‘Help Wanted’ signs decorate just about every storefront lately, all vying for the best possible staff in this very competitive job market. As a worker, the innumerous opportunities can be tempting, a sense the grass may be greener in another company, position, or entirely new industry all together. The catering and dining business is no stranger to this challenge. We know keeping the team motivated and committed improves client satisfaction and employee retention. But how do we attract great people, preserve passion, and increase tenure?
Respect their life on the outside.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge among food service management, simply because employee hours can be inconsistent according to event schedules, and because dining doesn’t only occur between 9am and 5pm. We tend to work holidays, late nights, and weekends, with shifting calendars throughout the year. When managers post the schedule, employees flock to it en masse, occasionally resulting in some consternation. A server might not have gotten a shift they wanted, received one they aren’t available for, or been given too many shifts back to back, with no break to breathe. This is simply unsustainable over the long term in terms of staff morale and retention.
Creating as consistent a schedule as possible is a great place to start, with plenty of notice in advance of work hours and expectations. Planning without regard for their interests outside of their work lives is a sure way to drive them away from their work lives, something very easy to do in this cut throat job market. While it goes without saying that our personnel will need days for rest or hiccups in their personal lives, traditionally it’s gone unaccommodated in the food biz. Fostering a community among staff supportive of each other creates a pipeline of individuals willing to adjust their own schedules to lend a hand to their colleagues, knowing one day they will be the recipient of their coworkers’ kindness. Instead of positioning a demand such as “I need you to work Saturday night,” managers could instead ask, “I know this is last minute notice, but Danny has a family funeral to attend. Can anyone step up to help him out so we aren’t spread thin that evening?” Working as a team off the floor is as important as on it.
Earn their loyalty.
Despite being the easiest morale builder, a bottom-up approach to running a business is often overlooked. As much as it’s beaten into us in this industry, an abusive or unreasonable customer is never “right,” and standing up for personnel puts you visibly in their corner. Extending your worker’s voice in other daily decisions creates buy-in and mutual respect as well. Ask for feedback on new dishes, invite them to help plan an event, create an open forum for ideas during daily meetings. Be a safe resource for their complaints, diagnose a root cause and work together on solutions. Blur the border between management and entry level staff and you’ve got yourself an invested, excited team.
Set them up for success.
Many of our talented staff come our way simply because the job suits their lifestyle, and many more still are drawn to a career creating experiences in the kitchen or with clients. Recognizing their potential and communicating as such clearly and often will help them feel seen and returning day after day. Inquire into their goals, suggest where their gifts might serve them in other positions within the company, and help outline a path toward their goals.
Elevate their resume with on-the-job training, inviting them to shadow different positions of interest, interdepartmental mentorships, and if possible, facilitate advancing their education through seminars, culinary school, and trade shows. Set realistic and achievable targets for each shift, each season, each employee. Sales goals that can actually be achieved, reaching an improved client rating, or an event with flawless kitchen output should all be rewarded and celebrated.
Work shouldn’t be all work.
Speaking of celebrations, work anniversaries, milestones like marriages and births, and achievements such as graduations or charity work, should illicit some excitement among your team. Sponsor celebratory pre-shift lunches, birthday cakes, and baby showers. Surprise notable accomplishments with a gift card, a paid day off if feasible, or even a simple handwritten card with thoughtful personalized message.
Organizing social opportunities outside the workplace is proven to build bonds inside. Start a co-ed softball team that welcomes even the slowest runners, invite the outdoorsy types to a group hike on a beautiful day, a charity 10k, or an opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen or food drive. Make it optional, don’t force fun on them, and don’t bring up work unless they do, and you’ll be surprised by the turn-out.
Be a great patron yourself.
As diners, we have an opportunity to bring this nurturing spirit into our own experiences in the wild. Recognize great service, presentation, and food quality by mentioning it to management, with online reviews that reference staff by name, and by returning as a loyal customer. Identify yourself as a member of the industry and someone who recognizes the difficulty of exemplary performance. The food service world is a small ecosystem, with workers coming and going from one establishment to another. Standing out as a good member and likely a great employer keeps talent in the business, and potentially looking to work hard for you down the road.