How To Retain Your Best Employees

Employee retention has always been a challenge for the restaurant industry. Seasonal help, part-time employees, and students make up much of the workforce. Instead of seeking a career in foodservice, many restaurant employees work in the industry as a stepping stone until they graduate college and move on to their chosen career path.

Many other short-term employees work in the industry out of necessity, because restaurant jobs are plentiful, most require no college education, and it’s easy to get hired. Despite these challenges, you can take steps to encourage long-term employment. We've created a guide to help you attract the best employees, create loyalty and stability in your workforce, and retain your highly skilled staff for as long as possible.

Supporting Your Staff Through the Pandemic

It’s difficult enough to retain your staff in a pandemic-free world, but how do you keep good employees when government restrictions are forcing you to close your dining room? Many of our employee retention tips are long-term solutions, but there are strategies you can start using right now to make an immediate difference. There are two components to retaining employees during the pandemic:

  • Create a safe workplace and protect your employees from possible virus exposure - Provide face masks, cashier shields, and sanitizer. Perform temperature checks and update your sick leave policy. Restaurant employees often feel pressured to work even when they are unwell, because they are afraid of termination or because they financially can’t afford to miss a shift. Support your team members by providing some form of paid sick leave and make it non-negotiable that they stay home if they have symptoms.
  • Find ways to diversify your revenue and keep your employees working - If your dining room is closed, consider turning your operation into a ghost kitchen. Cross-train your serving staff to assist in the kitchen and help with packaging takeout orders. Find jobs for your team like answering phones, assembling meal kits, or possibly even working as temporary delivery drivers. If you don't have enough work to go around, be understanding that your team members may have to look elsewhere for employment. Leave the door open and let them know they are welcome to return in the future.

Employee Retention Strategies

If you want to create a better work environment for your staff and keep your best employees for the long term, try using these top 9 employee retention strategies.

1. Offer Health Benefits

Notebook with Employee Benefits written on it

To attract long-term employees, it’s essential to offer a health benefits package. The lack of health benefits is one of the biggest reasons employees leave foodservice and move on to more stable careers.

Many restaurant employees terminate employment long before they meet the required healthcare waiting period, which makes it a risk for restaurant owners to make the initial investment in a healthcare plan. Other employees, especially waitstaff, don’t earn enough wages to cover the cost of health insurance premiums. In a restaurant with few employees, the cost for each enrollee is just too high for a small business. So what can restaurant owners do to offer health benefits when they face such obstacles?

There’s no question that the long-term benefit of providing health insurance outweighs the stumbling blocks, but getting over the initial hurdles is the hard part. If restaurant owners can reduce turnover and retain good employees by offering a benefits package, it eliminates the time and cost of training someone new. We have two tips for restaurant owners who are ready to take the plunge and start creating a more secure work environment:

  • Work the cost of health insurance into your initial business plan - Instead of looking at a health insurance plan as something extra, account for the labor cost in your financial plan. Offset the cost in other ways by pricing your menu higher, reducing utility cost, and managing food cost.
  • Find a health plan that caters to the restaurant industry - The National Restaurant Association offers a healthcare marketplace specifically created to meet the needs of restaurant owners, including businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

2. Provide Full-Time Hours

Providing full-time hours may seem like a no brainer, but it can actually be difficult for restaurant employees to secure a 40-hour work week. Many employers choose to hire several part-time workers instead of full-time staff. Servers often work for 6 hours at a time and compete for the most profitable shifts. The staff with the most seniority usually get the best hours, and new employees have to stick around long enough for someone else to quit so they can take over their days. This creates a competitive work environment instead of a cooperative, secure workplace that encourages long-term employment.

You can help your employees increase their earnings by building your restaurant schedule to include full-time positions. If there aren’t enough full-time shifts to go around, create a rotating schedule to give everyone the chance to work the most desirable shifts. When you hire new employees, be upfront about what types of positions are available, whether it’s part-time or full-time. If you hire full-time employees, make sure they get the hours they need and you’ll increase your employee retention rate.

3. Staff Meal or Meal Allowances

Don’t underestimate the positive effect that a staff meal has on the morale or your team. Some restaurants have strict rules about food, which may include not eating during work hours or not eating any food from the restaurant’s kitchen, period. Eating in front of guests is bad etiquette, and some employers worry that if they offer free food to employees, it will lead to theft. Despite these concerns, you can vastly improve the work environment for your employees by providing a free staff meal and lightening up on the food restrictions.

