Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor™

As I travel around the country, a common lament from operators is that it is getting harder and harder for them to find the quantity and quality of workers they need. On one hand, I believe that if you need five good people, there are certainly five good people looking for work. At the same time, the challenge is how to locate them or how to get them to knock on your door. Spring is (finally!) in the air meaning that many of you will soon be staffing up for the busier summer season. Perhaps we should look at the issue of how to attract the right people.

I want to share some ideas from The The Sure-Fire Staff Selection System starting with one aspect of staff selection that many people miss -- the power of becoming the best employer in town. Perhaps you already are the employer of choice in your market area but if not, and if you would like to earn this distinction, you may have to adjust your thinking.

Think about how different the business environment is now than it was when we first started working. For one thing, the nature of the work force has changed. Workers are more sophisticated, better informed, (less educated?) and have more options than ever before. If you can't find people who want to work, maybe it's only that there are not many people willing to put up with the way you do business. Think about it. Could you hire someone today who would accept the conditions you endured when you first started in foodservice? I surely can't.

For another thing, your guests' expectations have changed. How many of your current guests can you satisfy with the same level of service they would accept even two years ago? Yet how much have your service systems, staff training and basic business orientation really changed to address and keep pace with your guests' new standards?

In spite of these fundamental shifts, most operators, knowingly or unknowingly, still do business the way they have always done it. They have never critically questioned the way they learned to run a foodservice operation. The problem is that the people who taught us in the 60s and 70s were taught in the 40s and 50s by people who learned it in the 20s and 30s. Tradition is wonderful, but not everything we learned is still relevant.

Consider the possibility that the dreaded labor shortage may not really be a lack of qualified workers. It could be a statement that fewer people are willing to endure the mistreatment they traditionally receive from our industry. Many of our current personnel practices are ineffective ways to deal with people. We do it the way we do it because that is the way we have always done it. Many of these unconscious practices developed when there was an abundance of workers who would eagerly accept minimum wage jobs and repressive working conditions. When we had wrung all we could from a worker, we simply replaced them with someone else. The feeling was that we could "burn 'em and turn 'em."

In this sort of climate, there was little real incentive for most operators to question their personnel practices. I am not sure these practices ever worked very well but we could get away with doing it that way so there was little incentive to develop more enlightened practices. I believe the current "labor shortage" is, in part, the price our industry is finally starting to pay for this insensitivity.

The other factor, of course, is that there are more and more competitors in the market and they are competing not just for the same patrons but for the same labor pool. You could put numbers on all these factors but as an operator, I really do not care too much about the statistics -- I just want to find enough good people to run my restaurant!

Part of the answer is to become the employer of choice in your market area. The bigger the magnet the stronger the pull. If you are the best employer in town you will have more people knocking on your door than if you are the employer of last resort. Unfortunately, I do not have any clever scheme that will make people want to apply if you have a reputation as a terrible place to work.

So if you agree that your guests are worth the effort it takes to attract the best available workers, perhaps we should look at some of the factors that will help you earn a reputation as the best employer in town.


People with high standards want to work in operations with high standards. This means you have to be known as an operation that is serious about providing quality food and service. It does not require that you be the most upscale operation in town. I know of one college town where the employer of choice is Taco Time, a franchised taco joint! That is the place that students want to work. If they can't get on at Taco Time, they apply at the white tablecloth restaurants. Earning a good local reputation may also mean that you support worthwhile causes, participate in recycling programs and give something back to the community that supports you. The good news is that when you enjoy a good reputation it helps you draw patrons as well as being the first stop for the best workers.


Ray Lindstrom, former President of Seattle-based Restaurants Unlimited, noted that today's workforce grew up in an environment where they had a voice and a vote in how things were done. "If their parents continually asked for their input at home," he says, "what expectations do you think they have when they come to work?" Lindstrom and his partners quickly realized that the current workforce required a different work environment to really be effective. "We work very hard to provide an environment where our staff really is involved in the daily decisions. It doesn't work if you only try to make them think their opinions are important." It may not be surprising to learn that Restaurants Unlimited is a superb operating group with a reputation as the employer of choice in Seattle.


Most managers think that wages are the most important consideration to their workers. In reality, surveys show that workers place wages fifth on their list. Money is a factor, but high wages are not a satisfier as much as low wages are a dissatisfier. Legendary operations pay wages that are at or above the prevailing standards in their market to make a statement about the value they place on their staff. Labor is a profit center not a cost point -- it's not what you pay but what you get for it. I have to believe that if you had the friendliest, most efficient service staff and the best-trained, most conscientious cooks in your market, you will do more business than if you threw together a collection of warm bodies. Payroll only has relevance against sales.


According to surveys, your workers' number one desire is to receive appreciation for the work they do. This gratitude is a natural consequence of shifting from a "cop-like" management style to more of a coaching approach. Do you see your staff as a bunch of crooks who will rob you blind if you don't watch them every minute? If so, you will tend to treat them that way and they will tend to behave as you expect. Do you see them as intelligent adults who want to contribute if they only have the opportunity? What you see is what you will get. Do you know them as people or just as employees? Do you notice what they do right or just what they do wrong? The best way to assure that your staff will be appropriately appreciative of your guests' patronage is to be appropriately appreciative of your staff. Remember, too, that people like people who like them.


If you cannot pay the highest wages in town (and even if you can and do), you can usually provide a great vocational training program! For many people, the opportunity to learn and advance is as valuable as the salary. Excellent workers are motivated by opportunities to expand their professional skills. If someone applied for a job and their work history showed that they had worked at restaurant (a place renowned for its high standards and thorough training), that fact would certainly work to their advantage. What do you think the reaction in the restaurant community might be when one of your previous workers applies for a job? Will their time with you make them more attractive to another employer and help them get the job? Savvy operators recognize that, ultimately, their only real job is to learn as much as they can and pass as much as they can along to their staff!


The good workers you are seeking want something more than just eight hours work and a paycheck. Increasingly, today's workers look for jobs with meaningful content. How much more involved might your staff be if they understood how their jobs are important to the success of the restaurant? How much more meaningful would their jobs seem if they knew what contribution their work makes to the well-being of others -- both your patrons and other staff members? How much more productive would they be if they were evaluated on how well they achieved the desired results and were given more latitude to determine for themselves the best way to achieve those results?

You know that foodservice success comes from designing every element of the operation to properly serve your patrons. Becoming the best employer in town requires that same level of passion and concern for serving the needs of your staff. Remember that it is your crew that creates your guests' experience of your operation and the first key to creating a quality staff is to develop the sort of organization that quality people want to become part of. Becoming the best employer in town is also more of an attitude than it is an end result. The best employer in town is never completely satisfied, never thinks they have "made it." The best employer in town is actively looking for little ways to become even better.

for more information contact:
Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor™
(585) 606-0000

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