Labor Shortage Solutions Part III: Retention - Culture & Staff Engagement


By Andy Cook, Restaurant Consultant: Harbor Foodservice Restaurant Solutions Group

For many restaurant operators, the attitude of “I give them a job and money, they give me effort and skill” is a value they commit to. A majority of the workforce does not. Especially in this labor shortage, workers have a wide variety of options and tend to gravitate towards the opportunities that ‘feel’ like them. A little effort towards engaging and connecting with your staff will generate positive and desirable effects.

Staff Engagement Efforts

The coequal considerations to address in any effort you determine to act out should be not just what you do, but how you do it. Is it appropriate? In alignment with you and your establishment? Is it worth the effort? I’ll attempt to qualify on some of the ideas put forth as they’re introduced.

Stay Interviews

Check-in with your veteran staff to get a pulse on why (if) they are happy in their job. This is a great opportunity to work in mentorship topics (more on that later) and/or brainstorm improvement strategies or share business goals they can contribute toward.

A more passive approach takes elements of the Stay Interview and rolls in a new option of the comment card. These can be extremely easy to execute at the unbeatable price of free by using Google Forms. You can distribute these selectively or across your whole team (through a scheduling program if you have it)

It might be worth $30/month to subscribe to a service like Talk to the Manager that will give you more structured access to such a service with the additional benefit of its core functionality of providing a one-on-one real time connection to your diners.

Exit interview can be handled similarly and provide valuable insights. Consider sending past employees survey links, the emotional heat has likely cooled over time.

Tenure Milestones

Chart the length of employment for all positions (or key positions) to identify milestone markers and use that information for targeted check-ins that will maintain the inertia of their employment. This can be easily administered by plugging them into a calendar for reminders: Andy’s 1 year employment anniversary, Tonya’s 18 month thank you check in, etc.


If the average cook stays for 24 months. You could plan for a 1st anniversary employment recognition, and calendarize 6-month intervals to maintain positive inertia


Scheduling Flexibility and work/life balance are key drivers for both recruiting and turnover. As hard as it can be, honor their verified needs. One of the best methods to do so is using scheduling software to help fill those needs. Mass message any team member who can cover with something like “Free dinner to whomever covers this shift”

Surgical Staffing

…it’s a fancy way of stating that toxic employees HAVE TO GO. Toxic employees regardless of position, status, or tenure are a cancer to your business. Under performers & unreliable staff are tumors. Either need to improve or get cut out to keep the whole healthy.

If you see realistic potential for improvement, give them a chance, but start with blunt, detailed honesty. Chances are, this has already transpired… if so, cut them out. It will raise moral for the performers and motivate those on the bubble


Make this a whole-house effort, not just leadership to staff. This can be positional peer-to-peer, primary positions-to-support positions, and cross positional. What shape this takes will be up to you (and them) but actively supporting these efforts can have a powerful influence on culture and identify the leaders in your midst

  • Positional Peer-to-Peer: ask your veteran staff to help keep an eye out for developing staff and encourage or reward them for helping to accelerate their insights. While gathered in a grouping, ask specific team members that do something well their secrets. Their response will be heard by their peers.
  • Primary Positions to Support: when you see a promising host, busser, dishwasher, etc. Ask say, some servers, to take a little time to point out server tricks and/or insights to the promising busser. It’ll build team cohesion and empathy, while preparing that person for a smoother promotion later.
  • Cross Positional: Think of this as cross orientation. Bring an idle server into the kitchen before they’re sat to help make a dish or two, a dishwasher help buss tables, or have a cook strap on a clean apron and do table checks once a turn has cleared the window.

Open Book Management

Your comfort level will be the ultimate determining factor, but those who do it well share it all and have an enviable stable workforce. Sharing how the financial sausage is made provides context to every choice you make and give the context needed for your team that promotes a sense of ownership and buy-in… transforming those that it resonates with into your allies.

The information, insights, resources, and ideas shared are intended to be motivational. The real value comes when new ideas and aha moments are aimed at a goal and powered by a plan. I LOVE my career as a Restaurant Consultant with Harbor Foodservice, if I can help you or your team personalize any of these ideas, I’d welcome the experience with you.

Contact Andy Cook:

More in the series on Retention

Compensation Strategies | Culture & Leadership