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How to improve your restaurant turnover rate

Christina Pavlou
Christina Pavlou

An experienced recruiter and HR professional who has transferred her expertise to insightful content to support others in HR.

how to improve restaurant turnover rate

Think of your favorite meal, perfectly cooked, beautifully served to you on a plate while you’re sitting in a comfortable chair in a nicely decorated restaurant room. Now bring this exact image into your mind again, only this time your server is rude, looks miserable, brings your meal a full hour after you’ve ordered, and has no knowledge over the food they’re serving. Would you go to that restaurant again?

If you’re working in hospitality, you know that it takes more than a good menu and nice decor to keep the customers queuing for a table. You also need employees – front of house and kitchen staff – who do their best to provide high-quality customer service.

But that’s easier said than done. The restaurant space is notorious for its exhausting work schedules, high-pressure environment, low wages and even some toxic behaviors. These factors have traditionally made candidates turn away from the hospitality industry when thinking about their career. Even if these scenarios don’t necessarily hold true at your own restaurant, it’s still not easy to overcome the stigma in the ongoing drive to attract and retain good employees.

The numbers, too, confirm that the restaurant turnover rate is a big challenge for employers and recruiters in hospitality. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the Accommodation and Food industry regularly sees one of the highest churn rates in the country. Another survey that digs a bit deeper indicates that there’s both a high number of hires and a high number of job openings in hospitality. Add to that the industry’s overall high turnover rate, and you’ll come across the challenge: employers in hospitality need to attract and hire even more candidates if they want to cover their business needs and replace those who quit.

It seems that challenges in hospitality recruitment center around three pillars: finding, hiring and retaining restaurant employees. Let’s see how industry experts tackle these challenges and get some tips on how to combat employee turnover in restaurants:

1. Finding employees: when you order from a limited menu

That stigma associated with work conditions in hospitality translates into few applications. Companies struggle to find good employees because they don’t receive enough resumes. But the issue here is more about quality and less about quantity. You don’t need hundreds of resumes clogging your inbox; you just need to connect with those job seekers who are genuinely interested in a restaurant job. And to find these candidates, you need to look in the right places and to be fast.

“In our industry, great candidates get snapped up quickly,” says Kelsey Bleakney, Manager of Recruiting & Employment Brand at Joey Restaurants. “If you’re a good server, bartender or chef, you’ve got options. We know that.”

So, it’s not only about finding those great candidates; it’s also about luring them to your side against your competition. A slow hiring process, where job seekers apply for a role and don’t hear back from the company for weeks, costs you good candidates. This has a long-term impact as well, because poor candidate experience reflects negatively on your employer brand and hurts future job openings.

The solution, according to Kelsey, is to organize your hiring and to track important recruiting KPIs. This way, you’ll know what sources (e.g. specific job boards or career fairs) are traditionally bringing you the most successful candidates and you can put your emphasis there instead of posting jobs randomly and hoping for the best.

“From my dashboard I get a snapshot of each pipeline and can quickly see where we have enough applicants and where we don’t,” says Kelsey. “I can refocus resources where they most matter, improve our ROI and build better hiring strategies for the future.”

Surely, the job ad itself plays a big part. You can’t expect to attract candidates if you’re being vague about the role or if you sugarcoat the job. At best, you’ll attract candidates who don’t have a realistic overview of the job when they sign in. As a result, when they see what the job entails, they’re more likely to quit, which explains why the restaurant turnover rate is consistently high. Candidates want to know important and specific details, such as work schedules, salary, bonuses and benefits. A transparent job description that also speaks of your company culture will go a long way.

Do you need some inspiration to create your own job ads? Here are the best job ad examples we gathered from the Workable job board, including one from a restaurant chain.

2. Hiring employees: when you order the chef’s choice

As a recruiter, you’re not the decision maker. But the decision maker (a.k.a. the hiring manager) is not a full-time recruiter. That’s true in every industry. In restaurants, though, there’s an extra challenge. The hiring manager, who is often the store manager or the head chef, has a time-sensitive job in a hectic work environment. A head chef can’t book an hour or two to quietly screen resumes while cooks are preparing meals. Likewise, a restaurant manager needs to look after guests at peak hours, supervise servers and be on top of everything front of house.

