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National Restaurant Association - 6 tips to retain restaurant rock stars

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6 tips to retain restaurant rock stars

Restaurant employees are a hot commodity, which means operations from mom-and-pops to big chains scramble to keep top talent.

“People ask us all the time where we find such great people to work for us,” says Gary Callicoat, president of Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern, a Columbus, Ohio-based chain of 17 restaurants and nearly 1,500 employees. “We get them the same places as everyone else. But we just treat people really great.”

The Rusty Bucket defines that as putting people first throughout the organization.

But the definition of “really great” treatment varies from employee to employee. For some, it’s about the cold, hard cash. For others, it’s about a career path. It’s up to restaurants to figure that out — or lose out.

Here are six ways restaurants are retaining the best of the best.

1. Show the way to advancement. If people feel like they have a future at a place, they’ll stay. If they don’t, they won’t. Rusty Bucket works with NRAEF’s ProStart program to help prospective employees get industry training in high school.

At Great American Restaurants, managers receive a $250 bonus each time they complete an approved educational segment. “We want them to continue to grow,” says Jill Norton, chief people officer at the 11-restaurant chain based in Fairfax, Va. “We have a culture of constantly learning.”

2. Give the people what they want. Ask employees what they’re looking for. When Norton met an employee who had come from another restaurant, she asked, “What’s the one thing you liked about where you worked before that we don’t do here?” The answer: a software program that lets employees trade shifts without having to go through a manager. Norton’s team looked into it, and it now ranks as one of the company’s more popular tools.

3. Think beyond the dollar signs. A cushy paycheck can always be trumped by a better one elsewhere. While no employee minds getting paid more, the best retention plans aren’t just about the money. “For most people, it’s the quality-of-life thing,” Callicoat says.

Rusty Bucket doesn’t offer a bonus program, but its benefits package includes health insurance and vacation days. The numbers suggest Rusty Bucket is on to something. The 11-year-old company makes 85 percent of its managerial hires by promoting from within.

4. Be transparent. Restaurants should be upfront about their expectations and how they will evaluate employees.  If a chef is responsible for food costs and labor costs, then he or she should get weekly and monthly reports with those metrics. He or she should understand the targets and the measurement tools, says Ed Doyle, president and founder of RealFood Consulting in Boston. “If you want an incentive program to be effective, all team members must understand what they can do to have a positive impact on improving results.”

5. Recognize life beyond the restaurant. Restaurant employees are accustomed to working outside the typical 9-to-5 schedule, but they appreciate a work-life balance.     

Clyde’s Restaurant Group has fairly traditional incentives, says Claude Andersen, corporate operations manager of the 14-restaurant chain in the Washington, D.C., area. Those include a bonus based on quarterly sales results.

The company’s structured time-off plan also boosts retention rates. “Managers work five days and have two days off,” he says. “They have a life outside of work.”

Great American Restaurants also is committed to two consecutive days off for employees. Managers might work 50 to 55 hours a week, but if they want to take a class every Tuesday night, they can count on a schedule that makes it happen, Norton says.

6. Encourage teamwork. Concessions International offers “team incentive awards” — bonuses starting at $25 and up to $150 per quarter. But it awards them on the store level so employees must collaborate to earn that extra cash, explains Robelyn McNair, vice president of human resources for the eight-location chain of airport eateries based in Atlanta.

“It encourages them to maintain units in tip-top shape and pay attention to metrics like service time,” she says. “It helps us keep employees involved.”

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