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Ann Holtzapple
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01.15.21

How to Attract and Keep Restaurant Kitchen Staff During the Pandemic

While high attrition has been a consistent problem in the restaurant industry with annual turnover rates reaching an all-time high of 75 percent in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated what Darden CEO Gene Lee declared “the war for talent.”  

The crux of the restaurant turnover rate issue, according to QSR? “A lot of employees, like customers, remain reluctant to balance personal safety with wages.” In fact, 53 percent of restaurant employees were reluctant to apply for jobs due to fear of exposure, according to a study by Branch. Many are choosing to remain in the work they took while furloughed from their restaurant jobs, while others would prefer waiting it out while collecting unemployment. 

Read on to learn more about how the industry’s high turnover rate may be harming your business in more ways than one, as well as strategies for recruiting and hiring good restaurant kitchen staff who are likely to stay. 

How the High Kitchen Staff Turnover Rate Affects Your Restaurant

According to a Restaurant365 survey, many restaurants cited “staff” as their top challenge. And with good reason: High turnover costs you in a number of ways, including:

  • Time – Until you fill the vacancy, your existing staff will be stretched to complete the additional prep work.
  • Cost – If you need to train new hires, you are paying them to learn on the job.
  • Low morale – If new people are constantly cycling in and out of your foodservice business, this can result in a low workplace morale that makes it all the more challenging for your staff to stay.
  • Diner experience – If a novice cook sends out a poor quality dish and diners dislike it, you may lose those customers.
  • Stress – Running a restaurant is stressful enough without the added stress of finding a cook…again.

While you may not be able to alter the industry's high turnover rates, some change is within your power -- starting with taking steps to recruit, hire, and train people who are not only more likely to perform well, but also less likely to leave. 

 

How to Recruit Employees for Restaurants / Where Should I Be Looking for Good Staff?

There is no question that if you hire the right person the first time around, you will reduce the turnover rate in your restaurant.

When hiring kitchen staff, start by reviewing your job description. Does it accurately describe the duties of the prep cook, line cook, dishwasher, or other position? If you sometimes have your prep cook clean pots because the dishwasher is swamped, it’s best to put this in your job description. New hires dislike surprises, and may leave if they feel you were dishonest about the role.

Managing a kitchen staff interview properly can also make a difference. When interviewing applicants, take the time not only to get to know their skills and personalities, but also to consider how they'll fit in with your restaurant culture. A shy worker may feel uncomfortable if your kitchen is boisterous and will be likely to leave.

Once you have identified a good candidate, put their skills to the test with a practical exam or stage. Watch them work to gauge whether they are someone you really want to hire.

Speaking of skill, you may be wondering what should you be looking for when hiring for your restaurant when retention is a top concern? We’ll address that in the next section. 

 

Top Attributes of Kitchen Staff

Hiring the right people for kitchen staff positions starts with knowing what to look for. Successful kitchen employees typically possess the following traits:

  • Personality – At the end of the day, food service is customer service. In fact, according to one study, customers reported that knowledgeable, polite and positive restaurant employees were more important to them than any other factor, including price. Seeking out friendly, polite and pleasant employees not only ensures good customer service, but also increases the likelihood that a job candidate will enhance the culture of your workplace.
  • Accuracy – From making sure a steak is cooked to the preferred temperature to noting food allergies, the ability to prepare and deliver food to diner specifications is essential. 
  • Ability to Multi-Task – Because restaurants have many moving parts, they can also be chaotic  -- especially during your busiest hours of serving. Employees who can handle multiple orders while maintaining a calm and poised demeanor will not only perform better, but they’re less likely to become overwhelmed and demoralized.
  • Flexibility – Flexibility is increasingly sought-after by employees when considering employers. However, because it’s a big-turnover industry, personnel changes go with the territory. While it’s important for restaurants to be accommodating when possible, there’s a simple way to mitigate it: Hire candidates with fewer scheduling constraints. 

