As the pandemic hit last March, the restaurant industry was one of the hardest hit. Many restaurants had to shut their doors virtually overnight. Others tried to stay afloat through a variety of tactics, such as transitioning to pickup and curbside orders only, adding third-party delivery services, offering do-it-yourself (DIY) meal kits and setting up outdoor spaces with social distancing. 

According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 100,000 eating and/or drinking places temporarily or permanently closed their doors last year. In addition, the industry lost $240 billion in revenue in 2020. But today, a very different problem has emerged as the country reopens: Restaurants suddenly have to quickly hire many more people — and it’s proving to be a difficult task. 

To learn more, we partnered with OpenTable, sharing Indeed data in the online reservation network’s hiring guide for restaurant owners. Let’s take a look at the state of hiring in the restaurant industry over the past year and a half, as well as how restaurant owners can approach hiring top talent now. 

What does the current state of hiring look like?

At the beginning of the pandemic, restaurants had no choice but to lay off or furlough millions of restaurant workers. Now, as restaurant employers look to hire more labor again, they’re finding that the availability of workers is low. 

“Hiring used to be seasonal and predictable. But this year, since February, we’ve seen consistent, aggressive growth in the number of listings for restaurant jobs of all types,” says Alice Cheng, founder and CEO of Culinary Agents, a professional networking and job-matching website.

Many restaurant workers had to pivot and look for work in different industries during the pandemic, and they may not want to come back to restaurant work. Some turned to training for work in tech roles, while others began to deliver groceries or drive for ridesharing apps. 

In fact, according to Indeed data, employee interest in food service jobs has declined 15% from the pre-COVID era. This means restaurant owners and employers must be even more creative and resourceful when hiring new employees. 

Another factor contributing to the lack of labor in the restaurant industry is related to the traditionally low wages in the field. Median annual compensation for many restaurant jobs fall well below the Labor Department’s reported median hourly wage of $20.17 per hour, or $41,912 per year. This has always been an issue in the restaurant industry. 

Some businesses are now beginning to offer higher wages in order to attract more job candidates, as they are in great need of workers. However, other restaurant employers are not upping wages. Cheng points out that after a year of investing in costly projects like expanded outdoor dining and enhanced ventilation systems, many restaurants simply cannot afford to increase employee wages, no matter how serious their situation is. 

We have an opportunity to take what we learned during the pandemic and create a better future for restaurant workers. 

How to source top talent

Now that demand for restaurant workers is at a high, how can restaurant owners make sure they’re attracting top talent? Here are some tips and ideas to get started. 

1. General best practices

The first step to getting started with the staffing process is to figure out what you’re looking for  in a candidate. What soft skills and hard skills best fit the job? Make a list of what you need in an employee. This will be the basis for your job description. 

Once you know what you’re looking for, you can begin to put the word out and find candidates. When doing this, use multiple sources to ensure you’re reaching as many people as possible — in fact, the average candidate uses 16 different sources when looking for their next opportunity, including career websites, job boards and social media networks.

Once you've identified the channels you want to use, craft a clear employer brand message that is consistent across all your channels to stand out from the crowd. Finally, it’s important to make sure your job postings, reference checks and job offers are all good from a legal standpoint to ensure your business is protected.  

2. Create an employee referral program

Another way to source high quality candidates is to create an employee referral program. In such a  program, your employees help spread the word about your job opportunities and refer strong candidates they know. Typically, employees receive a monetary reward if the person they refer is hired.

If you’re on a budget and can’t provide a monetary incentive, consider offering nonmonetary awards, such as free meals for an employee and their guest of choice or a night off. It’s also important to make sure the referral program you develop can be tracked so you can deliver the rewards as promised. 

One caveat with an employee referral program is that it could contribute to a lack of diversity in your business, as your employees could bring in people similar to themselves. Therefore, it’s important to look for “culture add” rather than “culture fit” when evaluating these candidates so that you bring on people who add different ideas and experiences to your team. 

3. Tap nontraditional talent pools

Restaurateurs may overlook many rich talent pools. Nontraditional candidates may not have a background in hospitality, but they may have skills from other professions that are transferable to restaurant work. These groups include:

  • Veterans. More than 200,000 military members exit the armed forces every year, and many look for civilian jobs. You can market directly to this talent pool through resources that pair veterans with new careers. Websites such as RecruitMilitary and VetFran allow restaurants to post job openings and search for veteran candidates, and HIREVets.gov is a government program operated by the Department of Labor that helps businesses hire veterans.
  • Seniors. Many seniors are continuing to work at least part-time beyond retirement age, making this group a great talent pool for restaurants and businesses. In fact, according to the Department of Labor, the labor force participation rate is expected to increase fastest for the oldest segments of the population through 2024, most notably, people ages 65 and older. Seniors bring reliability and good people skills to their workplaces, which employers appreciate greatly. 
  • Second-chance candidates. This group includes those formerly incarcerated or homeless, people in recovery from substance use disorders, youth transitioning out of foster care and others struggling to find jobs. This community should not be overlooked when hiring and would be an especially good talent pool for restaurants that have ample training opportunities and emphasize learning on the job. 

4. Craft strong job postings and descriptions

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that, most often, a job posting is the first chance to make a good impression on a potential job candidate. Therefore, it’s good to keep many important things in mind when putting out a job posting. 

  • Craft a strong job title. When crafting a job title, ask yourself if you would include this job title on your business card. This can help you go from “Full-time Assistant Restaurant Manager $25/hour” to “Assistant Restaurant Manager.” 
  • Pay attention to readability. Make sure your job description is not preventing anyone from reading it. Avoid big blocks of text, and use lists and bullet points to make it easier to scan. 
  • Be specific in your job descriptions. Provide details, such as what skills are required, scheduling requirements and what the day-to-day tasks will look like. According to Indeed research, job seekers are more likely to respond to a posting that includes all the specifics of the job. 
  • Share what you pay for this role. According to Indeed data, employers who include a pay range in their job descriptions get up to twice as many applications as those that don’t. Save both you and the job seeker time by stating the pay upfront. This way, job seekers can choose to apply to your job or not, and you know you’re interviewing candidates who are satisfied with the pay you’ll provide. 

To sum it up … 

The restaurant industry has been deeply impacted by the pandemic. As restaurateurs and employers start to hire employees again, they must be willing to be creative with sourcing talent as well as rethink how they did things before the pandemic in order to hire top talent. You can learn more by downloading our guide, created in partnership with OpenTable, for how to staff up during a historic labor crisis.

As much of the U.S. slowly reopens and we can go back to our favorite restaurants in person again, the demand for restaurant workers will continue to go up. In part two of this series, we’ll look at how to best interview and retain candidates, as well as the importance of community involvement and DI&B in restaurant teams.