Key Takeaways:

  • How nationwide labor shortages triggered employee retention issues in many industries, with the food service sector as the hardest hit.
  • Tactics restaurants can use to combat employee turnover, including traditional employee retention strategies and restaurant artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
  • How virtual ordering assistants help short-staffed restaurants improve employee retention rates by limiting stress on previously overworked team members.

Much has been written about the ongoing nationwide labor shortage crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but quick and practical solutions have not been as plentiful. Happy, productive and engaged employees are any business’s most valuable asset—especially for restaurants where day-to-day operations are very hands-on—so poor employee retention is always concerning.

With many restaurants already struggling from the financial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants must be able to hire or keep talent to stay operational, and without being able to do this, restaurant owners run the risk of having to open with reduced hours, operate with inadequate staff, or shut their doors entirely. 

This problem of employee retention is solvable if the right solutions are applied under the right circumstances. In addition to a number of potential employee retention strategies, restaurants can utilize cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to reduce employee workload and compensate for understaffing.

Employee retention in the restaurant industry

restaurant employee serves food

Employee retention is key to a business preventing employee turnover. And even under the best circumstances, restaurants tend to have high turnover.

This reality has only worsened since the beginning of the pandemic: the average monthly employee turnover rate at fast food chains has jumped by 9% to an eye-popping 144%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that food service job vacancy numbers are 70% higher than they were pre-pandemic, and with 10% fewer people searching for a new job, this issue won’t necessarily resolve itself over time.

So what factors lay behind this so-called Great Resignation? Why are so many workers quitting in droves across a multitude of industries? While it’s unlikely that there is one singular root cause of the employee retention crisis, there are several common motivations for quitting a job:

  1. Job stress: A fast-paced, hectic workplace like the food service industry can be a challenging environment for anyone, particularly new hires. Unpleasant customer interactions, insufficient training and staff shortages necessitating overwork and multi-tasking can all lead to burnout.
  2. Work environment: A hostile company culture or ineffective leadership will inevitably alienate both new employees and veterans alike, thereby discouraging job satisfaction and encouraging employee turnover
  3. Personal or family issues: Maintaining a work-life balance is critical for anyone’s physical and mental well-being, and feeling overworked or underappreciated in a chaotic job setting may destabilize that sense of balance. 
  4. Low wages or lack of advancement: The labor shortage has disrupted standard compensation rates in the food service sector. Restaurants desperate to solve staffing issues are offering hourly pay well-above minimum wage, giving present team members incentive to jump ship for a better-paying job at a different restaurant. On a similar note, if employees can’t envision a likely career path at their current workplace, they might relocate to a business offering a clear opportunity for promotion.

Successful employee retention is never guaranteed. There are a multitude of both traditional and technology-based strategies employers can use to hold on to their team members and build a work environment that’s attractive to top talent

6 time-tested employee retention strategies

employee retention: waiter serves burgers to guests

Effective employee retention strategies can go a long way toward supporting your business’s bottom line.

1. A streamlined hiring process

Conventional human resources practices aren’t necessarily the ideal method to pick out the best applicants. For example, redundancies on electronic applications such as requiring job seekers to both upload a resume and type in their job history may actually lead to applicant drop-off. 

Although it might seem like an overcorrection, skipping the interview stage and bringing an applicant in for a trial-by-fire first shift is one way to quickly fill staff vacancies. UPS used just this strategy to achieve their hiring goals for the 2021 holiday season, and the same method may well prove successful in the food service sector.

2. Improved onboarding and training programs

A restaurant’s onboarding process can place new employees in a position to quickly become productive and engaged members of the team. A comprehensive training program can enable even totally inexperienced hires to succeed at their assigned job tasks.

3. Better company culture

Whether an employee’s experience at a workplace is positive or negative often comes down to company culture. Team-building exercises, recognition programs and focus on employee well-being are all ways to encourage employee engagement, and thereby will reduce employee turnover. Keeping open paths of communication between front-of-house staff, back-of-house staff and managers is another way to establish an environment where employees feel respected, understood and valued. 

4. Competitive compensation

Typically viewed as a low-wage, temporary occupation, working in food service can be a much more appealing career path if the pay is good. And with restaurant wages trending upwards during the pandemic, employers feel the pressure to increase their pay rates if they want to attract and hang on to top performers

5. Job perks

Pay increases aren’t the only method companies can use to reward their best employees. Employee benefits such as a comprehensive health insurance policy, professional development, career advancement opportunities and flexible scheduling are all ways to boost employee satisfaction.

“Unpaid time off” is an increasingly popular scheduling system among food service industry workers. This practice gives team members more control over their schedules, allowing them to accept or decline shifts according to their preferences. Giving employees this type of freedom makes it easier for them to arrange to take mental health days and to avoid schedule conflicts, thereby maintaining work-life balance and job satisfaction. 

6. Exit interviews

A certain amount of employee turnover is unavoidable for any business. When workers decide it’s time for them to move on to new opportunities, managers would be wise to bring them in for an exit interview. These interviews may bring to light previously unknown workplace concerns, or even emphasize what the restaurant is doing well. 

If employee turnover is a consequence of identifiable leadership practices or restaurant conditions, managers can stem the tide by correcting the situation. But in order to do so, they first have to be aware of the issue.

Short-staffed? Find relief with AI

purple and pink sound wave

Cutting-edge products like voice AI platforms can remove some of the burden placed on overworked team members, leading to a less stressful employee experience

Voice ordering assistants are a proven commodity. Powered by natural language processing and machine learning models, they process speech in multiple languages and use context clues in concert with information gathered from prior experience to guarantee accurate, personalized customer service.

As restaurants continue to be understaffed during the pandemic, restaurant work can be especially stressful, so employee wellness is always an important concern. Virtual ordering assistants can alleviate burnout by taking on a huge portion of the workload.

Virtual ordering assistants’ capacity to take orders with unparalleled accuracy and efficiency leaves your employees free to focus on tasks that require a more personal touch. Even with less than the optimal number of employees working a shift, food service franchises can still maintain an excellent quality of service for all of their guests. For example, virtual ordering assistants prevent an understaffed restaurant from losing business due to workers being too busy to answer the phone. 

Food service franchises operating in the drive-thru format also stand to gain by using restaurant AI technology platforms. AI-powered point of sale (POS) systems shave valuable seconds off guest wait times while also increasing order accuracy and reducing the likelihood of human error.

This technology also allows guests to customize menu items to their desired specifications. AI POS boards are then able to process this information and use it to offer relevant menu suggestions, including item upsells.

Hold on to your top employees

Although food service employee turnover is at an all-time high, restaurants have a wealth of options at their disposal to mitigate this problem. 

This can run the gamut from conventional employee retention strategies like offering more competitive compensation and better healthcare packages to modern solutions like bringing aboard virtual ordering assistants to revolutionize day-to-day business operations

And even beyond the obvious operational benefits of utilizing some of these employee retention strategies, there are additional financial incentives. Government COVID relief initiatives include an employee retention tax credit for qualifying restaurants. This credit may be an essential influx of cash at just the right time.

ConverseNow’s best-in-class voice ordering assistants provide restaurants with the tools they need to continue providing fast, efficient and customer-centric service regardless of staffing issues. Book a demo to see how ConverseNow can help your restaurants have happier employees and smoother operations.