All foodservice operations – from pricey steakhouses to QSRs and c-store kiosks—are feeling the pinch from the industry wide labor shortage. The number of U.S. foodservice workers dropped about 6.1% from pre-pandemic levels through mid-year 2022, reports the National Restaurant Association. Of those 750,000 now-absent workers, many saw their employers’ businesses fail, while others turned to different occupations and industries during the 2020 lockdowns.
That employee shortage has many repercussions, like slow service, which generates negative customer reviews on Yelp!, Open Table, Google and Facebook.
“Recruitment has been very hard for the last couple of years,” said Peter Rasmussen, founder and CEO of Convenience and Energy Advisors, a Boston-based consultancy. “In the past, if you were opening a new store, you’d post a job for a sales associate, let it sit for a couple of weeks and then do the hiring. Now when a candidate applies, you must respond to the application almost immediately, whether in person or through technology. And your application process must be incredibly simple because you’re competing with so many other open jobs. It’s harder than it’s ever been.”
Employment websites and job boards give employers and potential applicants a quick, low-fuss way to connect. But it comes with its own set of challenges.
“When someone applies on Indeed.com, that is your opportunity to engage with them,” said Rasmussen. “In the past, an employer would call the applicant, but nobody answers unknown numbers anymore. Some retailers have seen success by sending a personalized text message. ‘I got your application, and you seem talented. I would love to chat.’
“Once you talk to that candidate, remember that the interview goes both ways,” he said. “That candidate knows they have power. They listen to the inflection of your voice. Is this someone they want to work for? That phone interview is the point of where you get them to do a Zoom interview or in-person interview and move them to the hiring phase. If anything is too difficult or disengaging, people fall off the application process.”
When a candidate applies, you must respond to the application almost immediately whether in person or through technology."
Texas-based TXB Stores has 48 locations, plus two under construction. Employee recruitment efforts include a combination of social media, paper applications and employee referrals. Professionally printed “Help Wanted” window signs feature QR codes, a digital way to give the applicant more information.
At that same time, “we’re going back to 20 years ago when an applicant could walk into a store and say, ‘I’m looking for a job,’” said Dale Jackson, head of recruiting for TXB. “We’ve streamlined it so that if someone walks in, we can hire on the spot. And if you apply between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, you will get a call back in 15 minutes.”
TXB has seen good results with this practice, and today about 20% of new hires are walk-in applicants. “Surprisingly, we find that in some of the rural areas where our stores are located, employees aren’t spending a lot of time job searching,” he said. “They know the businesses in their area, and they’ll walk in and say, ‘I see you’re hiring.’”
With the initial applicant contact, TXB does a quick screening and schedules a next-day interview. “We put it on the foodservice manager’s calendar, so they know that person is coming in,” Jackson said. “And we’ll have a recruiting coordinator there to handle onboarding and hiring.”
SEARCHING FOR TALENT
A good place to connect with foodservice workers is at schools and community colleges offering a culinary program. “Those students are people who have a passion for food and cooking,” said Jimmy Crowder, director, food operations and innovation at TXB. “But we also want people who have a personality because our open kitchens face our customers.”
“Attitude and personality are the two big things,” said Nathan Graham, director, human resources at TXB. “Anybody can be taught to work in our foodservice department or on the store side. If you have the right attitude and personality, we can train you and give you the tools to succeed in the foodservice industry.”
Crowder favors hiring employees with QSR experience. “If they’ve worked at a QSR, they’re probably friendly, have a sense of urgency and will be fast,” he said. “And QSRs have some kind of structure where cleanliness and safety are important.”
During the interview, he’ll determine if applicants enjoy cooking and listen carefully to see if they talk about the team or just themselves.
“If we’re hiring a foodservice manager, they’ll be in training 30-60 days in one of our two training stores,” Crowder said. “Team members get a week or two of solid in-store training depending on how much experience they have,” he said.
“A retailer with less than 10 stores and who doesn’t have training facilities or a recruiting team should be investing in these things. This is what is going to create the future for their company,” Graham added.
We post schedules two weeks in advance so team members can plan their personal lives."
Most job applicants are more concerned about their base pay than potential benefits, according to Rasmussen. “At the start of the pandemic, the restaurant industry got smacked,” he said. “You had a lot of foodservice and kitchen managers who had base bonus differences, but the business closed. As a result, many companies have gotten aggressive with their base pay.”
Today’s employees also are more concerned with scheduling and flexibility than in the past. Traditionally, a c-store career required that you “earn your stripes,” Rasmussen said. “You started out with an overnight shift, then got the second shift. Eventually, you became a manager. But that doesn’t fly today. People place value on their personal life and their families, and the c-store industry must be more flexible than ever,” Rasmussen said.
“At TXB, we’re a great proponent of flexible scheduling,” said Jackson. “We post schedules two weeks in advance so team members can plan their personal lives. Currently, we have eight foodservice managers in training. Three of those are products of internal promotions, so there are opportunities for growth. We talk about that when bringing hourly team members onboard.”
A 2021 study of U.S. workers conducted for Ceridian, a human resources and payroll management firm, found that 83% believe they should have access to their earned wages at the end of each shift or workday instead of being paid in traditional two-to-four-week cycles. TXB offers employees the daily pay option if they choose, and 73% of employees have signed up for that benefit.
“Employees can access up to 90% of their paycheck early,” Graham explained. “For example, if you work Monday and Tuesday, you can access that money for those past two days on Wednesday. An employee can go on an app, request $100 and it’s instantly deposited in their account. A third-party company handles 99% of the work, so it’s almost hands off for us.”
Other enticements include benefits for both part-time and full-time employees and a new-hire program worth $200 in free fuel during their first 10 weeks on the job. In addition, the retailer pays team members a bonus for referring a new worker and puts a heavy emphasis on keeping communication channels open.
“I coach the managers and have the managers coach their team members to be authentic,” said Crowder. “We all need to be listening. If a team member is feeling anxiety or whatever, we want [management] to listen. The breakdown occurs when we don’t listen to team members, and we don’t communicate.”
If you aren’t sure what your employees want, ask them, Rasmussen said. “Every employer needs to survey their workforce to see what will give them the best bang for their buck,” he said. “Maybe you can’t offer tuition reimbursement, but if you have a strong foodservice offering you can offer complimentary meals to your associates during their shift. At the end of the day, you can’t give away everything, so you have to survey employees and deliver the benefits that matter most to them and that give you the highest return.”
Recruiting nontraditional workers can give you an avenue for referrals."
The employee shortage is causing hiring managers to be more open to nontraditional workers, including veterans, part-timers, parents and caregivers who have been out of the workforce, seniors, people with special needs and jobseekers with no work experience or with gaps in their employment history. Some of these individuals may be “skilled through alternative routes,” which means they have the appropriate skills or potential to do the job, but no way to prove their experience.
“Recruiting nontraditional workers can give you an avenue for referrals,” said Rasmussen. “If you offer flexibility for teachers in the evening, you create engagement with that first hire. That turns into referrals, which is traditionally the best way to grow your workforce.”
In addition, “diversity and inclusion matter a lot. Recruiting a diverse and inclusive workforce at the entry level is one thing, but corporations have to actually show consistent growth opportunities through upper management. A statement or affinity group is not enough. You have to really show it to your workforce,” Rasmussen added.
Of course, there is one more recruitment tactic that TXB admits is effective. “We will steal shamelessly,” said Jackson, admitting to what he calls “a little boots on the ground activity” when he sees a promising employee working at another business. “I can’t say I’ve never been thrown out of a location. We do a little of that, as well.”