How to Attract Workers Back to the Restaurant Industry

A new Black Box Workforce Intelligence Report examines the question of who wants to work in restaurants and why.

  • Disrespectful customers, emotional abuse and sexual harassment pose problems for restaurant workers, according to a new report from Blackbox Workforce Intelligence.
  • Restaurants will likely have to increase wages and benefits for employees, but they also need to confront the everyday challenges their workers face.

By Rick Hynum

Related: How to address labor problems in the restaurant industry

American workers have the upper hand in the current job market, and restaurant employment is one of the less enticing prospects, according to a new Black Box Workforce Intelligence report that answers the question, “Who wants to work and why?”

Many restaurateurs blame the current labor crisis on enhanced unemployment benefits, but, according to the report, “recent evidence shows that cutting those benefits doesn’t significantly reduce the labor shortage.” Turnover rates have spiked, and voluntary quits have hit “an all-time high,” the report finds, “leaving restaurants scrambling to retain the staff they have.”

In June 2021, the turnover rate for limited-service restaurants was 144 percent, compared to 135 percent in June 2019, and 106 percent for full-service restaurants compared to 102 percent in 2019.

Common complaints among restaurant workers include the obvious ones, such as compensation, scheduling flexibility and problems with arranging for childcare. But, for some, the issues run deeper, such as sexual harassment and emotional abuse from their managers, co-workers and customers.

But money is clearly a major concern for hourly workers, Victor Fernandez, Black Box’s vice president of insights and knowledge, told Nation’s Restaurant News. “We see now that states with the highest minimum wage have the lowest turnover rates.”

Fernandez added, “In essence, companies are recognizing [increasing compensation] is what they have to do, but the challenge is that costs are going up, not only from the labor side, but also on the food side. So a lot of restaurants are feeling the squeeze there.”

Related: Focus on creating employee satisfaction to retain a happy, motivated staff

The good news: 66 percent of workers would return to the restaurant industry “if the right conditions were met.” The report, which includes a survey of 4,700 former, current and hopeful restaurant workers, finds there are four driving factors in the restaurant staffing shortage and offers suggestions for attracting new employees.

this photo shows a staff of restaurant workers in the kitchen and relates to the restaurant labor crisis

1. Wages and benefits: Eighty-seven percent of the survey’s respondents said they want to earn a set livable wage rather than rely on tips. The five most important things they’re looking for in a new job:

  • Starting hourly wage
  • Promotion opportunities
  • Flexible schedules
  • Health benefits and paid time-off policies
  • Company culture/work environment

To attract these workers, the report recommends offering:

  • A cash bonus to new hires
  • A cash bonus for interviewing for the job
  • A retention bonus for staying with the job after a certain period of time
  • A free meal at the interview

The report also recommends highlighting benefits or perks in your job postings and making it clear that you’re offering higher incentives.

2. Childcare: Thirty-five percent of current hourly workers and job seekers are parents, and 18 percent of unemployed hourly workers had to leave their job to take care of family and children, according to the report. The COVID-19 pandemic made things worse for parents, forcing many of them to stay at home to look after their children due to school and daycare closures. The report offers the following advice to restaurateurs looking to hire working parents:

  • Highlight scheduling flexibility in your job description if you offer it.
  • Talk to your staff about their childcare responsibilities and look for ways to support them, including adjusting their hours.

3. Opportunities in other industries: Over the past 18 months, many hourly restaurant workers haven’t left the workforce—they’ve just gotten out of the restaurant industry. “Voluntary turnover is higher than ever,” the report notes. Restaurant workers have left the industry for five main reasons:

  • Higher pay in other industries (28 percent)
  • They needed a consistent income and schedule (23 percent)
  • Lack of professional development and promotion opportunities (17 percent)
  • Work hours, including late nights, weekends and holidays (16 percent)
  • Work environment/company culture (15 percent)

To combat the problem of restaurant workers leaving for jobs in other industries, the report recommends:

  • Focus on employee retention. Create a work culture that employees want to be a part of and try to meet their needs so they will stay on the job.
  • Start talking to your staff about problems that worry them “before it’s too late.” Look at what competing employers are offering and try to offer the same to your team.

4. Concerns about mental and physical health: Restaurant work is hard work, and your employees have personal responsibilities that cause them stress as well. Many hourly workers are taking on extra hours or responsibilities to pay their bills, and that can take a toll on their mental health. There’s also a serious problem of abuse, according to the report.

  • Sixty-two percent report enduring emotional abuse/disrespect from customers.
  • Forty-nine percent say they have suffered emotional abuse from managers.
  • Fifteen percent report sexual harassment from customers.
  • Fifteen percent report sexual harassment from managers or co-workers.

this photo illustrates the problem of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, with a male worker inappropriately touching a female colleague

Related: How to manage pizzeria employees with bad attitudes

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic is adding to restaurant workers’ stress levels. Sixty-five percent said they want businesses to require masks for customers, and 83 percent said they plan to wear a mask at work to protect themselves, regardless of restaurant or state requirements.

To help assuage workers’ concerns about their mental and physical health, the report suggests:

  • If you’re asking workers to enforce mask or vaccine mandates, provide support for them and make sure they’re comfortable with these often-uncomfortable responsibilities.
  • Engage staff and managers in an open dialogue to get ahead of potential issues that could hurt employee retention.

In its conclusion, the Black Box report notes that 17 percent of restaurant workers chose the industry as a career and want to stay in the industry for the long term. “Recently, restaurants have been hit with higher-than-usual turnover, and this is a moment for restaurant owners and managers to take a look at how they do things and what their staff is up against,” the report states. “By creating a positive work environment and meeting workers’ needs, restaurants can reduce turnover and hire top talent in the tightest labor market we’ve ever seen.”