As the economy rebounds from the depths of the pandemic, restaurant operators are finding customers much easier to attract than the employees needed to handle the returning business. Veteran operators lament that staffing is more grueling now than it’s ever been, even with unemployment running at 6%.
The reasons are hardly a mystery. Workers displaced by massive layoffs early in the crisis could readily find work in alternate fields that promised more pay, security, safety and flexibility. That’s if they were looking to work at all. Operators say the supplements to standard unemployment benefits eroded the need to get a job.
Far less obvious are effective ways of overcoming the resistance to restaurant work. While many would-be hirers say the major challenge they face is matching the compensation earned by Uber drivers, Amazon warehouse workers, grocery store cashiers and retail workers in general, their appeal efforts extend beyond higher wages.
Here’s a collection of tactics operators are using to help their cause. They’ve been divided into sections on recruitment and retention.
Restaurateurs say they’re struggling with a double whammy in their efforts to draw applicants. First, the pool is shallow. Aggravating the situation is a secondary agenda on the part of those applying. They want to sustain their unemployment benefits by proving they’re looking for a job—even if they don’t intend to actually accept one.
O’Charley’s now takes a hard look at applications before calling in candidates for an interview. The no-shows can take a significant bite out of a manager’s time, says CEO Craig Barber.
Here are what some chains are doing to draw potential recruits:
Join the team, win a car: 20-unit Shrimp Basket Restaurants is aiming to bolster recruitment, retention and referrals through an employee sweepstakes for a new car. New hires and existing employees will be entitled to one chance to win a Chevrolet SUV for every 30 days they are employed by the company, through Sept. 10. For every referral of a job candidate, a team member gets another entry.
If they refer at least five individuals, the payback jumps to two entries per candidate. It rises to five entries per individual at the 10-referral mark.
All of the referred employees as well as the referrer must be on the payroll at the time of the drawing on Sept. 13. The rules promise that the car will be delivered to the winner on Sept. 24. Shrimp Basket has agreed to pay most related fees, including the sales tax, but the winner has to foot the income tax.
The winner can also collect the cost of the car, or $22,500, if they’d prefer that reward.
Salaried managers, headquarters staff and suppliers are ineligible.
Drive-up applications: McDonald’s units in southern California are planning their second Drive-Up Hiring Day, an event that leverages the convenience of a drive-thru by turning the windows into a one-stop hiring site. On May 18, individuals interested in landing a crew-level job can drive up without an appointment to apply for a job and get an interview on the spot. The applicants don’t have to get out of their cars, and the arrangement conforms with social-distancing protocols. It’s a repeat of an event that was held by that region of the chain in September.
For applicants dis-interested in that process, the stores are inviting individuals to apply for a job by texting a dedicated number or asking their smart speaker, “Hey, Alexa, help me get a job at McDonald’s.” The same option is available through Google’s devices.
$50 for showing up: Signs outside McDonald’s units in Florida tout a $50 cash reward for submitting to a walk-in interview any weekday at 2 p.m. Walk in, meet with a manager, and walk out with $50—and maybe a job.
Referral bonuses with heft: The restaurant industry has traditionally been a laggard in offering referral bounties, or one-time payments for a referral that leads to a hire. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that’s no longer the situation. Rewards of $100 have become common—though that amount is soaring upward.
The Half Shell Oyster House chain pays a $200 referral bonus if the recommended hire stays through training. If the trained individual stays for 30 days, the referrer gets another $300.
Knead Hospitality + Design, a multi-concept restaurant group looking to fill 25 managerial and chefs positions in the next few months, offers its current occupants of those positions a $2,000 bonus if they refer a colleague who’s hired. Jason Berry, founder and principal of the Washington, D.C.-based operator, is betting his current managers and chefs have worked with someone in their past that they wouldn’t mind calling a co-worker again. And get a thousand bucks.
“I’d rather see them get the $2,000 instead of some recruiter,” says Berry.
Hiring bonuses: Knead Hospitality offers a $1,000 bonus to new hires. The recruits are given $250 after completing their training, and get the other $750 90 days afterward.
“It’s a no-brainer for me,” says Berry. “If I have to close a station on a Friday or Saturday night because I can’t get a server, I’m going to lose two, three thousand dollars a week. Why not spend $1,000 to get those sales?”
Half Shell is also offering a signing bonus. New hires get an extra $100 if they complete training. They get another $200 if they stay long enough to collect their second paycheck. At the 90-day mark, they’re rewarded with $300.
Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., drew local coverage with its signing bonus of $400.
A laptop for the kids: When schools shifted at the start of the pandemic from onsite classes to distance learning, five-unit NYPD Pizza heard employees fretting about their children being literally unequipped. Even when schools provided laptops for the youngsters, they typically allocated one per family—an unfeasible situation for households with more than one school-aged child.
NYPD allayed the fears by providing a laptop to employees whose family needed a second device. But it wasn’t only the computer that the teammates valued. “It was that we took the time to ask them what they were feeling and then went above and beyond,” says CEO Nikki West. “I even have the sweetest thank-you note from one of the kids—it made my day.”
Hero bonuses: Like NYPD, Little Caesars franchisee Sheena Plocharczyk wanted to show her appreciation to employees in a tangible way. After her dining rooms were shut down in March 2020, Plocharczyk started paying an extra $1 an hour as a “hero bonus” to employees who helped her restaurants generate revenues through takeout and delivery.
“Not everyone gives restaurant workers the credit they deserve,” says the Michigan-based operator. “They’re the front line. I am beyond grateful for my team and what they do each and every day for our customers.”
She kept paying the higher wage as dining rooms reopened. She also surprised her managers with a $100 thank-you on Employee Appreciation Day, and makes a point of not only providing free pizza but also free meals from other restaurants for the sake of variety.
Thank-you bonuses: Darden Restaurants announced several weeks ago that it would thank its restaurant employees for their hard work during the extraordinarily trying last year by divvying up $17 million as a thank-you bonus. Days later, the Whataburger chain said it would do the same, drawing from a $90 million kitty.
Todd Graves, founder and co-CEO of the Raising Cane’s chicken fingers chain, doesn’t like signing bonuses because he believes they tend to draw bounty hunters rather than committed new employees. Instead, his company is rewarding 26,000 of the chain’s 34,000 employees with a $100 bonus if they’ve been with the brand since Jan. 1. That’s about the equivalent of a week’s pay, according to Graves.
Shift managers are being rewarded with a $250 bonus.
“Our goal is to reward the crew who are already trained and settled in their roles for their hard work, and take away the opportunity for other brands to lure them away using higher rates that are likely not sustainable,” he told Restaurant Business.
But thank-you-style retention bonuses haven’t been exclusive to deep-pocketed big chains. Charleston Hospitality Group, a multi-concept operator based in its namesake South Carolina dining mecca, has started paying bonuses under a point system adopted on April 12. The program provides qualifying employees with $600 in bonuses through a 13-week period ending in July. To earn the dough, employees must not miss a shift, clock in late or work less than 40 hours per week.
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