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7 Ways to Deal With the Labor Shortage


Dana Krook


Remember the expression, too many cooks in the kitchen?

Well, go ahead and unlearn it.

That expression seems to be going the way of the flip phone, as more and more workers realize they can’t stand the heat and make a beeline out of the kitchen.

Restaurateurs across the U.S. are trying everything and the kitchen sink to recruit and retain employees in the face of a labor shortage the likes of which this industry hasn’t seen in nearly two decades.

Now that we’ve gotten all the kitchen idioms out of our systems, let’s put punnery on the back burner and focus on breaking this labor shortage down into digestible bites.

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The Who, What, Why, and How of Today’s Labor Shortage

WHO Is Affected by the Labor Shortage in the U.S.?

The employee shortage mainly impacts businesses that require skilled workers and tradespeople.

It also affects businesses that rely heavily on entry level and low-earning workers.

The restaurant industry lives smack dab in the middle of these two factors, with fast food and limited service restaurants being the hardest hit.

You need skilled workers to run your kitchen and front of house, but in many states minimum wage is barely enough to keep employees above the poverty line. This dangerous cocktail of factors makes you especially susceptible to the challenges of this worker shortage.

WHAT Is a Labor Shortage Anyway?

A labor shortage means there are more jobs than people out of work. It’s a phenomenon not often seen within the U.S. economy. According to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, there are just shy of 6.7 million open positions in the United States and only 6.4 million employable workers without jobs.

WHY Is There a Worker Shortage?

The restaurant industry tends to cluster in large urban centers. NYC Health Department data indicates there are 24,000 operating eateries in New York City alone. This location-specific restaurant surplus accounts for the need outnumbering the supply.

“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for cooks is expected to steadily increase as new restaurants continue to open and people continue eating out,” reads an article from Civil Eats. “Although the overall demand for cooks in schools, hospitals, and cafeterias is expected to grow by 6% from 2016 to 2026, the growth for restaurant cooks is expected to grow by 12%. That means the U.S. restaurant industry will need a total of 1,377,200 cooks in 2026, compared to 1,231,900 cooks employed in 2016.”

The restaurant industry also has a reputation for requiring long hours and offering low wages. Increased immigration enforcement has reduced the number of undocumented workers and directly impacts the restaurant industry, which has always relied heavily on their participation in the labor force.

What’s more, the number of teenagers in the labor force is half what it was 25 years ago, which makes finding people willing to work entry-level, low-earning positions increasingly difficult.

These two factors are especially relevant in cities like Miami where there are a huge number of restaurants, an ongoing government crackdown on hiring undocumented workers, and a relatively low state minimum wage compared to the rest of the country.

HOW Do You Cope with the Labor Shortage?

Now that we’ve explained the who, what, and why of the labor shortage, we’ve got some tips on how your business can continue thriving in this job economy.

But first, here’s how some are dealing with the shortage in some of the biggest U.S. cities.

LA Labor Shortage

According to the LA Times, Los Angeles-based restaurant owner Zach Pollack – from both Alimento in Silver Lake and Cosa Buona in Echo Park – always keeps a line cook ad active even when he isn’t looking, so there’s always an open space for that perfect applicant.

Zach also describes the state of the industry 10 years ago, when he first entered the scene as one and every line cook was competing for work within fewer than 10 trending L.A. restaurants.

He says the number of restaurants has skyrocketed since then, but that the pool of skilled cooks has more or less stayed the same.

Chicago Labor Shortage

Chicago-based celebrity chef Rick Bayless recently launched a training program called The Hatchery that trains low-income high school and college students basic culinary skills and places them in internships around the city.

“I believe this program can help surmount two big challenges in the city – lack of cooks to fill our restaurants’ kitchens and a lack of both solid preparation and career opportunities for the youth of Chicago’s toughest neighbourhoods,” Rick says.

Austin Labor Shortage

A staffing agency called Workforce Solutions based out of Austin, Texas says the rising cost of living combined with the low wages offered by entry level service industry positions has applicants less interested than ever before in hospitality jobs.

The agency suggests restaurant owners target students right out of high school and focus on offering them growth potential within the industry.

The truth of it is that dealing with the labor shortage in your city won’t be a piece of cake. Adapting means making some very real changes in the way your business is run, but we’ve got a few suggestions to help you succeed.

7 Ways to Deal with the Labor Shortage

Man with glasses in front of his macbook speaking with his colleague

1. Get Creative with Recruitment

Recruitment and retention are two of the restaurant industry’s biggest challenges, even on a good day.

In light of the labor shortage, they’ve now become even more critical.

