Restaurant work is arduous. Just like any other blue-collar trade (and yes, restaurant work is a trade), the taxing nature of restaurant labor can lead to several issues regarding staffing. This struggle has been made abundantly clear during the COVID pandemic’s lifespan; restaurants are failing to find able hands, and the now-infamous siren call of “nobody wants to work anymore” is plastered in more business windows with each passing day.
Unfortunately, several incredibly crucial details are missing from that statement - the most important of which is as follows:
It’s not that people don’t want to work; they do - in fact, they need to. Rather, people don’t want to work for a business that doesn’t care as much about them as the employees do about the company.
We’re going to do things a bit differently today. Rather than the usual process of me explaining something cool and then wrapping up, we’re playing lawyer today. The court of law is this little forum, and the suspects are the actual cause of restaurant labor shortages. Court is now in session - you may sit (and make a cup of coffee - this’ll be a wild ride).
Before we can blame any sole factor for the restaurant labor shortage, we first must establish the issue. The world has suffered numerous blows from the pandemic; businesses closed, employees were laid off, and as time goes on, a recession is looming while inflation rates continue to skyrocket.
This makes for a difficult situation. Business owners are left trying to find ways to keep the doors open without losing it all on ever-increasing labor costs, while prospective employees are insistent on seeing their value reflected in their paychecks and benefits. So - who (or what) is truly to blame for the restaurant labor shortage? I’m glad you asked!
Suspect #1: Salary & Benefits
While there are countless factors at play that affect who is hired where, for how much, and when, there is one constant:
People need money to live. They need medical care, a retirement plan, and more to ensure that they can simply care for their families and live a (relatively) healthy life.
This creates a genuine issue - restauranteurs have adjusted to past wages, while employees know that the days of cheap restaurant labor are far behind us. And the pandemic made everyone painfully aware of the actual value of healthcare, at least in the United States (but that’s another argument for another platform).
So let me ask you something - would you be willing to work in a 90-100 degree kitchen for between eight and twelve hours a day, five to six days a week? And more importantly, would you do it for $7.25 an hour (or $15,000 a year at 40 hours per week), let alone without any benefits?
Before you begin with, “But my state’s minimum wage is $12.50, $15.00, etc.” - let me stop you. That doesn’t matter.
In the United States, the federal poverty line (for a family of two) is $18,310, or $3,310 more than you make working full-time in most American kitchens.
Even as an individual, that full-time job would only earn you $2,120 (or, in most states, roughly one month’s rent) over the poverty line.
That’s not enough - and according to Toast’s 2019 Restaurant Success Report, less than one-third of restaurants offered their employees full benefits:
- 23% provided compensation insurance
- 21% offered dental insurance
- 18% provided vision insurance
- 31% offer general medical insurance
So, to summarize, the most significant causes of restaurant employees leaving are poor pay and nonexistent benefits - though those two aren’t alone. Let’s meet our next suspect - abysmal work culture.
Suspect #2: Work Culture
Work culture is touted on countless blog posts, job listings, and LinkedIn posts as an excellent reason to sign on for a job with that specific company. But restaurant industry vets know that more often than not (though there are exceptions), the culture of restaurants is terrible. It consists of long hours for (as previously discussed) lousy pay, constant damage to one’s body that can’t be addressed due to nonexistent health insurance, and incredibly complex, fast-paced work.
Whether you know it or not, people talk about your business. If an employee has a terrible day at work and tells their friends about it, you have a more pressing issue than the one upset worker. It’s not just one person that’s unhappy with their workplace, but their whole community; friends, family, and neighbors will hear word of mouth. They will take it seriously, and they will avoid your business - that’s the free market at work.
If you have a suspiciously high turnover rate, it’s time to look inward rather than outward. Ask yourself something - do your employees seem happy to come to work? If not, it isn’t because “nobody wants to work” - it’s likely because nobody wants to work for you.
That’s a painful pill to swallow, but it’s the truth. But that’s not to say that you can’t turn things around.
