Lately, when you go to a restaurant, have you noticed a different feel to it? The waiters, if you can find them, seem harried and exhausted. The diners become agitated, as they get hungry waiting 30-plus minutes for their meal. Being hangry, a snide comment slips out, offending the server and a then verbal altercation ensues.
Since it’s so hard to find, hire and properly train experienced waitstaff, restaurants desperately need help and are sometimes forced to hire whoever they can find. With inflation raising the costs of everything, it feels that some food establishments cut back on the quality to save money. The cooks are new, haven’t been trained appropriately due a lack of managers and the food isn’t very good. When you receive the bill, it looks like a rent or mortgage payment.
It’s unfortunate that the frontline workers—who were championed as heroes two years ago when the virus outbreak started— now bear the brunt of everyone’s frustrations. A report from ASAPP, an organization focused on artificial intelligence technologies for the service sector, found that eight out of 10 customer service representatives reported being verbally abused by customers.
Quitting And Turnover Contagion
According to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, “restaurants and hotels saw more of their workforce quit in February than employers did in virtually every other type of U.S. business, with 6% of the hospitality industry’s total labor force walking off the job.”
When workers quit, this can cause a domino effect, known as the “turnover contagion.” Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Issues, said about this dilemma, “These jobs are very difficult. And if restaurants are short-staffed, the jobs are worse and they’re harder,” which leads to a higher “quit rates” among the remaining staff.
As businesses struggle to find workers, they’re loosening their standards and bringing aboard anyone with a pulse. For example, a new hire may work for a few days and move on to the next restaurant without notice before they are let go, due to lack of skills. This is referred to as “ghosting coasting.”
In a free-flowing conversation with three vice presidents of human resources, Cheryl McCann of Metz Culinary Management, Melissa Johnston of Pacific Bells and Ann Sizemore of Captain D’s, the HR professionals offer insights into what is going on in the food-service industry.
Jack Kelly: Could you share some of the challenges that you are facing?
Cheryl McCann: One of the things that we were struggling with is when our people are saying they want flexibility. We’re serving food. We have got to be in the restaurant, in the operations. One thing we started to look at is scheduling flexibility—Hot Schedules. We started using a tool like that in our restaurants and that gives people the flexibility to work when they want to work. They’ll switch shifts with someone. We’ll throw out incentives if we can’t find a shift to get covered. On the restaurant side, people really feel like they’re in charge of their schedules.
Melissa Johnston: We really struggled with the mindset of our management team working late nights. As the hours of operations extended, especially in our casual dining situations, our managers didn’t want to stay in the restaurants past midnight. It was, ‘I’m not working until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. anymore.’
So, we had to adapt and alter our thought process, whereas a typical manager for us is based off of 50 hours for the workweek. We offered up part-time management positions. Our part-time managers are then taking the role of the late-night and weekend shifts. That was designed so that, if you wanted to work a part-time position, you’ll be the one doing the lates and the weekends, so that our core group will work that Monday through Friday and the earlier shifts they got accustomed to during Covid-19, just to try to retain our management team.
Our turnover for management went through the roof just in 2022 because we were being such sticklers with our scheduling system that we always traditionally followed. We just tried to be a little more flexible.
Ann Sizemore: That is the key to 2022: flexibility and not always doing what you’ve done. It’s just a completely different world.
Johnston: There are so many jobs available. Uber and Doordash took off during Covid-19. So, our managers can work the hours they want doing Uber and Doordash. People don’t want to work late at night anymore. They want to dictate their schedule.
I think a lot of times too, people got used to living off of less and accustomed to that environment to where there’s a work-life balance. There’s a different mindset of what’s important to them. In retail and restaurants, you knew you were working late nights. Then, the pandemic hit and the buildings shut down and it’s takeout and delivery only and only open for certain hours. That felt pretty good. You could make a good living just working till 10 p.m. You get to go home and sleep in a normal bed and tuck your kid in. I think that those things are now taking priority for people.
Sizemore: Pre-pandemic, not that culture wasn’t important…obviously, it was. It is a completely different ballgame. The bottom fell out from staffing and the whole world had to react to it. Now, it’s about: How can I make your day better? What is your work-life balance? You’re working too many hours. Let’s get you out of here.
Unfortunately, there are times when we have to either change the hours or shut our doors in the dining room or do just drive-thru only because of staffing. It’s not only about getting the restaurant open, but nobody wants to do anything because they’re afraid somebody is going to quit.
Johnston: I think a lot of industry exodus has been happening too. Our normal employee base, they’ve gone to the Amazons and the warehouse jobs that are Monday through Friday—a traditional workweek, making good money when doing it. They don’t have to be on their feet all the time and dealing with the guests who are not nice—in that environment of high stress. I think a lot of people have been reevaluating it. So, we have lost a lot, just from people leaving the industry altogether.
Sizemore: Restaurant and retail employees have left and have absolutely no intention of returning.
McCann: They’re not looking at us to provide great benefits because we tried that. ‘Okay, how much are you paying? I don’t care.’ We’re a licensed franchisee. We’ve got 10 TGI Fridays. And TGI Fridays corporate has put out that they’ve given their managers more vacation benefits. They also started paying for vacations. They give a vacation stipend and that has perked people’s ears. They do that for the general manager. We used to do it. It started off at $2,000 and then I think we started giving $1,000 and people were loving that. When we took that away from people, they were really, really upset. It’s only a matter of time before we bring it back because this helped retain leadership more.
