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By Beatrice Stein
The restaurant industry is known for its high turnover rate. When you have to keep hiring restaurant staff, it can cost you in your overall operations and your guest experience.
In today’s highly competitive market, finding front-of-house staff with the exact skill set and personality you’re looking for is a little like finding a needle in a barnyard full of haystacks.
So how do you find the right candidates that fit your restaurant’s culture and values?
When hiring front-of-house restaurant employees, I always recommend hiring for personality first. The idea is that anyone who is willing to learn can easily be taught the hard skills with a comprehensive training program. It’s the soft skills – the personality – that you really have to get right if you want to ensure your staff scheduling process runs smoothly each week.
In this article, I’ll tell you the do’s and don’ts of hiring front-of-house restaurant staff, and how to hire for different types of venues, like quick service restaurants (QSRs), casual dining, and fine dining restaurants.
Learn how to hire, train, schedule, and retain restaurant staff.
A thoughtful recruitment plan is key to making good hires. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you get started.
1. DO start with a list of qualities you’re looking for. Not sure? Look at your favorite employees, the key people you wish you had more of. What is it about these people that makes them so valuable?
2. DO use this list of your key staff’s most valuable qualities to create questions for future candidates that will tell you who they really are. Unconventional restaurant interview questions are best, since everyone looking for a job will have already rehearsed answers to the usual ones.
3. DO find out right away if candidates are naturally hospitable (since that’s really hard to teach). Customer service should come naturally to them. You could ask them to tell you about a specific time when they did something really nice for someone who didn’t ask. It doesn’t even have to be work-related – just an instance when they saw an opportunity to go above and beyond and took it.
4. DO set aside dedicated time for interviews, including the preparation of questions and focused time with each candidate, distraction-free.
5. DO be honest with the candidate if you like them but feel they’re not right for the position they applied for, and discuss a position that might be a better fit. For example, if someone applies for a server position but has never worked in a restaurant or customer service position, maybe starting as a host, server assistant, or runner would be a better introduction into the industry.
6. DO factor in the candidate’s appearance, how they present themselves. I look for neat and clean nails, hair and clothing. If you have set standards about piercing and tattoos, this is the time to make sure they can follow your restaurant’s protocol.
7. DO look for passion over experience. This is just as important for front of house staff as it is for back of house staff.
1. DON’T waste time if a candidate can’t come up with an instance when they showed a sense of hospitality without being asked.
2. DON’T hire the first person who walks in the door. You may fill an open slot on the schedule temporarily, but you’re really creating more problems than benefits. It’s extremely important to properly interview and get to know the person in front of you to be sure they fit your company values and culture. If you don’t like them in an interview, it’s safe to say you won’t enjoy managing them or working thirty plus hours a week beside them.
3. DON’T try to make someone fit. If you don’t get a good feeling in the interview, either pass right away or ask another manager to sit in for a second opinion.
4. DON’T forget they’re interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. The candidate is also deciding if this is the kind of place they want to work.
5. DON’T hire people who say they’re uncomfortable with change. Nothing in a restaurant is ever stagnant.
Streamline the hiring process with our printable restaurant job application template.
For venues that serve fast food with little-to-no table service, the guest-facing positions usually include counter staff, cashiers, greeters, baristas, and runners. At peak times, QSRs are very fast pace and high-volume environments.
Here some of the top qualities to look for in candidates:
There is no time to warm up – front-of-house staff must be ready with a smile and pleasant demeanor for up to eight or more hours a day.
Sample interview question: Have you ever struck up a conversation with someone you didn’t know, either on vacation or while taking public transportation? Tell me about it.
Due to the volume of guests passing through a QSR, restaurant staff must be able to handle repetitive tasks while keeping a high level of enthusiasm and focus.
Sample interview question: How do you stay focused when doing simple repetitive tasks? What happens when you lose your focus?
Engaging all day with long lines of customers – plus their co-workers – can be highly stressful. Your staff need to be able to handle pressure with a smile.
Sample interview question: Tell me about a high-stress situation at work, school, or home – what happened and how did you handle it?
