By Aaron Kiel | What’s the best advice for bar and restaurant operators when it comes to attracting and retaining employees? What are the biggest mistakes in terms of retaining staff? What about perks and benefits? Toxic work environments? Do’s and don’ts?
Bar & Restaurant News spoke with numerous industry leaders to get their insights and best practices. Here’s what they had to say on these critical topics.
Best Advice for Attracting and Retaining Bar and Restaurant Employees
Amir Durrani, senior vice president of human resources at Norms Restaurants, a popular casual chain in Southern California, explained that operators need to first understand the reasons why potential applicants might want to work with them when looking at attracting employees.
“The important virtues of what makes a company attractive need to be highlighted first,” said Durrani. “Testimonials from co-workers can help. Second comes the flexibility that so many people seek. The company needs to stand out here. Third, the application process needs to be simple and easy. And, finally, the onboarding process ties the bow. Make it fun and informative. Once the employee is officially onboarded, then begins the process of assimilating them into the company. A great company will find this part easy.”
Kal Dimitro, a human resources expert at resume builder Enhancv, believes that bars and restaurants need to prioritize the creation of a positive work environment, where employees feel valued and supported. “This means actively listening to employees’ concerns and suggestions, recognizing good performance, and providing opportunities for growth within the company,” said Dimitro. “By doing this, employees will feel a sense of ownership over their work and will be more likely to stay with your establishment.”
Mat Snapp, executive vice president of operations at Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment—which operates Century Grand, an award-winning cocktail destination—said management needs to treat employees really well, if they want them to stay.
“I believe I’m paraphrasing the Marriott family when I say that if you treat your employees better than your guests, your employees will treat your guests like family,” said Snapp. “Without guests and regulars, you have no business. Without employees, you have no business. It’s a simple case of paying attention to who needs your attention—and where their educated and enthusiastic attention is focused. In short, treat your people great, and you’ll grow and retain them.”
Snapp added that many in the industry believe there’s still a full stream of desirable candidates in the market and that they can hire at will; however, that’s not the case.
“Great F&B employees are rare—and hungry prospects are seeking easier jobs in the marketplace to pay their bills,” Snapp shared. “The issue we’re facing is that no one is ‘advertising quality of employment’ as an asset to future employees. If you did—and were able to deliver on it—you’d be able to attract candidates whenever you needed to. To me, nothing is a better selling point than a tenured and happy current staff. Not easy, sure, but hard to argue with.”
Mark Moeller, founder and president of The Recipe of Success, a national restaurant consulting firm, explained that it can be fairly simple if a business is transparent and manages with empathy. “Be transparent in what you expect, hours available, schedule needed, hourly pay, and level of service,” he noted. “Team members want to be understood, so when you manage with empathy, you are able to understand beyond the face value of a situation. Managing with empathy doesn’t mean managing without discipline; it means that you are able to hold people accountable while understanding their situation, thus, increasing loyalty.”
Some of the Biggest Mistakes to Avoid
While everyone has their own ideas on how to attract and retain employees, it’s important to be aware of potential mistakes or areas that could be overlooked.
Adam Goldberg, CEO of Rock & Brews, a rock-in-roll themed chain of family restaurants, said, “The biggest mistake that bars and restaurants make when it comes to retaining staff is failing to recognize and appreciate their employees’ contributions. It is important to prioritize employee satisfaction and create a supportive work environment to retain top talent.”
Sean Sullivan, co-owner of two LGBTQ+ venues in Oakland, Calif.—The Port Bar and FLUID510—said, “You can have the greatest benefits program in the world, but if staff don’t feel valued, they can leave. Make investments in your staff through training and support, but paramount above all, let them know you have their back. We did this through the pandemic, and it’s why we’re proud to have half our staff be with us for five years or more.”
Dimitro, of Enhancv, said the biggest mistake that bars and restaurants make when it comes to retaining staff is failing to communicate effectively about their roles and responsibilities. “Employees need to have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, how they are performing, and what opportunities are available for advancement,” he said.
Moeller, from The Recipe of Success, pointed out that the possible mistakes are vast and vary per location and owner, but providing false expectations and not being consistent top the list. “When a team member doesn’t know what to do or expect because ownership or management makes decisions on a whim, that makes for a frustrating work environment.”
Paul Kushner, who owned a pub in Southampton, Pa., for more than 10 years before moving on to mixology and recipe development with MyBartender, believes the biggest mistake when it comes to retaining bar and waitstaff is a lack of autonomy and discretion. “Your front-of-house staff in particular are ‘in the trenches’ and if they don’t even have the power to comp a dessert for an angry customer or fix an order without a manager’s approval, it can be stifling,” he said.
