Summer Staffing

How to hire and train seasonal workers—and keep them coming back

Tourist season is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it’s a great time for business—entire communities live and die on tourist dollars.

But on the other hand, that traffic comes at a price. Big crowds mean big demands on everyone in a restaurant. If you don’t find a way to deal with it, your entire operation will suffer.

In addition to losing profits and making a bad impression on guests, you’ll put stress on your best workers and lower employee morale. If you don’t handle tourist season carefully, it can hurt your operation for the rest of the year.

Several operators have found ways to successfully navigate the tricky summer season by hiring temporary workers.

The Ruby Restaurant Group, based in Newport Beach, California, offers so many teens their first summer job that it’s become known for it. In Alaska, the Denali Park Salmon Bake and its two sister restaurants hire nearly 200 workers every summer.

And several years ago, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and other organizations helped push through a law to increase the hours that teenagers could work—and got the school start date rolled back to September 1.
How To Do It

But hiring temporary workers isn’t always easy. How can you find high-quality workers before your competition? How can you train them in on a tight schedule? And what do you do when the summer’s over?

First, see what your existing staff can do. The easiest employees to find are the ones already working for you, and you may be surprised at how many people want to pick up an extra shift.

High school and college students with debts to pay and time on their hands may be willing to go from part-time to full-time, and if they make up a lot of your work force, you won’t have to look any further.

Terry Perrella, who owns and manages Sammy’s Pizza restaurant in downtown Duluth, Minnesota, sees quite a spike in summer traffic. His employees are generally able to work extra shifts in summer, so he seldom has to hire temporary workers.

Howard Cannon, CEO of Restaurant Consultants of America, advises clients to structure their stores with this kind of flexibility in mind.

“Our strategy has always been that this is very much a part-time industry,” Cannon says. “He or she who runs a restaurant with the highest percentage of part time employees wins. If you have a significant number of part timers, you have more of a pool to go to when you need them.”

If your current staff isn’t going to be able to cover the rush, start looking for temporary help as soon as you can. After 40 years running several restaurants, Duluth’s Nick Patronas is familiar with both tourists and teenagers. He says the best workers start looking early, so that’s when you should be recruiting them.

“The smart kids are looking two months before school lets out,” Patronas says. “Those are the ones who are looking ahead, who are energetic—you know they’re probably going to be good workers, too.”

The more workers you need, the earlier you have to start. David McCarthy and his business partners own three full-service restaurants near Alaska’s Denali National Park: The 49th State Brewing Company, the Denali Park Salmon Bake and Prospectors Historic Pizzeria and Alehouse.

They need to find 193 quality temporary employees every year, so the application process starts before the first of the year. After spending January sorting through applications, the phone interviews begin.

“Eighty to ninety percent of all our hiring is done in those first couple weeks in February,” McCarthy says. “The earlier hires usually are ones that have already determined they want to go here.”

What if you didn’t get a jump on things? There are still good workers out there, but you’ll have to work harder to find them. Cannon says that finding top quality employees to work just a few months a year can be challenging.

Offer Incentives

Since stable, year-round jobs are inherently more attractive than seasonal work, you may need to pay a little extra to make up the difference. If you’re hiring extremely short-term (your town has a hyper-crowded parade weekend and you need someone for just a couple of afternoons), the bonus goes up accordingly.

“We pay them a bit of a premium wage for a shorter shift,” Cannon says. “We’ve had other markets where we’ve had to pay three or four bucks an hour more just to get that premium timeframe.”

Some operators have found that non-cash incentives can work just as well. Front of house staffers can count on extra tips, but motivating a cook to work the summer rush can take some creativity.

Bryan Hutchinson, manager and part-owner of Pazzo’s Pizza in Vail, Colorado, offers his full-time chefs ski passes, so they can hit the slopes on their off days.

Whatever you use to motivate your employees, though, be sure they’re clear that the work is short-term. Implying that you’re offering a year-round position when you know it’s only temporary is a bad move.

“It’s not only ethically wrong, but you’re actually setting the employee up to be angry with you,” Cannon says. “You’re best off telling your employees coming in what your needs are.”

Once you have your summer help, it’s time to train them in. Scott McIntosh, former vice president of operations for Ruby’s Restaurant Group, which owns casual diners in several states. He says paying employees to come in before crunch time hits is worth it because it gives operators time to prepare them.

“You have to hire before the season hits,” McIntosh says. “Places I’ve seen that don’t do it right, wait until the last minute, and they hire people and don’t train them properly.”

However, proper training doesn’t mean you have to give them the same information as your full-time workers. This is partly an issue of practicality. While you want your permanent workers to be able to handle anything that could come up, it’s not worth it to invest so heavily in someone who may not be there next year.

“Just hire them for one area in one specific time slot,” Cannon says. “Don’t expect them to learn and try to focus or cross-train on five items.”

Of course, some restaurants don’t have an option. The higher your percentage of new workers, the more they’ll need to know. The ultimate example of this is the group of three Alaska restaurants.

Training From The Ground Up

When tourist season ends in September, the 49th State Brewing Company cuts both staff and hours, and the Denali Park Salmon Bake and Prospectors Historic Pizzeria and Alehouse close entirely. McCarthy says that since every year is like opening a new restaurant, they train each group from the ground up.

“We have to prepare people [so] that within less than seven days they understand the basic procedures,” McCarthy says. “When guests show up, the number one compliment we receive is ‘it feels like this has been open [all year].’”

To get everyone on the same page, they run an elaborate seven-day boot camp. The process starts with an introductory meet-and-greet and a speech or two about what there is to do for fun at the nearby national park (which is good motivation for the workers).

Then new hires are divided into groups with their soon-to-be supervisors and co-workers. The next few days are filled with hands-on training, classroom instruction, and tests on everything from menus to procedures.

The same step-by-step instructions used in training are posted in the kitchen all summer, so employees can quickly find answers to any questions that come up.

 “We don’t leave a lot of variables, so all of this is laid out in steps,” McCarthy says.

“We have to make sure it’s concise, it gets to the point, and [employees] have everything they need from day one.”

After assessing your needs, hiring temporary workers, and training them, it might seem like all that’s left is to enjoy the season. But you’re not done yet.

Keep an eye on your best summer workers and if you can, consider offering them a part-time position during the year. Even if you aren’t able to keep them on staff, be sure to talk to them about the next season. After all, your workers are your best asset—and the easiest time to plan for next summer is this summer.

Pazzo’s Pizza goes through two peak seasons and two off-seasons every year. When Hutchinson finds a good employee during one season, he lets them know they’re always welcome to come back.

“I tell them ‘be back June first and you’ve got a job for the summer,’” Hutchinson says. “I have a lot of employees who have been here 10 years.”

by Robert Lillegard