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The headlines are practically everywhere. Restaurants (among other industries) can’t find enough workers. John Winterman, an owner of the Michelin-starred Francie in Brooklyn, says, “Pre-Covid, if I needed, say, a porter, I would have called some friends in the business and said, ‘Hey, do you know anyone?’ and the position would have been filled in a day. But I can’t even call these people because they’re in the same boat!”

restaurant labor shortage

Photo by Shangyou Shi on Unsplash

Some operators are blaming extended benefits from federal and state governments. Others point to the often-grueling reality of servicing often-irate diners. And then there is the pandemic-inspired wanderlust that sent thousands of people scattering to different cities, states, and even countries to weather the storm with friends and family or act on a long-desired wish to pick up their lives and professions and relocate.

While all of these things can be simultaneously true, what else might be contributing to this latest crisis for hospitality businesses? Andy Challenger, Senior Vice President at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based firm offering outplacement, executive, and business coaching, doesn’t discount the extended enhanced benefits as a factor in the talent shortage. However, he also points to the lingering issue of the pandemic. “COVID is still around and it is clearly keeping some people on the sidelines; not everyone is vaccinated,” he says. He also points to a continued childcare crisis. “A lot of parents are having a really difficult time finding childcare as some schools, summer camps, and daycare centers are still closed,” says Challenger.

Liz Ryan, the workplace author and CEO of Human Workplace, believes the pandemic exposed the flaws in how restaurant workers are compensated. “The minimum wage [which has held steady at $7.25 an hour since its last increase in 2009] has been artificially depressed for 12 years yet every other expense has gone up, like housing. This isn’t the fault of the restaurant industry; it’s a political issue,” Ryan says. “Saying the government stimulus is the reason for the worker shortage is complete B.S.,” she says. “If you’re arguing that the government has been artificially propping up wages during the pandemic, then the government was artificially keeping wages below the market rate before that, forcing people to choose being underpaid as an alternative to starving. That boom period for restaurants — because Millennials care about experiences and were finding them at restaurants — was, in and of itself, artificial,” Ryan states.

Whatever the many reasons for the seemingly Rapture-ish vanishing of so many workers, here’s how restaurateurs are handling the labor shortage. 

Training

Pre-pandemic, restaurants often had more applicants than jobs and so candidates with hospitality experience had a leg up on the competition. Now, though, restaurateurs are willing to train anyone with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn. At CRUST, the acclaimed pizza and modern Italian restaurant in Miami, where they are short five to six employees, owner Klime Kovaceski looks for raw talent and ability. He says, “I think it’s important to give people a chance and train them. We’ll hire someone without experience to be a server’s assistant for a little while and then, with training, we can promote them very quickly.” Lindsey Teeter, Human Resources Manager for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which is under-staffed by approximately 20 percent, says the company employs a similar approach. “If you come into an interview with a great attitude and willingness to work, we will teach you what you need to know. We just ask for a positive outlook and an interest in learning and growing,” Teeter states.

restaurant labor shortage

Photo courtesy of CRUST

Hiring Bonuses and Perks

Practically unheard of before 2021, operators are incentivizing new hires by offering hiring bonuses. “The Cameron Mitchell group started doing hiring bonuses for line cooks and ultimately expanded it to all positions. We offer a signing bonus that you’ll get after 90 days of employment,” Teeter says. “Depending on the number of hours people work and how long they’ve been with the company, we offer health benefits and a 401(k). Also, associates receive a 50 percent discount at any of our restaurants, regardless of your position within the company. And we have 60 restaurants across the country,” she notes. 

Employee Referral Programs

Word-of-mouth has always been a trusted recruitment tactic. Hospitality professionals tend to know other restaurant workers, and a mention of openings to a friend over a hot coffee or a cold beer was often enough to persuade someone to walk through an establishment’s door, resume in hand and a solid reference on the floor or in the kitchen. Employers are now incentivizing this practice with cash. At CRUST, Kovaceski has done so in the past, but he’s upped the ante. “Now, I offer $300 for any position,” he says. Cameron Mitchell Restaurants employ a similar practice. “We’re doing referral bonuses for our internal associates. It’s a company-wide referral program — tell your family and friends to join us. It’s a way to give back to the associates who have stayed with us throughout the pandemic. We don’t want to overlook what they’ve given us to help the restaurants stay afloat,” says Teeter. 