Mani Bhushan, owner and operator of Taco Ocho, a small restaurant chain in Dallas, Texas, said a common mistake that restaurants make when retaining staff is being too rigid on schedules. “Lots of my FOH [front-of-house] employees are high school and college students, so you need to be flexible with graduations, vacations, and extracurricular activities they participate in.”
Perks & Benefits Make a Big Difference
According to Barter & Shake’s Snapp, perks and benefits are critical. “You must have them. Period,” he said. “Pay attention to your people—guaranteed maternity/paternity leave is important but less important to a group of employees who have a reduced desire for family and a stronger desire to enjoy pet insurance and reduced premiums on mental health and investment opportunities.”
Snapp pointed out that a mistake the industry makes is hoping their employees will feel “grateful” with an industry standard employment model, including minimum wage, tips, good hours (if available), etc. “If you put yourself in their non-slip shoes for a minute and a half, you’d see it’s not an alluring proposal to offer the same as everyone else—you must do better,” he said. “Be better. They’ll follow suit, I promise.”
Austin Ray, president and founder of A. Ray Hospitality—known for M.L. Rose and The Sutler—and founder and owner of Von Elrod’s Beer Hall & Kitchen in Nashville, Tenn., said whether you’re an owner, operator, or manager of any type of bar or restaurant, you should ensure that wages and benefits are competitive and appealing in order to attract and keep skilled staff. “Compensation packages should be based on industry standards, as this helps with employee retention,” he said. “It is also important to create a work environment that values and supports staff members through collaboration, helpful feedback, and acknowledgment of their accomplishments.”
Moeller, of The Recipe of Success, noted that venues should offer perks like gym memberships, commuter benefits, team outings that build comradery, and, if possible, medical/dental benefits.
Durrani, of Norms Restaurants, suggested tuition reimbursement after five years of service, a 401K match based on salary and age, and fully paid medical as other items to consider. And Sullivan, of The Port Bar and Fluid510, said they do little things to make staff feel valued throughout the year with gift cards, dinner and a movie rewards, tickets, and a year-end bonus when they can.
Goldberg, of Rock & Brews, knows that offering various perks and benefits can be highly effective in attracting and retaining employees. “This can include competitive wages, healthcare benefits, employee discounts, and opportunities for career advancement,” he said. “Providing tangible benefits demonstrates a commitment to employee well-being and can enhance job satisfaction.”
Laura Sorensen, chief people officer at First Watch, a leading daytime dining chain, said providing resources to help their employees navigate all aspects of their lives has been valuable. “We provide complimentary annual memberships to the Calm app to all First Watch employees and up to five of their friends and family members, to improve their well-being, reduce stress and anxiety, and develop mindfulness,” she said. “Earlier this year, we began offering a text-based tele-medicine platform that lets our teams connect to a real doctor in seconds—again, open to all First Watch employees with no out-of-pocket expenses, regardless of whether they have an insurance plan with us or not.”
Grant Kneble, co-owner of Freddy J’s Bar & Kitchen in Mays Landing, N.J., made perks and benefits a significant priority when he started the restaurant. “Knowing our employees beyond their professional roles is vital to our retention strategy,” he said. “For example, we had a father-daughter duo on our team. The father was a bartender and the daughter served tables. They both had a passion for filmmaking and had been working on full-length feature films. Aware of this, we arranged for them to use our bar as a filming location. We fostered a more profound sense of loyalty and belonging by supporting their endeavors.”
In addition to offering professional development opportunities and non-monetary benefits, Freddy J’s Bar & Kitchen organizes company-sponsored events, such as group trips to Philadelphia Phillies games. “These occasions allow our team to bond and foster camaraderie outside the professional setting,” shared Kneble. “Such initiatives have created a workplace environment where our staff take great pride in their association with Freddy J’s and often bring their families to share in the enjoyable experiences we make.”
For Phil Petrilli, founder and CEO of Untamed Brands, which includes Hot Chicken Takeover and Taim Mediterranean Kitchen, said being a fair chance employer makes a difference. “We launched as a fair chance employer and believe that proper support and resources can go a long way toward retaining employees and giving them a pathway for growth,” he said. “Many of our fair chance team members have grown into general manager positions. They know we believe in them as individuals.”
Avoid Toxic Work Environments
Joseph Costanzo, Jr., former owner of the acclaimed but shuttered Primadonna Restaurant in McKees Rocks, Pa., said most of his employees stayed with him the entire duration of his 18 years in business, and it was because of the positive environment he created. In fact, a book about his industry experiences is about to debut, by Maria C. Palmer (his daughter).