Inevitably, recruiting tasks are completed in between regular tasks. But, when hiring managers rush the process and don’t properly evaluate candidates, they risk choosing people who lack necessary skills or who’re not a good culture fit. These people won’t stay for long, making your restaurant turnover rate hurt even more. Soon, you’ll have to look for new employees, and that’s how hiring falls into a loop.

Louis Blake, People and Performance Coordinator at Fonda in Australia, notes how the HR team can support busy hiring managers: “We have pretty extensive interview guides that help inexperienced interviewers to structure their interviews. We are also always available to join a manager in an interview if they want some extra support or feedback. We do a lot of the initial screening ourselves so that the managers can just focus on the good candidates.”

On the other hand, Kelsey explains that if hiring managers don’t prioritize hiring and rely on ‘post and pray’ methods, then the whole process gets delayed: “Our hiring managers couldn’t track where quality candidates were coming from and struggled to keep candidates organized, and ensure they were contacted in time. This ate up sponsorship dollars, lost us some good hires, and reflected badly on the business.”

Prompt communication with candidates, with respect to hiring managers’ busy schedules, can be a huge game-changer, Kelsey adds: “Most of our computers are deep down in a basement office next to the kitchen. Using Workable’s mobile app, our restaurateurs can look at their phone as they’re checking sections. They can contact candidates with one click, pop the phone back in their pocket and continue on their floor.”

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3. Retaining employees: when you order more than hors d’oeuvres

OK, so you’ve managed to find and hire great candidates. Now you need to make sure you retain them. Because as your business grows, you want to put your best employees in senior positions; those who’ll lead departments, get more responsibilities, train new employees and even help open more stores.

But how do you convince employees to stay in the long run, particularly when they have to handle a work environment as stressful as the kitchen? “There isn’t a doubt in my mind that people stay because of the friendships they make while working with us,” Louis clarifies. “Every single cultural survey that we’ve ever done has highlighted how much our staff like the people that they work with. I think we’ve even had two or three marriages after people met at Fonda.”

Good relationships among coworkers is not a coincidence – employees are more likely to get along when you’re dedicated to building a healthy, collaborative environment and when you hire the right people to begin with. But measuring culture fit is no easy feat; team spirit and empathy are rather intangible traits.

There can be some indicators during interviews, though. “Firstly, I like to see someone who’s taken some time and effort putting together their application. A well set out resume or a non-generic cover letter immediately tells me that this person has gone above the bare minimum when applying and is more likely to have the same attitude when landing the job,” Louis explains what he’s looking for in future hires.

“In a similar vein, I love to see that an applicant has been promoted, or can articulate how they’ve taken on extra responsibility in a previous role. It doesn’t need to be relevant to the role that they’re applying for, I just want to see that they’ve worked at a standard that merited some sort of extra responsibility.”

Yes, turnover is a thing in hospitality. And, no matter how hard you try to attract people who will stay with your company for many years, there will always be some employees who see their restaurant job as a temporary solution. But, as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. In some cases, it’s worth fitting inevitable turnover into your hiring strategy and turn this into a win-win situation:

Cook with what’s in your fridge

Louis explains the role that the location plays in their hiring and retention strategy: “We want each individual site to have a great internal culture rather than all to be exactly the same. Our Bondi store, for example, is staffed pretty much exclusively by travelers, whereas some of our sites in Melbourne are staffed by predominantly Aussies in their early twenties starting out at university.”

At a neighborhood restaurant where locals hang out, it makes sense to have permanent staff so that customers see familiar faces. Or, at a college area, you might prefer to hire students who can relate with customers. But, at a vacation spot, it’s normal – or even desirable – to employ people who come from different areas and who speak various languages, so they can better interact with tourists. And it’s also easier to find these candidates, as they seek to combine work with leisure.

In Australia, people with a working holiday visa can stay with the company for about six months, Louis says, “so we try to hire these people during the busy summer months.” Recruiting people with holiday visas instead of only looking for permanent staff can speed up the hiring process in this case – and doesn’t hurt your employer brand, either, considering it’s a vacation spot mostly aimed to cater for tourists.

Hospitality is indisputably a tough space. While chefs perfect their cooking techniques and learn to create masterpieces on a plate, they still haven’t found the secret sauce to attracting and retaining employees. The hospitality turnover rate remains high. Each location, each restaurant or food chain has its own unique challenges. But, hiring needn’t be that much of a burden. A streamlined application and interview process, an investment in career development and being a good and fair employer overall; these are the absolutely necessary ingredients to successful hiring in an industry as challenging as hospitality.

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