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12 Top Tips for Recruiting Restaurant Workers (That You Probably Haven’t Tried!)

Hiring restaurant sign

Recruiting restaurant workers in 2021

Recruiting restaurant employees has never been easy. But in 2021, the hiring game has totally changed.

As we all know, the pandemic flipped the hospitality industry on its head. When restaurants closed — some temporarily, others for good — many hospitality workers found themselves collecting unemployment and/or seeking other jobs. 

Now that Covid-related unemployment assistance has generally ended, restaurants are continuing to battle for labor. Why? Mostly because there are more positions to fill — and fewer candidates — than ever before.

Where did the workers go?

Hospitality employees have tough jobs. It can be a grind: mentally, physically, and emotionally, no matter how passionate you are about the restaurant industry.

When Covid hit, some people left hospitality because they didn’t have a choice — but now, many of them aren’t looking back. In short, they found greener pastures.

Amazon warehouses swept up a lot of jobless talent, frequently offering PTO, benefits, flexibility and better pay. Other workers sought out gig-economy jobs, like Uber or Instacart, where they get instant, daily payments and work on their own terms. And some people used shutdowns and pandemic assistance as an opportunity to chart a new career path, collecting unemployment as they completed degrees or learned trades that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to pursue.

How to recruit and retain restaurant employees in a tough labor market

Just because workers aren’t returning to their posts doesn’t mean that guests are staying home. In fact, many restaurants are busier than ever. Which is great, but it’s a problem if you don’t have the hostesses, servers, bussers, kitchen workers, managers, and everyone else you need to run the ship.

If your restaurant or bar needs to staff up fast, it’s not impossible — but it’s probably time to dust off and re-evaluate your hiring playbook. 

In case you missed it, we recently participated in a panel discussion all about restaurant employee recruiting and retention. We joined Whataburger and Dish Society to discuss hiring insights, tips and best practices from restaurants across the country who are looking to hire. 

Here are our top 12 insights and tips for recruiting and retaining restaurant workers.

1. It’s not just about wages. There’s no question about it: Restaurants are in a dog fight for talent. Not every establishment can afford to keep pushing wages higher and higher. So they need to get creative: what do their employees really value? It’s about more than money: benefits, flexibility, and culture are all levers you can pull to attract and retain good people.

2. Instant pay matters. Hourly employees may not want to wait two weeks for their earnings — and many of them can’t afford to. If a tire blows out or rent is due, having money in the bank immediately after their shift is over can be a major work perk.

3. Build a scholarship program. In addition to student-friendly scheduling, consider providing tuition assistance for college-aged employees. It’s not only a great incentive; it also shows you value their education and future success.

4. Or: offer education reimbursement. Once a year, Dish Society employees can get reimbursed for a course they’ve completed if they earned a B+ or higher.

5. Turn your employees into recruiters. Your employees already have a feel for the culture and requirements; consider offering referral bonuses so they’ll be incentivized to bring in family members and friends who would be a good fit.

6. Leverage different channels. Many hourly workers are high school and college students. They’re less likely to be on LinkedIn or Indeed. So meet them where they are: get your candidate out on TikTok, Instagram, etc. (and activate your employees there, too).

7. Make everything shareable. Give your employees the tools they need to become true ambassadors of your brand. For example: provide sample messaging that they can text to friends or put on social, or create short video content that they can easily share with potential candidates. This also helps to create consistency and ensures you’re bringing in the right types of people.

8. Tap your guests, too. You’ve got free advertising within the four walls of your restaurant, and a lot of fresh faces coming through the doors. Consider running a referral program for your guests: if their referral gets hired, they’ll get paid.

9. Pursue local partnerships. Whataburger’s operating partners can make six figures. In other words: what starts out as a summer gig could easily turn into a career. Anndrea says that Whataburger is helping their franchisees establish relationships with local high schools, colleges, chambers of commerce, military vet organizations, and more. All of these can help drive people into their hiring funnel.

10. Create a hiring guide. Dish Society has implemented a straightforward system for selecting candidates. It includes a toolkit for managers with suggested interview questions and a “red/yellow/green” system to score candidates’ responses, all of which fosters consistent hiring practices across their locations.

11. Attitude over experience. Having the skills to do the job is important, but Sabrina says Dish Society is focusing more heavily on candidates’ attitude and personality fit. By not getting so specific with experience requirements, and by ensuring your candidate is a culture fit, your talent pool will open up. Plus: your employees will be more likely to stick around if they mesh well with your team.

12. Tune up (and automate) training. Sabrina added that fine-tuning your training program also promotes the success and satisfaction of your employees. If you’re hiring for attitude, it’s on you to teach them the skills. Dish Society uses technology to support their training efforts, and they’ve implemented a points system where employees can take training courses and accrue points as they complete them.

The best recruiting strategy: hiring for keeps

If you’re in a bind, you might be tempted to fill empty positions with warm bodies. But in the end, that’s just going to result in turnover — and cost you a whole lot of time and money.

Covid has presented an opportunity for operators to hit the reset button on a lot of things, and hiring is one of them. 

If you’re on the recruiting train right now: be intentional about it. Make a plan to activate your people, leverage every available channel, meet candidates where they are — and provide real value to employees that they won’t find anywhere else.

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