Consider that all of your restaurant employees are working on their feet and burning calories non-stop, while also being surrounded by delicious food for their entire shift. Your staff will actually be less likely to steal a french fry here or there if they have a staff meal before the shift begins. If you’re worried about front-of-house staff eating in view of guests, you can make a designated break station in the back. Instead of tossing unused bread, salads, and other items that can’t be used for the next shift, send your staff home with the surplus. For many restaurant workers who are struggling to put themselves through college or working hard to support their families, a full belly goes a long way.

4. Consider a Higher Wage

Restaurant owner with a chef in the kitchen

When you’re competing with other restaurants for the very best employees, offering a higher wage is very enticing. If the other restaurants in your area all pay the minimum wage, you can get an edge by paying a higher hourly rate. You’ll also attract the best talent in the kitchen if you offer salary positions for your key back-of-house positions.

Give your employees the incentive to stick around by creating a growth path of restaurant positions. Provide a pay increase as employees strive for development and climb the hierarchy. You can also offer performance-based raises when employees meet certain benchmarks. Room to grow and the potential to make more money are powerful motivators that encourage your best employees to stay.

5. Reward Top Performers

Job satisfaction increases when employees know their hard work has been noticed. Many times the most dedicated workers will move on to a new restaurant simply because they feel unseen and unappreciated. Make it a point to observe your staff and find the superstars. Every business has superstar employees, but sometimes the pressures and everyday distractions of running a restaurant obscure their shine. Reward your top performers and look for ways to encourage other team members that are on a growth path to become overachievers.

6. Make Work Culture a Priority

Successful work culture can be hard to define. Everyone can look back at their work career and pinpoint the businesses with a thriving work culture and the ones that fell short. Most likely, the restaurants with a positive work culture are the ones where employees stayed the longest, built lasting relationships with their coworkers, and have the fondest memories. So what makes one work culture better than another?

Some important aspects of a thriving work culture are an emphasis on a healthy home/work balance, a feeling of purpose in one’s work, and positive workplace relationships. In the busy restaurant industry, it's easy to lose sight of these things. Make culture your priority by building it into your training program and working with your management team to create a positive work environment. Work culture costs nothing and has a tremendous impact on employee retention.

7. Recruiting and Referrals

Restaurant manager and his staff in a meeting in the kitchen

Instead of waiting for good employees to come to you, take an active role and start recruiting. Contact the career services department at local culinary schools to recruit recent graduates. Attend job fairs and recruiting events to scope out talented chefs and business management students. There’s an advantage to handpicking your team versus hoping for the right employees to come along.

Referrals are another great way to find superior candidates for your team. If you already have a superstar employee, there's a good chance they have friends with the same work ethic. Offer a referral bonus for any employee who refers a successful candidate.

8. Refine the Hiring Process

Interviews and hiring are often a speedy process in the restaurant industry. Because of the high turnover rate, managers have to squeeze in interviews whenever they have a few spare minutes. Failing to perform an in-depth interview creates a cycle where both the needs of the business and the needs of the new employee are not being met, increasing the turnover rate yet again when the employee leaves.

To break the cycle, nominate and train a member of your staff to perform careful, in-depth interviews to assess employees and match up their needs with the needs of your business. Don’t neglect to consider your work culture and the personalities of your team members when hiring a new candidate. When it comes to hiring your management team, you'll want to choose the applicants that are best-suited to carry out your goals and mission statement.

9. Be Present

Our last tip to improve your employee retention is to be present and get on a first-name basis with your employees. Even if you don't handle the everyday management of your restaurant, try to pop in regularly so your staff can put a face with your name. It would surprise you how much a handshake and a hello from the owner means to an employee. Show your gratitude, offer mentorship when it's needed, but be careful not to micromanage your team.

If your business is struggling through the pandemic, some of our employee retention strategies may not be feasible for you right now. Try focusing on the culture aspect of your business if your revenue can't support options like health insurance or higher salaries. But keep those strategies in mind for the future as long-term goals to improve your employee retention. The benefits of keeping your best employees will outweigh the investment in the long run.

By Michale LeRoy
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