Hiring Staff During a Restaurant Industry Labor Shortage

Learn restaurant hiring and retention tips from industry leaders.

10 min read

If you're finding it harder than ever to find (and retain) good restaurant staff, you're not alone. The pandemic has impacted the labor market for most industries, but restaurant hiring has been hit the hardest: nearly a third of hospitality jobs have disappeared since last March in the US. 

"I've asked friends of friends, other friends, posted it, posted on social media and it's been crickets. Everybody seems to be having the same problem," explained Sofia Deleon, owner of El Merkury in Philadelphia, in a recent article from The Counter. While finding new staff amid a labor shortage might be a shared challenge, it's also a great time to think about how to update your company culture, policies, and benefits in ways that support employees and show you care about their wellbeing.

The pandemic has offered many of us a chance to reflect on our needs and values, and the restaurant industry is no exception. Now, with a looming labor shortage, it's a pivotal moment for restaurant owners to redesign their relationships with employees to set up their businesses for success long-term.

What's behind the shortage?

While many people think the stimulus checks are to blame for keeping restaurant workers out of restaurants, the jury's still out on how much of an effect that has had. Likely, it's a variety of contributing factors that have added up to create the labor shortage: staff concerns about getting sick, the challenge of uncertain work hours, not feeling valued by customers, not feeling valued by employers, and the increased workload handled by a leaner staff.

As you explore how to attract and retain employees, think about ways you can alleviate some of these issues to make work easier for your team. Many businesses are experimenting new ways to find and keep a thriving team of employees. Keep reading to learn practical tips, ideas, and advice from fellow restaurant owners.

Keeping employees happy

Once you've hired your staff, how do you keep them? Small changes to your day-to-day operations can go a long way in keeping current employees happy and satisfied—for the long-term.

Build a better culture through communication

Adam Reiner, a service industry advocate, believes that in a post-pandemic world, "restaurants will need to offer more incentives to attract quality workers and foster healthier workplaces." While he sees this as a full commitment to gender equity and racial justice, it's much simpler than that: it's about creating a better work environment where employees feel supported and respected. 

Hospitality jobs can be notoriously grueling. When the customer is "always right," it puts a lot of pressure on your staff to get everything perfect—even when that's practically impossible. To build a team that can go the long haul, make sure employees know you appreciate them for their hard work.

Colin Denton, partner at Kokomo, a restaurant group of plant-based cafes in Vancouver, sees communication as the largest contributor to employee satisfaction. His team doesn't roll out anything new until they've confirmed that everyone on the team has heard about it. The communication goes both ways too.

Colin Denton

People need to feel like they're a part of the business, they need to feel heard, and they need to have the tools to succeed when they're on the floor. The way you do that is through communication.

Colin Denton, Partner, Kokomo

Appreciate your employees

Creating a more supportive work environment is about more than just making people feel good—it also has a measurable impact on productivity. In fact, 40% of employees say they'd put more energy into their work if they felt their efforts were being recognized more often. So, don't skimp on communicating you care.

"Everyone thinks it's always money that gets people in, but it's things like autonomy, feeling like they have a say at the table, health benefits, and communication—those are the things that are lasting," Colin explained.

Here are some ways to show appreciation to your employees:

  • Spotlight an employee of the month: Recognizing a high-performing employee lets your entire staff know that you see their hard work. Honor your employee of the month's contributions publicly on social media, and recognize their efforts internally, especially  to any upper management, who can keep an eye on them for future promotion.

  • Offer bonuses: If your business has a particularly good month or year, share that with your team through a small bonus. Even a little money can go a long way towards letting employees know you care.

  • Have a good scheduling and time off policy: Having a clear way for employees to know when they're scheduled and be able to plan for time off is key for showing employees that you respect their time.

Help your team with benefits

While you may not be able to provide health insurance for your employees, you can still help them get the coverage they need. Consider hiring an HR consultant to pull together a guidebook of resources for your employees that gives them the information they need to get started. For example, compile details on state-sponsored health plans, how to apply, and information on things like your sick day policies—anything that helps your employees take care of their health.

With so many restaurant employees concerned about exposure to COVID, look for ways to support your staff in getting vaccinated, too. Create a list of local vaccination sites, and consider working with your local city government to get early access for restaurant workers—who are still vulnerable due to their work with the public. When it comes to scheduling, encourage your team to get vaccinated by making it easy for them to request time off.