“The most valuable way to retain employees is to make them part of your success, not just an accessory for your own greatness,” Costanzo said. “Every Saturday, night while I was in business, I would do a role call saying, ‘Bus people, are you ready? Chefs, are you ready? Servers, are you ready?’ Going all the way up and down the line. I would wait for everyone to say that they were ready. Then at the end of each night, we would celebrate the invigorating feeling of completing service together. No one person was more important than anyone else. Everyone needs to be valued and appreciated. You need to treat people like family because they are.”
Goldberg, of Rock & Brews, knows that cultivating a positive and respectful workplace culture is paramount, and that toxic work environments should be avoided. “Employees should feel safe, valued, and supported,” he said. “Fostering a positive work environment enhances morale, productivity, and overall employee satisfaction.”
Moeller, of The Recipe of Success, said operators should know how to identify toxic work environments, how to avoid them, and how to fix them. “High turnover and constant call outs are some of the most obvious ways to identify toxic work environments,” he said. “Another that often gets overlooked is the unbalanced treatment of the team because a supervisor has their favorites.”
Moeller advised the best way to fix toxic work environments is to be observant in all areas. “Speak with the team, listen to what they are saying, and ask questions,” he noted.
“Often words are not spoken but actions and body language scream, ‘Help! I am not happy.’”
Mat Snapp, of Barter & Shake, said venues should discourage romantic entanglements, alcohol, and drug use during a shift—and that mitigates inflammatory and emotional behavior. “The best way to avoid a toxic work environment is avoiding or removing toxic individuals, plain and simple,” he shared. “Build your team like a team—complimentary skills and behaviors create balance. It’s easier to write it than to staff it—believe me—but that’s the goal.”
Durrani, of Norms Restaurants, said they have “zero tolerance” for toxic environments. “Management that tolerates a toxic environment is just as much part of the problem,” he said.
Sorensen, of First Watch, shared that a positive work culture is something that’s created and reinforced daily. “It’s something that we see as a priority for employers, which is why we strive to ensure each of our restaurants and our home office are places that nurture potential, recognize kindness, and foster opportunities that let people know they matter—because they do,” she said.
Do’s and Don’ts, Tips, and Best Practices
For attracting and retaining employees, Rock & Brews’ Goldberg suggested that operators offer flexible schedules, paid time off, and promote a healthy work-life integration, which can all greatly enhance employee satisfaction and loyalty. In addition to offering those benefits, Rock & Brews emphasizes the importance of clear and open communication with employees, and training and development programs to enhance employee skills, job satisfaction, and loyalty.
Barter & Shake’s Snapp advised operators to find a few nice things to do each week. “Positive affirmation about great guest service goes a lot further than reprimanding individuals on missed steps of service,” he said. “Quietly coach the opportunities, loudly proclaim the victories. Repeat often.”
Kushner, of My Bartender, revealed, “These jobs can suck, frankly. Restaurant workers are overworked and underappreciated in 90 percent of the places they work, so showing gratitude, being flexible with scheduling, and taking their input seriously goes a long way in retention. The job itself is the same from restaurant to restaurant, but what’s different is how they are valued and respected by their bosses.”
Former bar manager Ben Winter, who’s now owner, trainer, speaker and author with Success Improv, which offers workshops for team success, shared, “The best advice I can give is to treat your employees the way you want them to treat your customers. And better still, do whatever you can to make their jobs easier. Don’t micromanage. If you hired appropriately, your bartenders can make your bar even better by letting them take ownership of the bar itself.”
Moeller, of The Recipe of Success, said team members want to work in an environment that is rewarding not only in monetary terms but also in consistency. “Employees want to know what their role is and what the boundaries are so they can perform at their highest level.”
Petrilli, of Untamed Brands, stressed that operators can support the employee experience by reducing complexity everywhere. “This gives staff more time to focus on quality and the guest experience,” he said.
‘Our People Are Our Purpose’
Sorensen, of First Watch, summed it up: “For so many employers, our people are our purpose—yet that comes with a responsibility to listen and act on their immediate needs and long-term aspirations, to ultimately have a better quality of life for themselves and their families.
Sullivan, of The Port Bar and Fluid510, added: “Say please and thank you, encourage and appreciate, let staff know accountability is a two way street, train to retain, and encourage staff growth.”
Kneble, of Freddy J’s Bar & Kitchen, concluded, “…effective staff retention in the bar and restaurant industry values the human aspect and nurtures a sense of belonging. Our employees are not just part of our team but part of the Freddy J family.”