Owners are offering perks and improving work environments as the dining industry grapples with a historically tight labor market.
(This column originally appeared in The Inquirer)
With unemployment near historic lows and job openings near historic highs, the labor market remains tight. And nowhere is it tighter than the restaurant industry.
According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry added only 11,000 new jobs between April and July this year, down from an average of 53,000 during the first quarter of last year. Employment at restaurants still lags behind pre-COVID levels. Pennsylvania restaurants have only added 1,100 jobs, or 0.3%, since July 2019.
“In June there were 1.6 job openings for every person that was officially categorized as unemployed,” wrote the association’s chief economist Bruce Grindy. “Although it is trending in the right direction, the labor market remains tight in historical terms. On average during 2019, there were 1.2 job openings for every unemployed person in the U.S.”
Like most restaurateurs in the Philadelphia area, Scott Calhoun, who co-owns Ember & Ash in East Passyunk, has been struggling to find workers. He is constantly on the lookout for qualified managers, servers and support staff. But it’s not easy.
“This industry is tough,” he said. “It’s hard to work in, it’s hard on people emotionally, mentally, and physically, and it requires long hours that most people couldn’t even fathom as a way of life.”
Investing in technology is expensive, and let’s face it: Most of us who dine out are doing it for both the food and the experience. We prefer interacting with humans and not machines all the time. So what are the owners of these establishments doing to attract and retain the best workers?
“We always want our employees to be compensated well for what they do,” Calhoun said. “We are constantly exploring ways to benefit our staff.”
At Izlas Latin Cuisine in West Kensington, co-owner Rene Melendez has created some midlevel, supervisory management roles for his staff. “We’ve been paying a better wage as they take on more responsibility,” he said. “So building those supervisory roles so you’re not just a server, you’re also a front of the house manager.”
According to a recent Forbes survey of more than 1,000 workers, health insurance ranked as the most important benefit across all industries, followed closely by retirement plans, paid time off, and mental health assistance. To compete, many restaurant owners have had to step up to provide these coverages, but it’s been a struggle to absorb these costs.
At some restaurants, owners and managers say that it has become just as important to simply provide a good place to work.
Brett Naylor, who co-owns Wilder Restaurant near Rittenhouse Square, says that his restaurant offers both health and retirement benefits to his employees. But he also makes it a point to always be getting feedback because it fosters a more collaborative environment.
“We do frequent staff check-ins,” he said. “We like to hear the good, bad, and ideas from the staff. This allows them to feel a part of the business rather than being just a place to work. It also allows for their voices to be heard and for us as a business to grow and get better ideas from the whole staff.”
Naylor also compensates his more seasoned employees to train new employees.
“We offer perks when you are training someone new to help energize the process, but also to recognize that it is more work than a typical shift, so therefore it comes with compensation,” he said.
Calhoun said he “works hard” to provide his staff with an environment that is positive, fun, and challenging.
Melendez has found that being accommodating when staff have multiple jobs can help retain employees. “They might be juggling multiple jobs to fill their needs financially. So we try to be flexible,” he said, explaining that his restaurant is open mostly evenings so employees can have other jobs in the morning.
At Greg’s Kitchen in Manayunk, owner Greg Gillin has struggled to recover from 2021′s Hurricane Ida, which shuttered his business for nearly a year after the storm. He feels strongly that having the right work environment is key to adding and retaining workers.
“I’ve always tried to foster an environment where my employees were relaxed and enjoyed coming to work,” he said. “We’re pretty laid-back here, and I think treating employees with respect and being flexible to their needs and wants, as long as it doesn’t affect my business too much, is the way to go. I’ve had some of the same employees for as long as we’ve been open, which is coming up on 10 years — and I think they stick around because they care about me, and I care about them.”
Many restaurant owners in the area have found that not only does providing a good (and fairly paid) work environment help to retain their workers, but it also helps to attract new employees. And although many like to turn to the popular job sites and even social media, one of the most important places to source new workers has been from existing workers.
Gillin said his establishment is usually staffed by someone related to or known to a current employee. “It saves the hassle of finding references,” he said.
Naylor is “constantly interviewing” candidates, regardless of what positions are open or filled and leans heavily on his existing employees for potential leads.
“We hire most of our staff by word of mouth or by recommendations from current staff members,” Naylor said. “We also utilize culinary agents, but in-house referrals have been the best.”