Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen

Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen has reduced its temp staffing, but the restaurant group still brings back reliable seasonal workers who know the ropes.

How Restaurants Can Ace Seasonal Labor

Hiring new employees is always difficult in the hospitality sector. It doesn't get any easier when it comes to filling a temporary workforce.

It’s no secret that staffing is a perennial challenge for restaurants—a struggle that extends to the gig economy, too. As traditional notions of work shift and on demand–type gigs become widespread, the industry continues to benefit from new apps dedicated to finding and placing restaurant workers at all levels. Yet operators often still rely on internal networks, conventional recruiting methods, and word of mouth to fill staffing holes during busy seasons. For mid-size and larger groups, it sometimes makes sense to forgo the notion of seasonal workers altogether.

“We’re all struggling with that temporary workforce and getting people in that are either temp-to-hire for full time or the strictly seasonal type of help they and we want,” says Steven Hartenstein, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Chicago-based Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants group, which owns Italian chain Tuscany, Broken English Taco Pub, and Tavern on Rush. 

With late spring comes the start of patio/rooftop season and a veritable hiring frenzy. The group operates plenty of lucrative outdoor dining spaces, from beachfront restaurant/bar Castaways to Riva and the Beer Garden at tourist hotspot Navy Pier, rooftop dining at Tavern on Rush, and sprawling patios at Broken English’s two city locations. Moreover, several Phil Stefani brands have a presence at annual special events like the four-day music festival Lollapalooza and the Air & Water Show—requiring as many as 80 additional employees for just a few days.

“We go crazy hiring in summertime between servers, bartenders, bussers, cooks, and managers. Then right after Labor Day, the brakes turn on and it all falls apart,” he says. Because the group had two openings planned for this fall, the best temp employees were relocated. But the group struggles to find and hang onto good seasonal help, which Hartenstein attributes in part to the fickle nature of restaurant industry workers and the increasing minimum wage for tipped employees, which makes it harder for operators to justify allowing overtime. 

“It means a lot to the restaurant or entity to pay more, whether for overtime, etc.,” Hartenstein says. “They could be making $6.50 an hour for tipped minimum wage, but once they’re tipped, they’re suddenly making $20–$30 an hour or more.”

That coupled with the fast-growing, on-demand gig economy means that the temporary workforce is even more competitive. “I think because there are so many more options available to people now, it’s just become harder,” Hartenstein says. “I mean, you take a test and boom: You’re an Uber driver.”

Indeed, research published in February 2017 from financial services firm Intuit and Emergent Research found that the number of people working on-demand jobs will balloon from 3.9 million Americans today to 7.7 million in 2020—and eclipsing 9.2 million by 2021. 

And they seem to like it. Eighty-one percent plan to continue working an on-demand job over the next 12 months, and 67 percent say they’re satisfied with their on-demand work, according to an Intuit study featuring data from 6,247 people working via on-demand-economy and online-talent marketplaces. 

As Liz Baker, business development leader at Intuit’s QuickBooks puts it, on-demand work helps reduce income volatility and build economic stability for workers; many use it “to supplement existing income and fill near-term financial needs.” Additionally, more people are leaning on gig work while they develop a new business or to supplement and expand an existing business, with 37 percent already owning a business and 21 percent wanting to build a business, according to the Intuit study. 

“It’s obvious that traditional notions of work are shifting, which means that more people may be interested in on-demand type gigs like seasonal restaurant jobs to supplement their income in the future,” Baker adds.

A bigger pool theoretically means more available workers, right? Not so for Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen, the large-scale restaurant group that operates such concepts as seasonal seafood spots Seatown and Etta’s at Pike’s Place Market, pizza mini-chain Serious Pie, and Greek-inspired restaurant Lola. 

“The restaurant staffing crisis, which started a couple years ago, has affected everybody,” says HR director Devony Boyle. To adjust, the 850-employee chain has shifted its model to rely less on seasonal help, similar to Phil Stefani. At the height of seasonal hiring, Tom Douglas’s workforce reached 1,000. While it brings back good, seasonal workers who already know the business, such as teachers, the group’s temp numbers have thinned out considerably, Boyle says. 

“In the past, we really did have seasonal workers because Etta’s and Seatown are really seasonal because of the weather and the big influx of people we get each year with the cruise ships,” she says. “What’s wonderful is once one spot slows down, … we’ll reassign that dishwasher, line cook, or server to another restaurant.”

The group starts planning for the reassignments in July to allow time for training. This approach aligns with Tom Douglas’s unofficial policy of hiring and promoting from within. Only about 2 or 3 percent of managers were recruited externally, Boyle says, adding that the group provides ample opportunities for employees to move around laterally and mix up their skillset. “If they’ve mastered Italian, they can go to Greek or Northwest style [and] move around to change up their knowledge base or grow in management.”

For external hiring, the group relies on Poached and Craigslist when word of mouth doesn’t do the trick. If, say, a dishwasher calls in sick last minute, the restaurant leans on its relationship with local social equity nonprofit Millionair Club, which helps place homeless, unemployed, and under-employed people in temporary and permanent jobs. 

Still, Boyle wishes there were “another place where we could find qualified people ready to do the work.”

A growing number of placement apps like Jobletics and New York City–based Jitjatjo are leveraging algorithms to match qualified workers to available positions in real time, similar to car-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber, though Tom Douglas hasn’t used any to date.

Phil Stefani hasn’t turned to placement apps either, having had enough luck with informal channels like word of mouth and internal emailing among chefs and Facebook. “What’s been great about Facebook and social in general is the moment people see that the word gets out of you needing staff, nowadays people are all over it,” Hartenstein says.

He acknowledges that with conventional ads on recruiting sites like Craigslist and ZipRecruiter come a fair number of no-shows. That’s where it has helped the brand to remain “loyal to a fault”—maintaining relationships with good temp employees and keeping the door open for more permanent roles down the line. 

“With a company that’s been around a long time like ours, you get a track record,” he says. “We’ve been fortunate … to have the same chunk of people stick with us. I’d rather be loyal to that great seasonal employee. That’s how we’ve found some of our best managers.”