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Five fresh ideas on how to recruit and retain restaurant staff

As you well know, finding and keeping staff is tough right now. January 2022 data from the British Chambers of Commerce confirm that more than four out of five (83%) hospitality businesses are reporting difficulties with recruitment. It’s continued evidence of a chronic shortage that’s led to some extraordinary measures. Last year, for instance, some restaurants were offering gift vouchers to diners to introduce potential candidates. One chain was even promising up to £2,000 bonuses to staff who could recommend a friend.  The challenge is clear, but how did we get here, and what can we do to overcome it?

The anatomy of staff shortages

Historically, the restaurant sector has always had high staff turnover rates, but the last two years have conjured a perfect storm of circumstances. Brexit played its part, with many skilled overseas staff opting to return home, a decision only exacerbated by the pandemic. But that’s not the whole story. 

There’s UK data suggesting that one in 10 hospitality workers left the industry, rather than the country last year. And there are a range of reasons why that happened which can give us some ideas on how to reverse the trend. 

Of course, COVID-19 played a big role. It led to high levels of employment-related stress, with employees not knowing if or when they’d be back at work. At the same time, they had just that – time to think about their options, meaning many took stock and, perhaps feeling insecure about their existing jobs, took their skills elsewhere. 

Then, when staff were able to return to work it was a tough readjustment to long shifts on their feet, and the realisation that they have hard, physical jobs with anti-social hours and historically low pay and benefits. Plus, they now had to contend with the unpleasantness of wearing masks, and additional exposure to a potentially deadly disease from working all day with unmasked diners. 

In addition to that, the pandemic led to the demise of cash. As a result, the number of cash tips tumbled. The big consequence for staff has been that 80% of all tipping now happens by card. So the money on which servers traditionally depend to top up their salaries has largely melted away. Meanwhile, businesses that receive tips by card can choose whether to keep it or pass it on to their staff. Many have chosen to keep it. 

In the light of these contributory factors, what can restaurants do now to get their staff levels up once more?

Five ideas on how to recruit and retain restaurant staff

  1. Consider the leadership and management style – There’s plenty of evidence that while people are motivated by money, they’re also searching for more from an employer. One way to recruit and retain staff will be by seeking to be an employer of choice. There are a lot of elements to that, but for restaurants, it’s important that employees feel respected, listened to and involved. For example, ask staff for their improvement suggestions, and implement them. Ensure the distribution of tips is understood and scrupulously fair. Also share information with employees, so you don’t leave them speculating about how secure their jobs are. Restaurants can also adopt ESG measures that especially younger servers might be attracted by. Think about your policies on diversity and inclusion and in areas like food waste, to demonstrate you’re a responsible and progressive employer. 
  2. Prioritise staff needs – Related to the above, there’s growing evidence of restaurants rethinking their operations to help staff establish a better work/life balance. This might include shorter opening hours and/or shifts that accommodate the demands of family life. It may be making final seating times earlier so staff don’t have to stay so late. Or implementing single sittings. With the rise of food allergies, it might also mean empowering servers to tell diners that the kitchen isn’t able to cook for people that can’t or won’t eat what their menu provides. This can take some stress away from servers, as well as the kitchen
  3. Embrace the new law on tipping – In recognition of the fact that “cashlessness” is having a huge impact on tipping, the government has brought forward plans to overhaul UK tipping practices and thereby help around 2 million people top up their incomes by ensuring that all tips go to staff.  As stated above, tips matter a lot to servers. Restaurants might want to get ahead of the legislation by making clear your commitment to it and immediately implementing the new measures. That involves passing on all tips without deductions, adopting a Code of Practice on how tips are distributed to ensure fairness and transparency, and giving workers the right to request information on your tipping record, to prove they’re being treated fairly.
  4. Invest in process improvements – Restaurants can also help make life easier for staff – without injuring the bottom line – by adopting technologies that increase efficiency. For example, FETCHmybill is a simple piece of tech that lets diners scan a QR code on the table to see and pay their bill. Diners like not having to attract the server’s attention to ask for the bill, and then wait for it. But more to our point in this piece, servers don’t have to get a printed bill, bring it to the table, then return a handheld device or the money. It saves 20% of their time and effort – a significant proportion – plus it contributes to diners leaving the restaurant sooner once they’re ready to go. 

  5. Adopt technology that increases take-home earnings – Finally, and again acknowledging the big contribution of tips, restaurants can boost staff earnings by introducing technology that enables diners to make personal tips to the server when paying by card. FETCHmytip has demonstrated that it can increase personal tips to servers by up to 40% at no cost to the restaurant. This makes a considerable contribution to raising server income and morale and will give your restaurant a competitive advantage in the fight to recruit and retain top-quality staff.

The last two years have been turbulent for the restaurant sector, and as stated, many factors have converged to put acute pressure on staff recruitment and retention. 

In the face of this considerable challenge, restaurants shouldn’t despair or bury their heads in the sand. They must act. They can look to manage staff more carefully; help staff establish a better work/life balance; demonstrate that tipping is handled scrupulously; and finally, adopt some modern technology that introduces efficiencies, and critically, increases servers’ take-home pay.

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