After two grueling years, COVID-19 restrictions on indoor dining are lifting and customers are celebrating by returning to their favorite eateries. That’s great news for restaurant operators, right? Well, yes, but operators are now facing an altogether different challenge. While their customers are coming back, their employees are not, or at least not at pre-pandemic levels and certainly not at what operators say they need to run their restaurants. What’s happened?
It’s a byproduct of a nationwide movement that’s been dubbed the ‘Great Resignation’. The mass exodus spiked in November 2021, when a record breaking 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs. And, in February 2022, another 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs. Industries taking the great hit include Accommodation and Food Services, which saw almost 7 percent of America’s food and beverage workforce walk off the job, leaving nearly a million job vacancies and restaurant operators scrambling to recruit new hires.
Navigating the “Big Quit”
Many restaurant workers, who lost their jobs during COVID-19, have chosen to leave the industry all together. No one knows that better than Chef Gregg Brickman, who’s now Corporate Executive Chef at Henny Penny, a global manufacturer of premium commercial food service equipment. “This is something the industry’s never seen before, but it’s been building up for a while. COVID was just the tipping point. People who had dedicated their lives to restaurants, me included, found themselves unemployed when the restaurants they were working for closed. So, out of necessity, they had to pivot, and many found other jobs that were more stable and paid better.”
Brickman’s not alone. One study found that 30 percent of former restaurant employees have found office jobs, while another 17 percent are working in education.
So, to say there’s a surge in demand for restaurant workers is an understatement. In fact, in a recent State of the Restaurant Industry report, half of restaurant operators surveyed expect recruiting and retaining workers to be their biggest challenge in 2022. In an effort to rebuild their teams, many employers are offering higher wages and improved benefits. Take McDonalds, for example, which responded to the labor shortage by hiking hourly wages for current employees by 10% and raising entry-level wages between $11 and $17 an hour.
In addition to more competitive wages and benefits, what else can restaurant operators do to recruit and, more importantly, retain staff?
The Little Things Matter – It’s Not Just About the Money
You’ve heard it said that while money matters, being appreciated and recognized do too, and maybe just as much. To attract workers, employers are offering incentives like higher wages, sign-on bonuses, flexible scheduling, and one New York City-based fast-casual restaurant, DIG, is offering its hourly employees something that’s virtually unheard of in the restaurant biz: a four-day workweek. It’s just another example of how the new “normal” for operators will be finding a way to balance the needs of workers with the needs of the restaurant.
Operators are also finding out that workers respond favorably to the little things …perks that make them feel valued and appreciated.
Show Employees You Care
HOA Brands—which is the franchisor of Hooters, the fast-casual brand, Hoots Wings, as well as three virtual brands—admits it’s facing the same challenges as the rest of the industry, but it’s fighting back with strategies aimed at prioritizing workers and making them feel valued. One incentive the company offers is a generous referral program. Hourly and manager-level team members who recruit new workers receive a referral bonus. “The key for us has been investing in our people and prioritizing what we can do to help them be successful every day,” said Tim Baum, Vice President of Company Store Operations, HOA Brands. “Take our training, for example. We not only make sure our associates feel confident in what they’re doing; we make sure they have the tools they need to do their job and succeed.”
Say “Bye, Bye” to Difficult, Dirty, & Dangerous
In the restaurant world, there are certainly tasks that could be classified as dirty, difficult and, at times, even dangerous. And, while higher wages and better benefits certainly play a role in hiring and retention, so does making the job as appealing and uncomplicated as possible.
Here are three things operators can do now to better position themselves in the competitive space.
#1: Embrace Easy-to-Operate Equipment
“The difficult, dirty or dangerous jobs are the ones nobody wants to do,” says Josh Frank, Director of Product Strategy at Henny Penny, which has consistently been at the forefront of developing equipment designed to solve some of the industry’s biggest challenges. “With product development, we’re always focused on innovative equipment solutions that eliminate or greatly reduce the ‘3-D’ tasks.”
Frank says Henny Penny makes sure they’re always part of the solution; not the problem. “We can’t produce equipment that makes the problem worse. Our focus and commitment is to make equipment that’s easy to deal with from an end-user perspective, from an ownership perspective, and from a service perspective.”
Frank also points to Henny Penny’s pressure fryers, including the PFE500 and PFG600 4-head standard pressure fryers and the Velocity Series 8-head fryers as ideal examples of easy-to-operate equipment.
“So, we have fryers today that will filter automatically after every cook cycle. We have fryers today that can filter at the press of button. We have fryers today that can automatically lift baskets in and out of the oil. And, all of those things reduce the amount of labor it takes to operate that piece of equipment.”