Reduced Hours and Seating

While a lot of restaurants are seemingly operating at capacity now that COVID restrictions are lifting, all isn’t what it seems. At short-staffed restaurants, managers are reducing or changing hours and blocking seating availability on reservation systems. They are also limiting the number of walk-ins they can accommodate. At Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Teeter says, “We shortened hours at some locations and closed on certain days. And when we’re really busy on Friday or Saturday nights, we’re taking out tables.” At CRUST, where Kovaceski is short-staffed, he too has cut hours yet his profits remain healthy even compared to pre-COVID days. He and his wife and co-owner Anita Kovaceski, who typically oversees the dining room floor and is now pitching in as a server when needed (she passes any tips she receives to the regular wait staff), watch the flow of diners and the tickets in the restaurant’s kitchen with a close-eye. “If takeout orders become too much, we’ll block reservations on the platforms or turn away walk-ins,” he says.  

restaurant labor shortage

Image courtesy of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants

Job Fairs

With people being able to mix and mingle maskless in most states, restaurant recruiters, particularly those working within larger-scale operations, are reviving the job fair. Cameron Mitchell is among them. Teeter says, “We’re running job fairs right now for Ocean Prime in Chicago and Dallas. And we’re looking into doing an Ocean Prime brand hiring day across the country to streamline that communication with our brands.”

Technology

The days of just posting a “Hiring!” sign in an establishment’s window or paying for a simple ad on Craigslist are long gone. Now, restaurants, both chain and independent, are turning to technology platforms to boost their recruitment efforts. Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Google, and social media apps, like Facebook, are rife with restaurant job advertisements. “We have an online applicant tracking system so applicants can apply online; it’s an easy one-click experience. And we also post to all the various job boards,” says Teeter. Kovaceski re-recruited a former server by sending her a text and inviting her to come back to her job at CRUST — and it was successful. “She’s back at work, and this shows there’s no single solution to finding talent; it’s a combination of things,” he says.

Part-Timers

Over the last decade, the industry has been embraced by many workers as a place to build their careers. Lifers, like the servers at storied steakhouse Peter Luger in Brooklyn, were no longer an anomaly. Hospitality had matured into both a calling and a lifelong pursuit. But with the competition for talent so intense, operators that had long preferred full-time staffers are embracing part-time workers with open arms. Kovaceski says, “I’m a big believer in having the consistency that comes with having the same full-time staff working in certain areas, but that isn’t possible now, and we are working with part-time employees.” Cameron Mitchell Restaurants have always employed part-time staffers. “We just ask that they commit to at least three shifts a week so they can bring that consistency to the customer experience,” says Teeter. 

restaurant labor shortage

Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography 

Flexibility

Being as accommodating as possible with employees is key. Have a part-timer who can’t get from their primary job to their second one at a restaurant in time for the pre-shift stand-up? Do what Klime does and send it out via text. Does an employee need to be off on Thursdays to attend to a family member? “Have an honest conversation about it. If you can’t immediately resolve the issue, tell your employee, ‘Here’s my problem: I only have two people on the floor on Thursdays. I don’t want to lose you over this, so let’s brainstorm and figure this out together,’” says Ryan. Challenger says, “We talk to business leaders who are telling us that they’re seeing people quitting or not accepting offers because of a flexibility issue. People got used to spending more time with their families, and there’s been a reprioritization around wanting more flexibility in their lives,” he says. 

Transparency

As the race for talent tightens, large restaurants with deeper coffers may have the ability to increase pay significantly over the minimum wage to staff up — and employees may be tempted to jump ship, especially if they are working busy shifts and assuming the profits are lining the owners’ pockets. Opening the books to employees and painting an honest picture of the restaurant’s finances — along with a roadmap for an improved financial outlook, can help staff feel that they are part of something bigger and decrease any simmering resentment. “To be able to have that level of confidence to share financials with employees — that will have benefits way beyond the pandemic. By letting people know what the big picture is, what the owners are bringing in, that says to employees, ‘I need you to be with me through this and I value you,’” says Ryan. 

Appreciation

People work for money. But that isn’t the only reason, particularly regarding those in any service industry. They’re people pleasers who enjoy creating joy for others. Restaurant operators need to extend that same level of joy to their team members. Ryan states, “Restaurant work can be super hard, and to show your employees you value them, you need to listen to them. You have to ask them, ‘How are you doing? How is it going? What can I do for you?’” “ Cameron [Mitchell, the company’s founder] and the executive team will sit down and listen to you and your ideas, whether you’re a dishwasher, a dining room manager, or an HR manager,” says Teeter. “We have a real family feel at the company,” she adds.

restaurant labor shortage

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Branding

Staying in the public eye via the media helps paint a picture of a successful restaurant and a passionate owner. Kovaceski makes it a point to court local and national media, cultivating relationships over time. “I don’t expect every interaction to yield coverage, but they get to know you and when the time is right, you may get a mention in the press,” he says. For CRUST, this is important for internal and external branding as employees and diners alike see a thriving business that is getting attention. 

Career Pathing

While it isn’t always possible for mom-and-pop shops to create clear-cut career paths, larger restaurant groups can — and they are. Teeter herself is a product of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants’ willingness to train and promote from the ground up. “I started as a server right out of college and I’ve been with the company for 11 years. I’ve grown with them and I did it coming out of restaurant operations with no HR experience, and a lot of people here have similar stories,” she says. The management team at the group prides itself on helping people create long-term successful careers. “I’m a baby having been here for 11 years, actually. We have people that have been with the company for 25, 26, 27 years, which is incredible,” Teeter says. 


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