Train your staff

It's important to set aside time to train your staff properly. If done correctly, this can even help your business get through the times when the labor pool ebbs and flows. Jill Gray, a co-owner of Chicago's Tortello, suggests "trying to build an efficient, Swiss Army knife of a team" by training more people across more types of roles. Not only is it more efficient if someone is out sick, it's also more fulfilling for employees who get to learn and practice new skills.

Colin and his team at Kokomo believe training for autonomy is key to setting people up for success—so much so that it's a key part of their restaurant hiring and training process.

Colin Denton

We truly believe autonomy is the most important thing—we need our staff to understand why we make certain decisions and how we take care of our guests. They need to understand the ‘why' behind those decisions, so they can handle the curveballs on their own when they happen.

Colin Denton, Partner, Kokomo

Help your customers help your staff

While properly training your staff is key to setting them up for success, you also need to encourage customers to do their part.

With new and changing local regulations about mask-wearing at restaurants and lack of public interaction for the past 12 months, customers are likely to be a bit out of practice with the social norms for dining out. Create clear signage that educates customers on how and when to wear a mask, as well as where to stand when waiting for reservations or pickup orders.

Additionally, good customer tips are super important for keeping your team happy. Whether you're taking orders online or on-premise, make it easy for customers to add a tip. You can even suggest a recommended amount based on the order total, taking the guesswork out of the equation for the customer.

Optimize your operations

One of the biggest challenges for restaurants during the pandemic has been figuring out how to shift their business models to maximize profit while working with limited hours and staff.

Don't forget to check in with your employees to get insights on how to redesign your operations. Since they work more closely with customers day-to-day, they can share valuable input on what will work best.

Colin Denton

We listened to our staff. When our city allowed indoor dining, we asked our staff if they felt comfortable with that. They didn't, so we didn't do indoor dining.

Colin Denton, Partner, Kokomo

Similarly, finding new ways to adapt to changing regulations, such as offering a limited takeout menu or cutting down hours, can help maintain profitability—and keep the day-to-day more manageable for a leaner staff.

Finding employees

When facing a labor shortage, look to tried-and-true restaurant hiring practices as well as unexpected sources for staffing.

No such thing as TMI

Too Much Information, or TMI, doesn't exist when writing up a job description. Clear information helps set clear expectations, so that staff know what they're saying yes to when they apply for the job. Don't skip out on key details, like pay rate and expectations.

Kokomo has a great example of a detailed job posting on their website. They list clear information for:

  • Job responsibilities

  • Qualifications required

  • Opportunities to grow

  • Full-time or part-time schedule availability

  • Salary range

  • Benefits

  • How to apply

Use your marketing channels

While posting on industry-specific job boards is great, you're also competing to hire from the same pool of applicants on that platform. Mix up your outreach by posting job openings on your marketing channels, like Instagram. Social media posts are easily shareable, plus applicants will get a feel for your business by seeing the rest of the content you post.

"We've been able to hire and retain some really good people, just based on alignment with our values," Colin shared. Among beautiful photos of food, Kokomo regularly shares job listings on their Instagram feed, enticing future employees (as well as customers) and communicating what the company is all about.

Open up your hiring pool

Great employees can be found in unexpected places. For example, do you have any great customers who come in day after day, who might also be looking for jobs? Consider hiring them.

"I normally require three years' experience, minimum," said Camila Ramos, owner of All Day in Miami, in an article for the New York Times. "Now I'm like, ‘You've been here a couple times? I'll train you.'" She's since hired a former real estate agent and a day trader for her cafe.

Colin also likes to hire friends of employees for Kokomo, since it contributes to an overall positive work culture.

Colin Denton

We truly believe in internal incentives for hiring. If we could have one giant group of friends work at one location, we believe that's motivating and fun for our staff.

Colin Denton, Partner, Kokomo

Additionally, consider partnering with organizations that connect businesses with job-seekers, like Dave's Killer Bread Foundation, which helps formerly incarcerated people find new, sustainable job opportunities.

Invest in your team

At the end of the day, the people you hire are your most valuable assets as a business owner—and it's well worth the effort to find and retain good employees.

Colin Denton

Happy and well-trained employees contribute to happy customers, who become repeat customers, who grow your profits. A lot of businesses prioritize these in the opposite order, but you can get the same results by focusing on employees first, which also helps with retention.

Colin Denton, Partner, Kokomo


Ali Cottong
Ali Cottong


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