Time is of the essence! Your staff will be expected to execute tasks quickly and efficiently to handle the high volume of customers.
Sample interview question: At your last job (or school), what was your usual routine for getting there on time? How long does it take you start to finish?
These roles require staff to stand all day, so you need people who have that kind of stamina – without showing they’re tired.
Sample interview question: How long can you work standing on your feet before you feel like you need a break?
When staffing casual dining restaurants – venues that have table service, moderately priced food, and a relaxed atmosphere – the guest-facing positions you’ll have to consider include hosts, servers, server assistants, runners, bartenders, and barbacks.
Staff need to be observant of guests’ needs and always ready to respond – without being asked.
Sample interview question: If you saw two guests seated at a table, what non-verbal signs would show they did not like where they were sitting?
Casual dining restaurants often rely on turning tables quickly, which creates a fast-paced, high volume environment for staff. You need someone thrives in high-pressure situations and doesn’t get overwhelmed easily.
Sample interview question: Tell me about a time when your assigned tasks became overwhelming (even if only for a few minutes) – how did you handle it?
Because they’ll be on the front lines of the customer experience, you want staff who can look at challenging situations, see a range of possible solutions, and be able to quickly choose the most appropriate course of action.
Sample interview question: Tell me about a time when someone raised their voice at you – what did you do?
With fine dining restaurants, customers expect a high level of food quality and hospitality, extensive wine or specialty liquor lists, and – most importantly – a focus on the details.
Guest-facing positions usually include hosts, maître d’, servers and/or captains, server assistants, runners, bartenders, barbacks, and sommeliers.
On top of being aware of what’s happening in the restaurant and how that affects guest experience, your staff need to be able to read body language and facial expressions to understand the needs to the customers.
Sample interview question: How many guests have you served in the past and noticed they were left handed? What adjustments did you make once you realized it?
You want to know that your staff are prepared to put the customer first and go the extra mile for them.
Sample interview question: In an emergency evacuation with multiple families with children, how would you respond?
Your staff need to be the experts when it comes to what you’re serving at your fine dining restaurant, so you want to make sure they have a passion and knowledge of food and drink.
Sample interview question: What is your favorite dish or drink to make? Was it from a recipe or your own creation?
Your staff need to be confident and engaging communicators – otherwise all that knowledge of food and drink is a waste.
Sample interview question: Describe your favorite food and why you love it so much – how would you describe it to me, so I would want to try it?
To prepare for interviews, I recommend creating a checklist of at least 10 questions for every position you’re looking to fill. If you ask each candidate the same questions, it will be easier to compare their answers and find the candidate closest to your cultural fit.
Always set a good example by being on time for the interview and not having any distractions in front of you, like a phone or computer.
When it comes to the actual interview, most managers start by telling the candidate about the position. Try asking questions first, to get to know them. If they seem like a match for your restaurant, you can then tell them about the position and company values, and help them see how they would fit in.
I always like to start by asking the candidate to tell me a little about themselves. It makes them more comfortable right away as this is a topic they (should) know well. You can easily read their resume, but it’s often better to hear about their work history directly from the source – oftentimes they reveal something you would never have asked, and it opens the door to ask direct questions.
Next, behavioral questions (“What would you do if…”) help you to understand more about the person than just the job skills they have. Asking these questions can also throw them a bit off guard, which tells you how they’ll react to the unexpected – something that’s bound to happen all the time while working with customers.
Maintaining low employee turnover and reducing onboarding costs is all about hiring front-of-house restaurant staff that fit your culture and values. If you spend time understanding exactly what you’re looking for and preparing a process to help you find those people, then your staff are much more likely to stick around and grow within your organization – a win-win for everyone.
Beatrice Stein is a New York City-based restaurant consultant and strategist with more than 35 years of experience working with restaurants – helping them to open and thrive – in some of the most competitive markets. Her expertise includes creating and executing training programs with a full suite of supporting materials for all front of house positions and management, and implementing company branded invaluable onboarding programs for new staff members. For more information on Beatrice Stein, visit Beatrice Stein Hospitality Consulting.
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