Identifying problems has never been a challenge in the restaurant industry – there are many.  Making the effort to solve those problems is another story.  We have a problem right now that seems to be universal and there is no shortage of complaints and posts on social media that proclaim the effects, but little is done to point to active solutions.  A good start would be to refrain from using the word “problem” since it seems to imply that solutions are mysterious and impossible and instead rely on “challenges” as the descriptor.  A small step, but one that signifies that if we put our heads together there is a way, or many ways, to move beyond, over, or around those challenges.

The other important point is to understand that state of mind is always a deterrent to solutions or a support mechanism for the same.  In other words if we see the challenge as insurmountable then it will be.  If we see the challenge as something that has an answer if we take the time to really push our problem-solving skills, then a solution will eventually present itself. 

Third, and maybe most important – it is essential to find the cause of a challenge before it can really be solved.  Far too often we invest our time in addressing the effects of a challenge rather than the source of the roadblocks that appear.   So, cause and effect differentiation are the most important tools in your problem-solver’s bag of tricks.

Let’s look for a moment at one of those problems (challenges) and apply these three steps:

  1. PROBLEM:  The restaurant industry, universally, is having an impossible time trying to find competent, committed individuals to work in all positions.  This is defined in articles from local newspapers to the New York Times, from industry magazines and websites to social media, and from industry blogs to podcasts by the dozens – everyone states the problem, points a finger, and portrays the issue as someone else’s doing.  So, first step – let’s refer to it as a challenge.  “There are fewer, and fewer individuals interested in a kitchen career and when we find employees to fill positions, they never seem to stay very long.  The CHALLENGE is how to turn this around?”  OK, so the charge is to recognize the issue and find a way to address it.
  2. STATE OF MIND:  Many are approaching this challenge as a roadblock to success, something that is preventing restaurants from finally getting their groove back and watching cash flow exceed the cost of doing business.  What is quite interesting is that we use the state of mind method in other situations to great success, yet when something seems either out of our wheelhouse of skills, or something that might require real change, then our mind puts it in the silo called: “Unsolvable”.  When a menu item fails to perform well, we simply change it out or modify its flavor profile; when our equipment is a hinderance to production we find a different tool to change the outcome; when a purveyor fails to provide the quality of ingredients that we require – we simply find another source.  Challenges solved. 

A different state of mind: “Our current methods of finding and retaining good employees doesn’t work, let’s find a solution to this challenge even if it means throwing out our normal approach and adopting something new.”  We can do this.

  • CAUSE and EFFECT:  The effects of a challenge are what keeps us up at night.  The effect changes our outcomes, puts stress of the system, forces us to adapt by using a band aid approach, or give up and succumb to the pain that the effect inflicts.  So, restaurants close a few days a week, accept the provision of mediocre service, change their menus without ample thought, and try to get by with reduced cash flow and fewer opportunities for profit. 

So, what might the cause be?  Ask “why” several times until you get to the root of the issue and then develop a way to attack that cause.

Fewer people are expressing an interest in restaurant work, and in fact many previous employees (pre-pandemic) are choosing not to return now that restaurants are re-opening.  Possible causes:

– People have heard how demanding and unforgiving the business can be

– Pay scales are significantly lower than other industries

– Quality of life for career restaurant employees is not that desirable

Why is this the case?  Menu item profit margins are typically low, making it difficult for restaurants to find the reserves to pay better wages – why?  Restaurant waste nips away at profitability – why?  The unpredictable nature of customer buying habits pushes restaurants to maintain inventories that exceed what is reasonable – why?  The work in restaurants requires many hands so, unlike other industries that have much better productivity rates, the restaurant industry is crippled by high labor costs – why?  It is impossible to find and retain employees who are capable and willing to dedicate themselves to the operation – why?  These issues are real and need to be addressed, but are they the primary cause of the stated labor challenge?  There are loads of opportunities to make corrections – where do we start?  Let’s take one possible cause that is not on everyone’s radar: nurturing real interest in a restaurant career early on.

For a few decades we (the restaurant industry) relied on the media to push the hype about the glory of working in restaurants.  This was evident in news articles, books, television, movies, and blog posts, and a 24/7 food network.  College admissions departments had an easy time of it – make sure a program has plenty of shiny new equipment, beautiful pictures of show quality food, campus restaurants staffed with more student workers than customers, and medals hanging around the necks of chef instructors.  Lots of sizzle, plenty of wow factor.   Thousands of students who loved the idea of creating Instagram quality photos and little if any experience working in a restaurant before the “big decision” clamored to programs across the country.  It was an easy sell.  Enter reality – it’s really hard work that requires more commitment than many other businesses, and early in a graduate’s career will not provide the type of compensation that equates to payback value.

It’s time to be real with young people and start talking about the business (there are way more positives than negatives) well before they are faced with a college decision.  The future of the restaurant industry lies with those 16 and 17-year old’s looking for a part-time job or summer employment.  This is when they can get a feel for the industry – the way it is and the way it can be.  This is a role for restaurants and a way to draw people in a way to promote the skill, team environment, organization, creativity, and business acumen that is needed to be successful and have a rewarding career.  True – this will not help restaurants today, but we need to get beyond crisis management and start to think long term.  Today we are faced with putting fires out, let’s plan to prevent them in the future.  It’s time to be proactive with building a career mindset and changing the negative perceptions and the misinformation that has been propagated about an important industry that is integral to the American way of life.

We can’t fix everything at once, but we can take one step at a time and begin with truthfulness.


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