Tips for Retaining Restaurant Staff

All staff will be more likely to stay with you if they feel they are cared for and that their needs are met. While this begins with recruiting and hiring and continues with proper training, it doesn’t end there. Restaurant staff retention is an ongoing process that includes the following strategies:  

  • Create a training manual – Make it easy for new staff to come onboard by creating a training manual for all roles. During their training period, check in with them to make sure they feel comfortable.
  • Be supportive of staff needs – The more supportive you can be of staff needs, the more comfortable staff will feel. Restaurants are busy workplaces and it can be difficult to take five minutes to sit down with an employee and discuss a pain point. Yet, it is critically important to your employee retention that you find the time to talk to staff whenever they come to you. Staff who feel they are not heard or respected will leave, and complain until they do.
  • Compliment people for doing good work – Too often, in the heat of service chefs and owners forget to praise workers for jobs well done. Praise staff more and morale will increase. When you need to deliver criticism, add in comments on things the employee does well on to reduce the blow.
  • Offer a higher wage – If you want the best talent and you want staff to stay, offer a higher hourly rate than your competitors. It’s a simple and effective solution. If you don’t feel comfortable increasing rates across the board, consider rewarding employees for staying with the organization. Implement a small raise at 3 months, another at 6 months, and so on. This provides staff with a direct incentive to stay.
  • Be fair and flexible – When scheduling workers, be fair. If you routinely schedule someone to close and then open, they may leave. If you are rigid when an employee asks to work nights instead of days to be home with a child, the employee will leave for a job that fits her needs. If tempers flare in your kitchen, staff will leave for a workplace with less drama.
  • Make room for growth – If there is no way for a prep cook to advance to a line cook, he will become discouraged and quit. If you are serious about keeping staff, you need to allow them room to grow and learn new skills. Rotate cooks among prep duties or line stations so your crew learns new skills and staff won’t have to quit for career development.

Reward restaurant kitchen staff – There are many ways to reward staff. Some owners like to arrange “field trips” to suppliers or local farms. Others prefer to have a fun holiday party, or let employees have a shift drink at the end of a night. Whether you prefer to give small rewards daily or large rewards seasonally, don’t be stingy here. This can go a long way toward creating a tight-knit community and keeping workers.

Where to Hire Restaurant Staff

We’ve addressed recruiting and retention strategies, as well as what to look for when hiring employees for your restaurant. All of which begs the question: Where should you be looking in order to find the best candidates?

One of the best sources for new employees may be closer than you think: your current staff. Hiring on recommendation gives you a trusted worker and reduces your time spent advertising and screening. Hiring a friend or relative of a current employee also reinforces the bond in your kitchen and makes everyone more likely to stay. Plus, asking employees for recommendation signifies your trust in them and their opinion, which can also be an engagement booster. 

On that note (and building on our earlier point about making room for growth), consider following Chipotle’s example by embracing promoting from within. “The key to their system? Supervisors get bonuses when they promote employees. This makes them search out the best employees and train them well. In addition, supervisors can only be promoted once they’ve found their own replacement, thus ensuring employee development,” explains Restaurant Engine. 

In this competitive climate, it can also pay off to think outside-the-box when hiring for kitchen staff jobs. While experience is always a boon, it’s far from the only thing that matters. Look for people who are personable, trainable, and demonstrate a strong work ethic. Remember: You can always train employees how you want them to be trained, but traits like personality and dedication are more innate. Plus, you won’t have to deal with breaking bad habits or comparisons to prior workplaces.

Specifically, candidates interested in sales, marketing, cooking and food have the potential to make unique contributions. And don’t forget that interest equals motivation, which can be the key to creating a culture of engagement and retention.

Restaurant Engine also recommends utilizing your local community (such as placing your ad on bulletin board space at a nearby specialty grocery store), creating a career page on your restaurant website, and using vetted hiring services as opposed to places like Craigslist.

Changing your kitchen culture to boost retention takes time, so do not become frustrated if you still see high turnover despite your efforts. The more of these strategies you can incorporate, the more motivated your restaurant kitchen staff will be to stay -- both during the pandemic and after it resolves. While increased profits and peace of mind may not be immediate, they’re well worth the wait.

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