Noncommercial operators gathered on the University of Notre Dame's campus this week to chat about menu innovation, tech advances and, yes, labor challenges at the annual MenuDirections conference. This was the first time the event, put on by FoodService Director and its parent company Winsight Media, was held on a higher-ed campus, and education was indeed at the forefront.
Here are some lessons gleaned about the current state of labor and how foodservice operations are addressing headwinds in that area.
Support for the whole worker.
Whether you’re running a lemonade stand or a university, fostering connections is key, said Peter Romeo, editor at large for FSD’s sister publication Restaurant Business, during a general session presentation on creating loyalty among diners and staff.
In today’s tough labor market, employees are a foodservice operation’s “most important constituents,” even more so than customers, Romeo said. To retain staff and bolster their contentment on the job, wellness benefits are now offered by about 63% of restaurant brands, compared to 25% pre-pandemic, he said, citing data from Black Box Intelligence.
Educational benefits are particularly “sticky” when it comes to employee retention, he noted, calling out programs from Starbucks, Chipotle and Yum Brands that seek to help employees further their education or learn what’s needed to become a restaurant franchisee. Starbucks, in particular, covers 100% of a bachelor of arts degree from Arizona State University for full-time or part-time employees.
Flexible scheduling is gaining steam.
One of the biggest things foodservice workers are asking for is greater predictability when it comes to their schedules and, thus, what they can expect to make, Romeo said. In that vein, restaurant chain Burgerville now provides worker schedules multiple months ahead of time, the result of union contract negotiations at the brand, and New York City requires that operations have employee schedules firmed up two weeks in advance. If employers need to change the schedule after that point, they end up having to pay a premium to workers, he said.
A focus on values.
Employing great people to put out great food is at the core of All Day Kitchens, a third-party deliverer that puts a twist on the standard model. Money is far from the whole story of what people need when they come to work, said Molly McGrath, director of operations for the company. “Trust, challenge and support each other” and “be a good neighbor” are among the values embraced in the kitchen and among employees, McGrath said, noting that you can pay people very well, but that won’t keep them on your staff if that’s all they’re getting.
Same-day pay has payoffs.
Another worker benefit becoming more common is same-day pay, where workers end a given shift with that day’s pay in hand, often in the form of a payment card. The casual-dining brand Smokey Bones saw a 30-40% drop in worker turnover after it implemented a same-day pay option, which also reduces employee call-offs since it makes the idea of “no show, no pay” more tangible, Romeo said. This sort of benefit does have its challenges, he notes, as not every employee knows how to use a payment card or has a bank account.
Finding potential employees less far afield.
Bus drivers can be a key source of potential workers in K-12 foodservice, said Brandi Dreibelbis, senior director of school food operations with the nonprofit Chef Ann Foundation. Bus drivers' schedules are generally well aligned to helping in school kitchens over lunch, she said, noting that family referral programs and bringing in newly retired employees as subs may help fill staffing gaps as well.
Hiring from within is a big focus at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where Executive Director of Food and Nutrition Services Leisa Bryant spends a lot of time ensuring that staff are onboarded properly and truly feel they are part of the team. Soon after a new employee begins in the dining department, Bryant sits down with them to discuss their goals and potential career path, with the aim of retaining the employee at the institution, even if that sees them eventually moving to a different team or department there.
With that approach in place, Bryant has promoted more than 50 of her team members over the last two years, with 10 of those workers moving into leadership roles. “Our staff is our greatest asset,” Bryant said. “They’re also the most expensive, too.”