Today’s restaurateurs have to work tirelessly to keep a full staff. In spite of recent steady employment gains, food and drink establishments in the US are still 450,000 jobs below pre-pandemic staffing levels (3.6%) – representing the largest employment deficit of all industries.
Nowadays, the difference between a fully staffed restaurant operation and one that is struggling can come down to a few factors, primarily the restaurant’s management and internal culture.
At DoorDash’s Main Street Summit in Los Angeles, we invited industry leaders to participate in a special session titled ‘Spotlight on Restaurant Benefits: How to Attract and Retain Workers.’
Chase Knight (VP of Business Development, Sesame) moderated this lively discussion with Othon Nolasco (Co-Founder, No Us Without You LA), Kwini Reed (Co-Owner Poppy + Rose, Poppy + Seed), and Akira Akuto (Co-Founder, Konbi).
In addition to talking about the importance of merchant benefits in attracting and retaining workers, the participants shared strategies for motivating restaurant employees.
Culture is key to restaurant operations
While wages and benefits have always been important to attracting top employees, there is another elusive factor that can make or break a restaurant: culture.
After all, at its foundation, a restaurant represents a community of people. And the backbone of that community is its staff – the people who show up to work every day, pour heart and soul into what they do, and create delicious meals for customers to enjoy.
Treating your staff well is one way to build a strong culture, incorporating traditions like the family meal – where workers break bread and talk in a relaxed way – or simple practices like greeting everyone by name, or giving praise and recognition internally and publicly.
Building a motivated restaurant workforce is an ongoing effort. Here are four takeaways from the session that may help.
4 ways to motivate your restaurant staff
1. Be considerate and recognize them as individuals
The COVID-19 pandemic hit restaurant workers hard. Some struggled to pay their bills; some felt enormous pressure from being on the front lines; some were bitter about job insecurity.
One thing became clear: workers of all stripes realized they wanted more for themselves. They wanted two days off in a row. Or they wanted to be home for dinner with their family. Or they wanted the ability to take a sick child to the doctor.
Demonstrating sensitivity to your employees’ needs as human beings and as individuals can go a long way to gaining trust and loyalty. It just comes down to how you treat people. Othon Nolasco explained, “For a long time, operators wanted you to take ownership, they wanted employees to be empowered to act like ‘This is my place,’ but they weren't paid the same as owners. So I think it's important to respect them.”
Kwini Reed talked about how she and her husband strived to take care of her employees during the pandemic. “Back in the day, when we worked for people, what were the things that were important to us? Treating them like humans, happy work/life balance, right? That really costs nothing.”
In addition to sharing restaurant team-building ideas, like taking workers to impromptu Dodgers games, she explained how she puts honoring employees’ individuality into practice.
When we interview, the first thing that I ask them, I turn their resume over and I say, ‘Well, who are you outside of here?’ Because I'm an owner, but I'm also a singer. I'm a writer, I'm a mother, and food is my love language.
2. Be transparent and keep lines of communication open
Sometimes, unspoken tensions can create a workplace that is toxic and unhealthy – not unlike the atmosphere popularized in FX’s The Bear. If your restaurant is a place where bad feelings and animosity can fester out of sight, then your employees may not feel safe or supported – and they may eventually leave.
Fortunately, restaurateurs are in a position to combat many of the unhealthy attitudes and divisions that can lead to employee burnout. Intentional management philosophies and policies can make a difference in building a motivated workforce. As Kwini Reed said, “There’s this divide between the front and the back of the house, it's toxic. So you want to try to work to kind of blend [the two].”
Building effective communication between kitchen and restaurant staff is important. Often, the division is due to inequity in wages, with the front of the house typically earning more, including tips from customers. Public discussion of uncomfortable topics like employee compensation can be one way to increase transparency in your restaurant and build trust within your workforce.
The way we design the restaurant, there's no front and back house. We try to create this level of transparency, where it's like – this is what you're going to get paid. For us, we just kind of put that out there, initially.
Another way to ensure an open restaurant workplace is to communicate regularly. Hold scheduled meetings to share any updates and to explain or discuss workplace policies or anything your staff needs to know. Open meetings allow your workers to raise concerns, helping to break down any mistrust.
3. Empower employees to build careers
If your workers are simply showing up to collect a paycheck, they’re not going to stick around if a better offer comes along. However, if you look at each staff position as a stepping-stone to a longer-term career path, it will show employees that you are looking out for their interests.
Mapping out career paths is just one way to show workers that there is job mobility for them.
Nolasco shared the importance of giving his workers autonomy – especially since many of them began working as volunteers, before he was even able to pay wages at all.
What we allowed [our staff] to do was basically whatever they wanted to do in the organization. For example, our Director of Operations, Edwin Rodriguez, started working at Sunrise Bar as a food runner seven years ago, and he runs operations because he was just given the chance. He always had the aptitude and the work ethic; he just needed someone to allow him to shine.
Offering a career path and autonomy for workers are both good ways to help build motivation.
4. Be generous with wages and benefits
Most restaurant operators know that starting wages are key to getting an employee in the door. But as Kwini Reed shared, it can pay off in the long run to go above and beyond what is expected. This may mean regular research into wages for your area to help you keep up, but is worth the trouble.
“We're making sure that we're keeping up and paying above minimum wage – not just the minimum, but above that, making sure that everything is fair," said Reed.
Reed prides herself on creativity in finding ways to cut expenses so she can pay her employees a highly competitive wage. As she puts it, she’s constantly “scrubbing the books” to find ways to be more generous to her workers. “A lot of people think that they don't have the money to do it. And it's just because they're not paying attention to their books.”
Being generous to workers includes paying benefits wherever possible – including health benefits. As a recent DoorDash report on the impact of benefits cited, 66% of restaurant employees surveyed are more likely to apply to a restaurant job that offers health benefits than one that does not.
Akuto admitted, “[Offering health benefits] is a main driver of people staying with us.” So offering your employees a competitive benefits package can give restaurant operators added security.
Feeding your workers’ souls
Restaurateurs will always need to balance operational requirements with staffing needs. But at the end of the day, restaurants would be nowhere without their employees – and it makes good economic sense to invest time and effort into building a positive culture where employees are motivated and can thrive.
As Reed states, “We make sure that our brand is feeding the customer’s soul, but we also need to feed the soul of our employees. That’s something that we have really tried to build.”
To learn more about how DoorDash is partnering with other companies to make health and other benefits more affordable, see Merchants Benefits & Discounts.