While the hospitality sector will undoubtedly continue to face its challenges, it’s not going anywhere.
As one of the hardest hit sectors, the restaurant industry is slowly working toward recovery from the effects of the pandemic. With the landscape completely changing since COVID-19, an already nimble industry is having to enlist new tactics in order to pave the pathway to recovery. Us restauranteurs are a scrappy bunch, many of the most celebrated minds and leaders in our business barely finished college (if at all). We grew up inspired by the likes of a wild leader like Anthony Bourdain or a party animal like Peter Gatien, not a business-minded and Harvard-bred Jamie Dimon or polished Bill Gates. Well, it’s time to embrace our inner fight, don’t-quit-spirit and the attitude that attracted us to this 24/7, nonstop business in the first place.
While the road can seem daunting right now with a seemingly endless set of new challenges thrown at us—COVID shutdowns, figuring out government and bank loan programs, constantly changing COVID procedures and rules, an ever-changing sentiment from customers as to what they expect from an establishment and now the biggest one of all, hiring and retaining employees during an epic labor shortage. Through these constant new challenges, I’ve found two key components are needed now more than ever before: creativity and collaboration.
Every operator is currently encountering the same problems, which is why leaning into out-of-the-box solutions is crucial. My main credo for problem solving at my company Vivili Hospitality Group is now creativity. Whether it be how I approach the hiring process, creating benefits that appeal to the type of employees I’m trying to attract or even taking matters into my own hands by expanding my restaurant portfolio to include the acquisition of a restaurant supply company to help alleviate the ongoing supply shortages.
Each day, I try to encourage the leaders on my team to be persistent with their creativity in solving problems. One idea for a solution is not enough, we need three or four. Trying to solve the problems we are facing with the same old solutions we used in the past is not going to work, so now our backup plans have backup plans. Entrepreneurs, especially those in the restaurant business, are gritty by nature. Applying that same mentality to how we tackle the issues brought on by the pandemic is how we will prosper—and that begins by ditching the status quo.
Creativity Sparks Solutions
One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic, and one with the strongest lingering effects, is the industry-wide hiring shortage. It’s affecting everything from small establishments to large chains and it only seems to continue to be exacerbated by quick solutions such as sign-on bonuses and hiring out of desperation as opposed to bringing on the best people for your team and developing the ones already on staff.
Increasing wages is the bare minimum that can be done at this point, every restaurant is paying employees more than ever before. In order to truly stand out and not only staff your team, but to do so by attracting and hiring the right people, then you’ll have to get creative with what you’re offering employees. If you hire by advertising the highest wage, you are going to get just that, those that are only interested in the paycheck. The minute the guy across the street offers 50 cents more, they are going to jump ship. If you think people only work for money, there are no shortage of stories of athletes passing up millions in favor of getting the chance to play with a championship caliber team. Be that team.
The good workers all have jobs, so attracting them is going to take more than money, and more importantly, keeping them is going to take more than money. For me, as someone who looks for individuals with the drive to grow their career with my company, one solution was to partner with our local community college to offer free college tuition as part of our benefits.
There isn’t one set solution for this, but every restaurateur can get strategic and offer a range of benefits to differentiate themselves from competitors. This industry is notorious for its long hours, so perhaps you offer laundry service to give them back a few hours of their week or a gym membership to help manage the stress of the job. Whatever it is you choose to offer, ensure it’s different from what they can receive anywhere else.
Collaborate with Competitors
The hospitality industry is a tight-knit community and that is more apparent than ever with the way restaurants have stepped up to help each other through these tough times. However, my recommendation is to take it a step further and begin to see your competitors as your greatest resource for collaboration. While I may not have said this a couple of years ago, there’s been an undeniable shift and now people that perhaps used to be your friendly rivals can become friends and partners. Your food and liquor reps can only help you so much, they are public companies that have bottom lines they are required to hit. No matter how great of a rapport you have with your supplier, they are required to profit off your account. It’s time to team up with your competitors to raise the bottom line.
I encourage restaurant owners to reach out to their peers and see how they can join forces to create mutually beneficial solutions to their shared struggles. For example, if you’re an independent group and that inherently comes with a smaller budget, work with other restaurants to combine your budgets and negotiate discounts based off your combined orders. You can do this with everything from supply staples such as dinnerware to larger investments like kitchen equipment. It’s essential to get thrifty to thrive, even if that means leveraging larger orders to create the illusion of a bigger budget to save money.
While the hospitality sector will undoubtedly continue to face its challenges, it’s not going anywhere. If COVID taught us anything, it is how much we missed breaking bread with our friends and family. So, while things seem tough right now, restaurants and bars will always be a part of our society — and we might even be at the beginning of a renaissance of our industry, not at the end of it. Creativity and collaboration will play an immense role in carrying restaurants to the next phase on the path to solid ground, and maybe even onto a launchpad of new creative ideas to help us succeed together.
Skyler Reeves is the proprietor of Vivili Hospitality Group, headquartered in Prescott, Arizona. He is the largest restaurateur in the region employing more than 125 people across six thriving restaurants, including La Planchada, The County Seat, The Barley Hound, Taco Don’s and two Rosa’s Pizzeria locations, plus a full-service catering and events company, Hawk & Hound. To learn more about Vivili Hospitality Group, visit ViviliGroup.com.