The Easier, The Better!
One of the dirtiest jobs in the industry that no one wants to be tasked with is scrubbing fryer vats. As a value add for its customers, as well as any restaurant operator looking for a better solution, Henny Penny developed Prime Cleaner, which is a non-caustic degreaser specially formulated to remove tough zero-trans- fat oils, grease, even carbon scorching, all without harsh chemicals or heavy scrubbing.
“It’s kind of like Easy Off, but for a commercial fryer,” says Brickman, who’s scrubbed his fair share of fryer vats. He says that Prime Cleaner is a game changer. “It goes from having to scrub for 45 minutes to an hour, to not having to scrub the fryer at all. If you’ve ever had to do that job, you know how welcome an innovation like this is for kitchen employees.”
Want to see the magic of Prime Cleaner? Click here to read a case study highlighting how Lee’s Famous Recipe keeps their fryers in such immaculate shape. (And seriously, we mean immaculate. They even made a 21-year-old fryer look brand new!)
#2: Prioritize Turnkey Training
Another key to improving the employee experience is to simplify and streamline training. “From a training perspective, whether I’m a franchisee, general manager or store manager, I need to be focused on doing what I can to simplify my employees’ on-the-job experience,” said Pete Krause, Director of Training and Digital Assets, Henny Penny. “We don’t want to frustrate or make life any more complicated for employees than it needs to be, and with the majority of our equipment, when you make a purchase, we provide startup training on site. So, we’re right there with you and your employees to make sure they understand how to use the equipment.”
But, it doesn’t stop there. Krause knows that turnover can be a challenge for restaurant operators, and that’s why he says Henny Penny has a multi-tiered training approach. In addition to on-site startup training, the company’s fryers and combi ovens come equipped with full-proof prompts built into the controls. “The prompts are going to walk you through step-by-step how to do different tasks. Say, for example, you’re scrubbing a fryer vat using our Prime Cleaner. You don’t have to remember to add water or remember ‘this is when I need to add my cleaning solution.’ The controls automatically prompt you and then confirm every step is completed before you move on to the next step.”
Henny Penny also provides customers with easy-to-understand wall charts that feature step-by-step visual operating instructions. There’s even a QR code that links to video tutorials for additional training assistance. And, Krause says any of the company’s more than 90 distributors are also available to provide 24/7 assistance to customers.
#3: Trust Tech, BUT Remember: Employees are Still #1
Another consequence of COVID-19 and the subsequent labor shortage is the rapid-fire demand for automated food service equipment. “COVID and mass layoffs really lit a match and accelerated the pace of change everywhere, but especially in the restaurant industry, where we’re seeing significant staffing challenges. It’s like hyper-speed how quickly things are moving and changing,” says Frank.
One significant change that customers may notice, especially in quick-service restaurants (QSRs), is the integration of robotics, which are doing everything from flipping burgers and making tortilla chips, to baking pizzas and serving diners.
Some of Henny Penny’s customers, including some well-known global restaurant chains, are already using the company’s fryers in conjunction with robotic arms. Frank says while robotics is the future, and while Henny Penny certainly welcomes conversations with customers and robotics companies about integration, a lot is still being done on the equipment level that’s helping (and going to continue to help) operators.
“At Henny Penny, we are innovators. It’s in our DNA. Throughout our history, we’ve developed a reputation for solving some of the industry biggest challenges. 65 years ago, when we were founded, it was to help address a throughput problem at a small kitchen in Eaton, Ohio. Ever since then, our company has been solving the challenges that our customers and prospective customers face.”
The labor challenges that the industry is facing today are something Frank says have been on Henny Penny’s radar for quite some time. He says that’s why the innovative equipment Henny Penny engineers isn’t just designed to last, it’s also designed to reduce the amount of labor it takes to operate that piece of equipment.
Looking ahead, bots or ‘autonomous kitchen assistants’, as they’re called, will likely only continue to become more commonplace in the industry, but most everyone agrees they aren’t replacing workers; they’re helping with specific tasks.
Relating to the overall customer experience in the restaurant industry, Chef Brickman says while robots are here to stay, in the hospitality space, they’ll never replace the human touch, which ranks right up there with great tasting food. “You’re always going to need workers to ensure quality and consistency, but most importantly, a robot can’t care. They lack the personal touch that diners experience when they walk into their favorite restaurant and are greeted with a warm smile or personal ‘hello’ from a server who remembers them. That’s the personal touch you get with people, and that can’t be replaced.”
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