Johnston: The cost of inflation has affected the pricing. On our fast-food side, our Taco Bell side, if we continue to compete with inflation, we are no longer going to be that place where people go for cheap food that’s a great price and a great value. We’ve had to monitor the pricing that we take.
But on the flip side, from an employee base coming to work, we’ve had to steadily compete with other locations around us to the point where we are making up for that inflation for our employees right now just to stay competitive. In time, the consumer is going to realize that it’s really expensive to eat out right now, just based on the cost of goods.
Sizemore: So many of our employees have gone to mass transit or to Uber. That is a barrier for them to be able to get to their shifts. That, coupled with child care issues, is a huge barrier in just being able to staff our restaurants. I’ve been trying to find a vendor for both. We’ve got to figure daycare out as a country.
Johnston: We linked with Care.com. We provide for our employees a much-discounted rate. We pay the other side of the premium for them. They get to utilize daycare through Care.com for $1 an hour and it can be on the spot, like immediately they come to their house.
We lost a lot of women in the food industry and we thought it was because they were having to do daycare, education on Zoom and that kind of stuff with their kids, but it hasn’t brought them back by offering this perk. I’m not sure it’s a daycare issue. And we’re all just throwing spaghetti at the wall, trying to figure it out.
We did do mass transit [commuter benefits]. Some of our locations are in places where there are miles before any apartment complexes or housing, especially traditionally by the airport where we operate. We have offered the transit benefit and that has been a huge thing for our cooks and back of house. They definitely utilize that.
Kelly: Why do you think people are gravitating toward gig roles?
Johnston: They like the flexibility of being able to dictate when they work, but they also have the ability to see, ‘Okay, wait. If I do 10 deliveries, I’m going to make this amount and then I’m good for the week.’ They’re just balancing it off of the idea that has come about, ‘I only have to make a certain amount, then I’m good.’ As opposed to when I was brought up, you make as much as you can and stock it away. I don’t really think they’re thinking of the future and saving. They’re thinking of the moment right now and how my life is right now.
Kelly: Why does it seem that the quality of service has gone down?
Sizemore: Culture, today, makes or breaks you. If that culture isn’t strong, you’re going to get a really crappy experience. You’re going to get the surly employees. But for the ones that have a strong culture and buy into what they’re doing, it’s such an incredible experience to walk in and see people believe the culture you are trying to drive. And they are out there. There are diamonds in the rough.
We’re very focused on cultural messaging and creating fun, engaging experiences that are outside the norm. Getting people excited about being a part of that family and in that restaurant, if you crack that code, then you got it. The problem is that not everyone can crack that code.
Kelly: Is it true that restaurants are hiring anyone that walks through the door?
McCann: I used to hate when people would tell me, ‘Well, they don’t have the résumé. They don’t have the experience.’ What are we doing here? We’re providing an experience. What do you mean we can’t teach them? We can teach them anything. What’s happening now is that we are taking people we have never taken before and making them very good hosts, very good servers and very good cooks.
We’ve done a lot of moving people, a lot of development in our restaurants and in our other business. Moving people that maybe were the dishwasher and moving them to a cook, taking the cooks and making them assistant managers. It’s given them a growth path and helped build the culture. If you could be that company that’s going to have little career ladders and go, ‘Hey, you can start here as a hostess or host and end up as an assistant manager.’ It helps drive that longevity, that retention.
We really have to teach people that emotional intelligence, that empathy and how to deal with people. You can show them how to do inventory and do the accounting work, but that is a special skill. You don’t sprinkle pixie dust on someone and make them a manager. You have to show them how to do it and work through it.
Sizemore: One of the benefits of 2020 and 2021 is it got us out of ‘well, that’s not the way we do it around here’ mentality and made us really get creative on how do we train in this environment, how do we staff in this environment, how do we get large cups in this environment. It’s not just the ‘people side’ of it. Our poor people are hand cutting fish right now because they can’t get the pre-cut product.
Kelly: Where do you see this going?
Johnston: I think it’s going to bounce back. It’s just going to take time. As time goes on, we’ve seen our businesses start to come back. But I think it’s never going to come back to the extent that it was. We just have to adjust what our expectations are, as an employer and as a consumer, because I don’t think we’re ever going to have bars open till 2 a.m. anymore. I don’t want to be out till 2 a.m. anymore. I think everybody did a cultural shift and the expectation just has to shift.
McCann: We have to stand resilient and continue to be outside the box. Think about things differently. We’ve got to start thinking about mental health and start talking about diversity and inclusion. We have to start really rolling with what’s out there.
What We Learned
The HR professionals coalesced around several important themes to improve the experience for workers, which in turn will enhance the customer experience. They focused on offering schedule flexibility, displaying empathy and emotional intelligence when communicating with team members, finding ways to compete against Uber, Amazon and DoorDash to get the best people, offering a work-life balance and helping with childcare and transportation costs.
Additionally, the HR experts said that they see positive change when creating and cultivating the right type of culture, and stop doing things because “we’ve always done it this way.” This leads to hiring someone not because of a résumé, but because of their drive, positive attitude, ambition and growth potential. It’s also important to find workers who are superstars, nurture them and provide upward mobility within the restaurant, as well as move them into a corporate role at headquarters. Others will see this trajectory, mirror the actions of the worker who excelled and was promoted and follow their path.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.