James Beard House 2008 A
Management Vol. 27 No. 02


The challenge is how to attract, hire, and retain quality restaurant employees.


It is the challenge of the decade – how to attract, hire, and retain quality restaurant employees.  Every restaurant, from coast to coast, is singing the same: they are desperate, confused, and angry.  The first reaction is to focus on wages.  “We can’t attract employees because they want more money than we are able to offer.”  Wages increase, yet it is still impossible to fully staff restaurant operations. “We can’t attract employees because they expect a more balanced and predictable lifestyle than we are able to offer.”  Restaurants try to be more flexible with scheduling, yet it is still impossible to fully staff their operations.  So, what gives?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s more than the obvious that keeps potential employees away and drives the best out the back door.  Maybe it’s time to sit with restaurant cooks and service staff and have a serious discussion. “What needs to be done to make the work attractive again?”

Having spent several decades in kitchens and culinary training and teaching, I understand what might just turn things around.  So, let’s listen to cooks and servers – hear them out! 


It’s easy to forget how much it means to be proud of where you work, what you do, and how your work is received. I want to believe that most of your employees want to stand tall and proclaim where they work as being exceptional; they want to wear a clean, pressed uniform with their name and the logo of the operation prominently displayed.  They want to look at that plate of food, feel great about the work, and nod their heads in approval when clean plates come back from the dining room.  As a chef, manager, or owner, it is your job to ensure that employees have the tools and training necessary to make all of this happen.  People want to work for an excellent business.


Being part of something bigger than the individual is inspiring if there is a mutual understanding of goals and a commitment to the end game.  In a restaurant, this means that each person understands how critical their role is and how that plate of food in the past is a culminating effort of many hands and hearts.  Pride and team go hand-in-hand.


A fair assumption is that almost everyone wants to be great at their work.  It is also safe to assume that people relish the opportunity to improve and become essential through their skill set and ability to solve problems.  Operators who want to attract and retain the best employees must invest in creating a learning environment.


Of course, many are content to reach a level of competence and then stay at that level.  Every restaurant would love to have a team of highly competent, life-long line cooks and servers who work with passion and high efficiency.  However, we must all understand that just as many cooks want to move up that career ladder – to reach that position of the chef or owner maybe someday and there are members of your dining room staff who have their eyes on a management position or even eventual ownership.  The best restaurants feed these employees with the knowledge and skills that pave the way to these aspirations and help them find growth elsewhere if those opportunities no longer exist under their current roof. 


This may not be true for everyone, but it is true for many: employees want the opportunity to voice their opinions, express their discontentment, make suggestions, and build on their own ideas.  Those restaurants that provide these opportunities formally and informally will find employees who are anxious to help the operation move forward.


Gone are the days when kitchens are acceptable to be festering pits of criticism, demeaning insults, and condescending interactions with the chef.  No one wants to work where respect is not evident, disrespect is the norm, and employees are expected to be subservient.  This can no longer continue, and those who insist on supporting these old habits will find it impossible to attract and retain staff.


When the menu is entirely of the chef’s design, and the cooks are just another set of hands doing the chef’s creative work, how would we expect cooks to remain enthusiastic?  Certainly, the concept and direction of a menu falls on the shoulders of the chef and management. Still, given the opportunity, inherently creative cooks can make a very good menu – a great one.  Set the stage for their creativity.


Let your employees see the big picture.  Simply telling them that the operation can’t afford to do this or that only results in apathy and discontent. Share the financials with them.  Have them shadow you when you take inventory, let them see the invoices from vendors, show them what it costs to equip the kitchen, pay for the gas or the chemicals in the dish area, or replace broken plates and glassware.  Talk about rent, lease, and taxes and show them how fragile the bottom line is.  They will appreciate this, better understand the answers you give to requests, and they might even work smarter to save the operation money.


Finally, and not last in terms of importance – restaurants need to recognize the skill of professional cooks and servers and find ways through efficiency, cost control, pricing strategies, and sales volume to pay people what they are worth.  Healthcare, retirement savings, vacation time, and sick time are very reasonable expectations of employees who intend to invest in and stay with an employer.  Restaurants must find ways to make this happen or continue to suffer a revolving door of less-than-qualified or unhappy employees.  This, however, cannot be the only solution to the labor crisis.  Everything stated in this article is important – the entire package needs to be in place.

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President of Harvest America Ventures - Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting. Five decades of experience as chef, educator, food and beverage manager, consultant. Member of 1988 New England Culinary Olympic Team. Won gold medal in Olympics in Germany, 2001 ACF Educator of the Year, cooked at the James Beard House, Author of three novels.

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