Desperation leads to ineffective decision making. This is always, always, always the case. Decisions based on panic are like the amateur carpenter who keeps making the wrong cut on a length of board until there is nothing left. It seems to me that this is where we are with our decisions about restaurant operation. Every restaurateur and chef that I know is focused on one big challenge – finding people to work. We have debated this issue for the past two years and the only solutions that most restaurant operators have come up with are to cut services and keep raising wages. Both decisions seem to make sense, but are they the right decisions by themselves?
I will always remember my early years growing up in Buffalo, New York when nearby Lackawanna was one of the steel capitols of the world. Bethlehem and Republic Steel were major employers in the area that were supported by a very strong union. I can’t even count the number of times that the union, representing thousands of steel workers, threatened slowdowns, walk outs or strikes on behalf of their membership. Inevitably the challenge resulted in a compromised raise in wages or benefits to the cheers of every employee. It wouldn’t take very long (measured in months) before there was more dissent among the rank and file and the union was back to the table with managers and operators. The fact of the matter was that the job was horrible. The heat, noise, sweat, repetition, and danger associated with work in a steel mill did not change – only the compensation. It wouldn’t take long for employees to realize this and then turn to the union for another band aid. It was a vicious cycle that never got to the root of the problem – the work environment was horrible and needed to change. The American steel industry didn’t change but their foreign competitors did. Robotics took the place of much of the repetition, danger, heat, etc. and employee jobs moved from production to quality control. Sure, jobs were lost, but those that remained were both well paid and dramatically improved. Bethlehem and Republic Steel are now shuttered wastelands in Lackawanna and Buffalo.
The point is that although better pay and benefits are part of the answer for the restaurant industry it is the larger picture that we must eventually come to terms with. A recent picture posted of line cooks sitting on the floor of a beautiful kitchen catching a five-minute meal before the POS starts spitting out orders is symptomatic of the big picture. No matter what we pay employees – if the environment where employees work and the expectations of them fails to benefit from a fresh coat of paint, then we will lose the battle. If we think that the only reason that employees have resisted coming back to work or that the endless stream of new candidates dried up is because of money, then we are very mistaken.
As an industry we need to step back, take the appropriate amount of time to study the situation, measure twice and cut once. Take the time to assess and discuss, observe, and catalog, and truly view the environment and the expectations of the job. This is the measurement phase, and it must be meticulously studied and discussed opening with those employees who had once viewed the work as noble, interesting, exciting, and worthwhile. How can we make the work valuable, respected, manageable, interesting, and healthy for those who choose to view this as a career choice?
Just like the survivors of the steel industry who decided that long term success required wholesale change – the restaurant industry must do the same. Here are some things to consider while restaurants continue to think that it’s all about the money:
Don’t sacrifice your need to find and retain GOOD people just because you are short staffed. Putting a round peg in the square hole of your team will only compound your issues. Determine the character of individual that will build your team and stick to those standards when hiring. I know you will say: “But that doesn’t help me today!” Patience – “wax on, wax off”, you are building for a long successful business cycle.
Money will be attractive, but you can safely assume that those who work for you are inspired by the people who work around them. Team is just as important as the money.
Create an environment where everyone is respected as a human being and their contributions are noted and applauded. Those who you respect and don’t return that to those who work in your operation will need to move on.
 TEACH AND TRAIN
Assume that people want to become good at their job – even great. You are in the driver’s seat and can help them reach their personal best through training, teaching, and mentoring. Invest in this – your staff will relish the opportunity to improve, and that word gets around quickly.
 CRITIQUE NOT CRITICISM
Part of your job is to hold an employees’ performance to the standards of the operation. This should always be front and center. There is a way to do this and way not to – critique, unlike criticism is all about pointing out areas for improvement and then showing the person how to do so. Start with a compliment and demonstrate how you expect them to grow in the position.
Everyone enjoys being part of a winning team. They typically relish the opportunity to work for a restaurant that has earned the recognition of others or the success of entrepreneurship. When you run a well-oiled machine that teaches and respects employees and a restaurant that is financially viable then your staff will proudly state that they are part of that success.
 LIFE BALANCE
Respectful scheduling, empathy and acknowledgement, the desire to listen and support, and flexibility whenever possible will go a long way towards attracting and retaining great employees.
Be professional, teach professionalism, expect professionalism, and celebrate when it happens. This involves personal appearance, dependability, respect for ingredients and equipment, respect for people, service attitudes, and a commitment to excellence with the work that everyone engages in.
Certainly, now and for the foreseeable future – your employees will expect that their safety is at the top of your list. Following pandemic protocol, building a work environment that puts their wellbeing first, supporting their professional interactions with guests and maintaining a zero tolerance with those guests who do not treat your staff with the same safety in mind is and will remain essential. Do it and promote it.
Make sure that your staff has the tools to do the job and that those tools are maintained so that performance is never hindered by poor maintenance. It may seem like a small thing – it isn’t!
A little bit of tension in a kitchen and dining room can be beneficial, but too much can spiral out of control. It is your job to maintain some equilibrium so that people understand that sense of emergency but do so with the ability to calmly pursue answers to challenges.
Don’t hide things from your staff – let them in! The more you can share with them about decisions, business performance, and the challenges that you face as an operator, the more they will sense that they are valued.
 CREATIVITY INSPIRES
Yes, you are the chef or the manager and many decisions, including menu, procedure, and presentation are part of your job description, but cooks tend to be inherently creative people who need an outlet for that creativity. When denied an opportunity to express themselves – cooks will begin to look for a different environment that supports this need. Let them contribute.
 UPWARD MOBILITY
Many cooks will have a desire to someday become the chef of a property or even own an operation. When there is a path to move up, or support to move on, there will always be a line of competent professionals who want to work for you.
 EFFICIENCY – TOO MANY HANDS, THE PIE IS ONLY SO BIG
Work on becoming efficient through systems and training. If you can reach your standards with fewer people and accomplish your business financial goals with fewer, highly competent hands, then the pie of money to support employee needs will go a lot further.
 FAIR WAGE AND BENEFITS
And yes, this is not last because it is less important EVERY ONE OF THESE POINTS IS IMPORTANT, but let’s at least understand that money without addressing the core challenges of working in restaurants is no different than increasing the wages of steel workers without taking a hard look at the environment where they work and the nature of the job.
Measure twice and cut once before you reveal your plan to address staffing issues.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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