One of the handiest solutions to a poor work environment that I have seen work numerous times firsthand is employee satisfaction reviews. This isn’t a performance review nor a chance to discuss wages or benefits - it’s an opportunity for you to talk to your employees and ask them how happy they are.
And, for those of you who aren’t aware, Glassdoor is an excellent resource to gauge employee satisfaction from both current and past employees. It can be used by employees (both past and present) to share their experience in your workplace - and in the current job-seeker’s market, that’s the first place that most new potential hires will check out.
So - how do you conduct one of these mysterious reviews?
1. Reach out to your employees.
- You can do one big meeting, schedule one-on-one interviews, or send them to Glassdoor (or a similar anonymous polling service).
- What matters here is that you explain that this meeting is about ensuring they are as happy as possible - and nothing else.
- And as a side note - pay them for the time. All work meetings should be paid, though that’s often forgotten.
2. Ask employees what they enjoy about their work. If they don’t have anything that they appreciate, recognize what that means.
- This is crucial. Do not try to lay blame on employees for being unhappy at work. They are in your business, and your responsibility as the owner or manager is to keep a high-quality corporate culture.
3. Find realistic (i.e., affordable and quickly implemented) solutions to their issues rather than offering a pizza-party-shaped Band-Aid.
These solutions can vary greatly depending on your business. Perhaps management needs coaching on de-escalation or team building, or maybe there’s something small, like an employee-run speaker for music in the back, that would solve the issue. Whatever the solution is, make an effort to listen to what your employees express.
In turn, you’ll find that your employees feel listened to and, consequently, are happier. This will naturally lead to more hires as word spreads that you take care of the people who keep your business afloat.
Suspect #3: Kitchen Craziness & Tablet Hell
Now, picture this. You’re being paid just barely over the threshold to be considered legally poor, according to the federal government - let’s say $8 an hour. You have no benefits of any form, and you’re making the hundredth (or thousandth) burger, pizza, or steak for the day.
In addition to all of the above, you’re expected to make them faster than is physically possible; you’re covered in grease and sweat and have been allowed to sit down for exactly 10 minutes in the past four hours.
How do you react when your POS goes down, and the ticket machine starts making that grating “brrrrrr, brrrrr, brrrr, chkkkkkk” sound that haunts your nightmares each night?
- Buckle down and ignore your burning knees and that grinding feeling in your lower back as you prepare to suffer through tablet hell.
- Say, “It’s okay, technology fails, but I’ve got my team behind me!”
- Or do you feel defeated?
As a chef, restaurant manager, and line cook of over a decade, I can answer that for you - it’s C.
While there are quite a few solutions to this issue, the most realistic is simple - Cuboh. Rather than expecting your already busy staff to wrangle multiple tablets, a POS, and simultaneous in-house and to-go orders, you can bring it all together in one easy spot.
Those of us at Cuboh have been in those shoes. We know the struggle because we suffered through tablet hell, and rather than buckle down or gather the team for a huddle before the storm, we made an all-inclusive system to solve the issue once and for all.
By signing up with Cuboh, you unlock many convenient tools to streamline your business and, ultimately, make your employees’ lives easier. You can bring all your ordering systems (tablets, POS, etc.) into a centralized and streamlined setup, improve the online ordering process, and monitor your business’s health - to name only a few nifty features.
Ultimately, the myth that “nobody wants to work” is precisely that - a myth. The world has changed fast, but that’s not an excuse for being left behind. The days of paying restaurant labor pennies on the dollar are over, as are the days of working as skilled labor without benefits, especially as employees are valuing work culture more each day. While you don’t have to like that, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the truth.
But no matter the base cause of an inability to hire, that can be fixed. Talk to your employees, ask them what they need and, importantly, what they want. Using technology like Cuboh is an excellent first step to streamlining their work and reducing frustration. Still, the most essential step is shockingly simple - remember that your employees are humans first and workers last.
Look at what you would need to do the same work happily, and get started on providing that touch of humanity to your workers - I promise you’ll see results.