It's on operators to reverse the negative connotation often associated with careers in hospitality.
It’s no secret the restaurant industry is still reeling from the pandemic. During COVID-19, furloughed restaurant workers fled to new opportunities in other industries, and even years later, have not returned to restaurants. A new report by the National Restaurant Association found that restaurants were still 794,000 jobs—or 6.4 percent—below their pre-pandemic employment levels and job openings exceed monthly hires by 500,000.
It is no surprise, though, that workers aren’t rushing to return to the kitchen. Restaurant working conditions have long been categorized as grueling, famous for long, hard hours. This has been brought to the back forefront more recently via Eater’s probe into famed Blue Hill’s practices, and Hulu’s hit show, The Bear, that spotlights a former fine dining chef’s PTSD from working under high-pressure conditions.
To re-attract and retain talent to this great industry—and help it continue to recover—the next generation of restaurant owners and operators must step up and take action to reverse the negative connotation associated with hospitality careers. Restaurateurs should steer away from the rigid ways of the past and begin building supportive, inclusive work environments in which employees can grow—both personally and professionally.
In 2019, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation to promote “an economy that serves all Americans” in addition to the long-standing goal of profit. Promoting economic opportunity for all begins with your team members. Truly successful businesses must embrace human-centered design, putting their people and their customers first.
It is vital to prioritize creating a safe and encouraging environment for your team, with opportunity for personal and professional development. Investing in your team will be rewarded. When you create a sense of belonging in the restaurant, it will be felt by the guests. And when you provide truly great service and strive to do good for the community you serve, success will follow.
To recruit and retain employees longer, first, it’s important to build an organizational structure that fosters growth and provides internal pathways to leadership positions within the company. Encourage employees to work in every position—from front of house to back of house—so they truly understand the operational demands and financial considerations necessary to run a successful restaurant. And establish clear roadmaps for promotion and growth opportunities. Clearly articulating the steps to becoming a manager or franchise owner motivates team members to stay dedicated and focused on the mission and strategic goals.
Offering financial resources is also key to talent development. Many entering the industry have minimal access to financial and managerial training, so be sure to provide access to education. Partnering with a local banking institution or financial advisor to host seminars covering key topics from budgeting to investing, is a simple measure to ensure access to education. This will not only help team members budget their finance personally but equip them with the knowledge and resources needed as they grow into leadership roles within the organization.
Lastly, while it seems like a no brainer, it’s crucial to offer fair wages and benefits. Operators must be competitive when it comes to compensation, health insurance, and learning opportunities. With razor thin margins, it may seem challenging to ad such additional benefits, but there are ways to offset the cost, such as implementing a service fee or adjusting menu prices. And, with clear messaging, guests will not only understand, they will often emphatically support this priority.
The future of the restaurant industry is up to today’s owners and operators—together, if we work together to adhere to higher standards when it comes to working conditions, we can rebuild the industry into something even stronger, and more resilient than ever.
Tom Foley is the co-founder of purpose-driven hospitality group T2D Concepts, which operates Roots Chicken Shak and Roots Southern Table. Fueled by a spirit of service and a deep-rooted hunger to drive social change, Tom and his business partner Chef Tiffany Derry aim to bridge the gender and racial wealth gap in the hospitality industry through the power of good food and meaningful dialogue around the table.