay on behalf of employees, including:
  8. FICA taxes: As we mentioned, employers owe 6.2% of an employee's gross pay in these taxes.
  9. Retirement matching: If your business matches your employees' retirement savings. This is usually reserved for high-level salaried employees such as a GM or executive chef.
  10. Subsidizing tipped wages: If an employee’s wage doesn’t total at least the minimum wage after tips, you as an employee must subsidize their wage to match. Check your local laws for rules about paying tipped staff.

Let’s revisit our server, Max. We calculated their gross paycheck to be $875 in the above step. However, after deducting federal, state, local, and FICA taxes from their paycheck, they come home with $732.

An easy way to calculate payroll taxes and wages is to use a calculator like this one.

How to prevent payroll tax issues 📝

Here are a few simple steps to make sure you do in order to prevent any tax issues when it comes to doing your payroll.
1. Make sure you are tax compliant. Confusing tax codes are the root of many preventable payroll tax issues. Make sure that you’re paying taxes for all levels of government that affect you and your employees—including federal, state, and any local tax. Hiring a payroll specialist or using payroll software can help you avoid common mistakes.

2. Get tips in order Errors with reporting tipped wages are also a common way that restaurants get into tax trouble. The employee is responsible for tracking and reporting tips to the IRS as income. Tipped workers must make at least the state minimum wage after tips, or else you, the employer, have to supplement their earnings to make up the difference. Check out the guide from the IRS for all the rules and regulations surrounding tips.

3. Don't overlook local labor laws. For example, six cities and the state of Oregon currently have predictive scheduling regulations. Otherwise known as fair scheduling, or secure scheduling, these are policies designed to protect employees with mandated scheduling practices. These often include:

  • How far in advance staff must know their scheduled shifts
  • Predictability pay for schedule changes or cancellations
  • Minimum hours between shifts (to eliminate the clopen)
  • “Good faith” hours estimates for new hires
  • Employee rights to refuse or request shifts


Check to see what your state, city, or municipality requires and be sure to adhere to any and all laws to ensure compliant scheduling.

What payroll records to keep 🗄

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and IRS require businesses to keep three years of payroll records in case of an audit. The records that you should keep include the following documentation:

  • Employee information such as their name, social security number, mailing address, and contact information like phone numbers and email addresses.
  • Paystubs with payment dates and total wages. These will also include tax and benefit deductions.
  • Time clock data or timesheets listing hours worked, overtime, and breaks.
  • Tax forms for the IRS. These include W-4s (employee withholdings) as well as W-2s and W-3s (wages and tax statements)
  • Payroll tax forms 941 and 944 which include quarterly and annual tax payment information.

The easiest way to maintain proper records is by using payroll software. If you’re not using software, make scans of paper records and upload them to a cloud-based drive such as Google Drive or Dropbox to ensure you don’t lose them. Keep any paper copies safe and dry in a locked filing cabinet. For a full list of the documents and information you should be keeping, check out the IRS’ full list.

Restaurant payroll guide to payroll software 💻

You may want to consider using payroll software to make payroll a lot simpler for you. Here's what you need to know about this software, and how to find the best option for your restaurant.

Benefits of using payroll software

Using payroll software is a great alternative to hiring a payroll specialist or agency to manage your restaurant's payroll, or doing it the old-school pen-and-paper way. The benefits of using payroll software are substantial, and it can even integrate with your time clock and scheduling software to automate wage calculations, overtime pay, tax and benefit withholdings, and even employee payment. They’re also incredibly useful for keeping records (which we’ll cover later). The best part? Payroll software costs a fraction of what hiring a payroll professional costs.

How to choose the right payroll software

If you decide to take the DIY approach to payroll by using software, there are several things you should keep in mind while shopping around:

  • Ease of use: Look for software that has a simple interface and intuitive functionalities. You don’t want it to take more time than doing it manually.
  • Mobile-ready: If the software has a mobile version, you’ll be able to work on and approve payroll while on the go, a great solution for busy restaurant life.
  • Customer support: Make sure that your payroll software comes with comprehensive customer support. Phone support is preferable to a chat or messaging feature. Like the kitchen, payroll has a lot of moving parts, so good client support is a must when choosing software.

Examples of restaurant payroll software

There are a number of fantastic payroll software solutions out there, and some even integrate with 7shifts. These include:

For a full list of payroll software companies that integrate with 7shifts, check out our integrated partners page.

Final thoughts: Restaurant payroll guide 2021

Running payroll may not be the most exciting part of running a restaurant, but it’s one of the most essential. It can be intimidating, but by preparing yourself with the right information and tools, you can make it a bit easier. We hope this restaurant payroll guide has demystified the payroll process for you and has empowered you to take on your payroll with a newfound confidence in 2021.

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Ana Cvetkovic
Ana Cvetkovic

Ana Cvetkovic is a freelance writer for 7shifts. She is also the CEO of BLOOM Digital Marketing, a creative marketing agency that helps the hospitality and tourism industries reach millennials online.