No matter how you cut it, owning a restaurant is never easy. When it’s going smoothly, the worst of your worries are paperwork and schmoozing customers. But when it goes poorly, it can get genuinely sickening. There’s nothing heavier for a restauranteur than the weight of each employee’s wages; the thing that puts a roof over their head, food in their children's bellies, and keeps the water running and lights on.
This is something the pandemic taught us all to varying degrees. It showed us that the most well-thought-out plans fail when met with an immovable object like COVID, and more importantly, it demonstrated the fragility of employer/employee relationships. We’ve seen a job seeker’s market unlike any in most of our lifetimes, which has made employee retention… difficult, to say the least - so what can you, a restaurant owner, GM, or chef, do to retain your staff?
Some of these tips are things that most consider common sense but bear repeating. One of the most significant lessons we’ve learned in this industry recently is that not everything is as cut-and-dry as previously thought. That means some people will need to adapt; we’ll need to learn lessons together and work to ensure that your employees and business are as happy and healthy as possible.
So let’s just dive right in - we’ll start with the simple, straightforward restaurant staff retention tips and move on in time to the slightly more complicated ones.
This is hopefully not a shocker to most readers - but it may be for some. Believe it or not, most humans don’t go to their job every day due to the “family environment” and their “passion for sandwiches/burgers/pizza” - they’re there because they have bills to pay. One of the absolutely most important parts of retaining employees is staying on top of wages.
This means that you need to do a few things:
Retaining restaurant staff is often about money - but that’s not the only thing you can do, so let’s look at some other options.
This is another “No, duh!” moment, but it’s crucial to retention. The American healthcare system is… unique. No matter how you cut it or your political beliefs, it’s widely known that if you want to have a healthy life, you need health insurance. Unfortunately, that’s something that restaurant owners often overlook.
In fact, as of 2021, only 32% of all hospitality workers in the United States had health insurance. And a significant part of that coverage was due to state-based healthcare like Oregon’s Oregon Health Plan, which is accessible only to those who make below roughly $17,000 (for a single person with no dependents) a year and lacks both vision and dental coverage.
I’ve seen several excellent options in the restaurant industry for this exact issue. Some employers decided to provide a discretionary fund for all employees that remained for over six months, increasing their total accessible medical care fund the longer they stayed. Others opted to purchase traditional healthcare for employees, and more still simply gave excess flex/vacation time to spend off as needed with no questions asked.
And now, it’s time for a downer. In a 2019 survey of 1,273 hospitality workers, the Burnt Chef Project discovered that 84% had experienced mental health issues in their career directly tied to their work culture, and 46% said they wouldn’t be comfortable sharing their mental health concerns with colleagues.
For the uninformed, the Burnt Chef Project is a global non-for-profit social enterprise dedicated to tackling the most prominent issues in the restaurant industry. We work long hours in this field, which often leads to mental health, addiction, and toxic workplaces - it’s just a fact of the industry. The Burnt Chef Project helps address those issues at the root and provides resources to those who need them.
This project is proof enough that we (owners, managers, chefs, and servers alike) collectively need to make a change. The first step is creating a healthy environment where employees can share concerns and get help when needed.
In fact, the longest I’ve ever stayed at a restaurant was in one where mental health was easy to talk about and not a stigmatizing issue - and I promise you, I’m not alone there. The long and short of it is to communicate with your employees and take care of them - they’ll return the favor.
Believe it or not, people want to feel safe and welcomed where they work - the pandemic made this incredibly clear. And unfortunately, kitchens are notoriously toxic environments. And before you say, “not my kitchen,” let me ask you something - how often are you in the kitchen during operating hours? How often have you seen chefs discussing the finer points of politically nuanced concepts - and importantly, how often have they done it without name-calling or swearing?
And that’s the point - owners and GMs want to believe that they have a healthy work environment, but it’s one of those things that needs to be actively encouraged, rather than just assuming it’ll happen. The absolute best way to start this process is as follows:
1. Talk to your employees first - see what does and doesn’t need to change.
This includes people - even if you love Joe and he’s worked for you for 10+ years, if he’s making every other person there uncomfortable, it’s time to talk with Joe. I’m not saying just to start letting people go; I am saying that you need to clarify your expectations with all of your current employees.
2. Make your environment clear to new hires, and don’t go back on it.
Be clear and up-front with new hires. Tell them what is and is not acceptable in your shop, and stand by what you told them. If they can’t hang respectfully with your crew, they don’t belong.
3. Emphasize safety for people of color, LGBTQ+, and women - and back it up.
We'd think this was clear at this point in the human experience, but apparently, it needs saying again. Make sure everyone is safe in your business - no matter your personal opinions on their background or life. I’ve been in joints that did both sides of this, and those who treated traditionally marginalized people as less-than often struggle with retention and toxic work environments.
The worst part is that you can often solve this with step one - talk to your current employees and set expectations.
This all loops back around to new hires. Being up-front with your expectations and what your hires can expect from you is one of the most important parts of retaining restaurant staff. In fact, according to this Brandon Hall Group Report, a well-designed onboarding process can improve retention by 82%.
Another often-lacking thing in restaurants is an HR department. These people would traditionally conduct exit interviews - something that’s not too common in the service industry. Exit interviews are an incredibly beneficial tool, though - they allow you to pinpoint areas for improvement, get feedback from people who were in the trenches, and highlight those who do well.
Even if you can’t keep the person leaving, their feedback will often help inform what needs to change to keep other people onboard.
At the end of the day, restaurant staff retention is an utterly crucial part of keeping your business healthy. The staff that’s there every day is the lifeblood of your business, so knowing how to keep them with you for as long as possible is crucial to keeping the doors open. Remembering the few points we discussed above will go miles in helping restaurant employee retention and encourage a healthier environment for everyone.
In short, provide better pay and benefits, recognize that mental health is a very real issue in our industry, and do your utmost to create a welcoming, safe environment. These all seem like minor issues until you’ve been somewhere that leaves them by the wayside - and the difference is night and day. If you want happy, healthy, responsible, and motivated employees, the actual key is to remember they’re people and treat them as such. Communicate with them and follow the Golden Rule, and you’ll be alright.