Maybe there was a time when people were lining up to work at your restaurant. If they’re no longer coming to you, don’t be shy to go to them. Promote job ads online, work with staffing agencies in your area, and advertise through local schools and community centers.

Job descriptions tend to be really dry and boring, so make yours stand out. Play to your strengths.

Is your restaurant a really fun place to work? Make your job ad playful and fun to reflect that.

Do you offer something most other restaurants don’t? Make sure to include that in your ad.

Also consider offering an employee referral bonus. If a staff member refers a friend, and that friend gets hired and stays for more than three months, then the referring employee gets a cash bonus on their paycheck or another type of incentive.

2. Partner Up

Beyond just ads, see if you can partner with local organizations, high schools, college job fairs, after-school programs, and other grassroots initiatives that have budding talent. Offer free training or skill-building workshops to people entering the labor force, in exchange for a term of employment.

They get full-time employment. You get full-time employees.

3. Trim the Fat of Admin Tasks

Restaurant staff are already working long hours for low wages, so make sure you aren’t piling non-essential responsibilities onto the plates of your skilled workers.

Invest in technology that can automate some of the more time-consuming administrative tasks your staff are currently responsible for. Things like inventory and reservations can be automated without a huge investment, but will save your skilled staff a ton of time.

Freeing your skilled staff of these more menial tasks will let them focus on the work they’re really passionate about and trained for – plus, they’ll be happier for it, which leads to more productivity and higher retention.

4.  Be Flexible with Schedules

Your staff aren’t robots (yet). They’re people and they respond well to being scheduled as such. 

When building your employee schedule, factor in staff preferences (number of shifts per week, time of day, etc.) and their outside lives before putting them into the spreadsheet.

If someone says they work best in the evenings, scheduling them for five early morning shifts a week (even though they’re technically available) won’t be great for staff morale or productivity. Make it easier to hang on to skilled workers by taking their shift preferences into account as much as possible.

Also, have protocol for accepting and processing employee time off requests, as well as for emergency and non-emergency scheduling conflicts. Knowing you’re sensitive to their work-life balance will go a long way toward employees putting down roots at your restaurant.

Job flexibility is a key value for a lot of workers in our current environment, so be proactive about getting their input for your staff schedule.

5.  Perk Up Employee Benefits

Maybe you’re in a position to offer competitive wages – if so, that’s great!

What you can’t offer in wages, however, you can likely offer in other types of perks.

This is a good opportunity to get a little creative and come up with some original incentives you can offer your staff, like professional training and development opportunities, company events, overtime opportunities, and more.

If you’re able to convert some of your part-timers into full-timers and offer them salaried positions or benefits packages, that’s even better.

People work harder when they feel valued, so come up with some new ways to show your appreciation for their hard work.

happy woman shaking hands with her future employer

6.  Change Your Management Style

Traditional management styles keep employees in the dark about high-level decisions, even when those decisions impact all staff.

Trusting your employees and involving them in those decisions is proven to empower staff to work harder by showing them how their work impacts the restaurant’s overall success.

Open communication and transparency will also strengthen the relationship between you and your staff. It fosters a culture of shared ownership which is empowering to everyone involved.

7.  Open Up to Different People

We tend to hire people who match our existing team. It’s human nature to look for candidates you can see yourself in.

BUT, when you create a more diverse, equitable work environment, it not only widens the pool of people from which you can hire, it also adds a wealth of new perspectives that can strengthen your business. Wider pool, more candidates, better hires.

Consider things like what message an all-male staff might send to potential female applicants, or how a highly-skilled worker living with a disability might feel about applying to a restaurant that isn’t accessible.

Adding a little bit more diversity to your hiring practices will open up the pool of people you can pull from and improve your business overall. Win-win.

When Will the Labor Shortage End?

In the words of Willy Wonka, “There’s no knowing where we’re going, but it shows no signs of slowing.”

There are a number of predictions about the future direction of the U.S. labor shortage. Many focus on whether the shortage will lead to more minimum wage increases – and whether we should be concerned about the fact that it hasn’t yet.

Nobody is entirely sure when the trend will shift, but for now it’s important to recognize that you are operating in a “seller’s market” as far as employment goes. That is to say, lack of demand puts the power in the hands of the employees.

While low unemployment rates are usually celebrated by the mainstream public, it doesn’t change the fact that labor shortages are challenging for small business owners – especially restaurant owners who face daunting odds in the first few years of opening.

Trust in your business concept and restaurant brand while exploring ways you can adapt to the evolving labor landscape, like the seven creative solutions we’ve discussed here.

Dana is the Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, sharing tips for and stories of restaurateurs turning their passion into success. She loves homemade hot sauce, deep fried pickles and finding excuses to consume real maple syrup.

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