Restaurant staffing: 'We're just finding less people who really enjoy dealing with the public'

Hospitality industry expert explains how restaurants can survive the storm of change – and how HR can help with staff shortages

Restaurant staffing: 'We're just finding less people who really enjoy dealing with the public'

It’s been a hard road back from the COVID-19 pandemic, and arguably the restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit. But the onslaught of uncertainty has not yet stopped for restaurant owners as inflation, delivery services and a changing marketplace continue to batter the industry.

The biggest problem by far, however, is staffing, said hospitality consultant and Humber College instructor Joel Sisson.

Sisson has worked in the restaurant industry for four decades, and told HRD that if businesses want to keep up with the changing landscape and survive, it will take a cultural sea change.

“We're not always the best at adjusting quickly to the needs of the people who we employ – it's an old industry,” Sisson said. “A lot of the industry is still run by people who have been doing it for many years. And obviously, as people change, staff change, and what they want out of life and out of work changes. We as employers have to do that. And we've been slow in a lot of cases to do so.”

Restaurant staff shortages due to increased stress

The restaurant industry has suffered a perfect storm of one challenge after another, and for an industry that had narrow profit margins even before the pandemic, many restaurants have closed or are teetering on the edge.

Not only is it difficult to get potential workers through the door and hired, Sisson said, once they are there, they are subject to stressful conditions that make them leave for other jobs, which are plentiful and easy to find.

“In the back of house, where we used to have five or six or seven people on the line, maybe now we only have three, four or five, and we're still doing similar volumes in terms of how much we're producing,” Sisson said. “But we're doing it, or trying to do it, with less, which creates more stress and creates a tougher work environment.”

Restaurant staff have higher expectations for work conditions

In addition to there being less access to staff and less money to pay them with, Sisson said, a younger workforce has different expectations that the industry is struggling to accommodate.

When he started in the restaurant industry in the late 80s and early 90s, he said, it was normal to work 70 hours per week. Young people entering the industry today don’t want to do that, but many organizations are slow to realize it.

“That's a pretty big strain on our industry, because that's not what we're used to,” Sisson said, adding that motivation is another problem. “Years ago, we used to have all these different events. But it's hard to stabilize something like that and have different events and have different contests that people really buy into, because people are leaving so quickly.”

Restaurant staff less likely to enjoy working with people

Staff expectations have shifted, but so have the staff themselves, Sisson said. Finding people who truly enjoy dealing with people is harder to do these days; he’s observed that fewer of his students say they enjoy working with people, compared to ten years ago.

“There's a lot of people that are coming into the industry, or are starting their work life now, that are really not overly social face to face,” he said. “That's becoming a struggle, especially in our industry. It's hard to find good people who enjoy going up to tables and talking to people, or being a bartender or just working in a team of 10 in the kitchen, and having a good time.

“I think we're just finding less people who really enjoy dealing with the public.”

To counteract this effect, he recommends slowing down and being much more careful and selective with hiring – rather than quickly hiring anyone who comes through the door and has a good personality, take the time to get to know them, and be realistic about expectations.

How HR can attract and retain restaurant talent

Finding and keeping good staff is the only way for restaurants to weather the current storm of uncertainty, Sisson said, because the restaurants that are left standing will be the ones with exceptional service. 

“Any restaurant that survives is one that people go to for a reason – it's not just the average restaurant,” Sisson said. “We all have burgers and wings and fries and stuff, and some are a little better than others. But one of the big reasons right now where I see restaurants can stand apart is in service.”

In order to keep that talent engaged and on staff is to go the extra mile in talking to them and finding out what they want from their jobs, he said. Whether through town hall meetings or sitting down with individuals, employers should be asking restaurant staff how they can make their jobs better and more enjoyable.

Once a level of trust is established in the workplace, so everyone feels comfortable and represented and safe, incentives can begin to be built into the business again. This can be a hard process and difficult for many restaurant owners to do, Sisson admitted, who still think staff should just be thankful for the job.

“It's just not the way it is. We as business owners have to adjust. We have to understand that the labor pool has changed, and they're looking for a lot more,” Sisson said. “As long as people feel like an employer is really trying to listen to them and make their life a little bit easier and their workplace more enjoyable, that's one of the big benefits. But it takes a lot, and a lot of HR professionals that I've run into over the years don't love having those conversations.”

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