Hiring and retention trouble? Invest in your people!

A panel at Restaurant at the Franchising Innovation Summit discussed issues around hiring/retention and the value of investing in employees in pay, benefits alongside investment in them as professionals and as people.

Hiringg/retention panel, RFIS Miami 2023. L-R: Rahkeem Morris, CEO, HourWork; David Walsh, VP of People Services, New England Authentic Eats; Mike Speck, CEO, FUSIAN; Dawn Petite, President, Friendly’s Restaurants; Adenah Bayoh, founder, Cornbread

As the industry works to recover from the impact of the pandemic, the “great resignation,” labor shortages and supply chain issues — to name only a few challenges — industry leaders at the Restaurant Franchising Innovation Summit in Miami March 20-22, 2023 shared strategies for hiring and retention that can help operators of any size adapt and weather the storm.

Rahkeem Morris, CEO and Co-founder at HourWork, introduces the panel discussion on hiring and retention by describing the current labor market challenges. Video credit: Daniel Brown.

Dawn Petite, president at Friendly’s Restaurants, shared how her personal journey illustrates the power of effective hiring and retention strategies. “My story starts as a manager in training 40 years ago,” Petite said. “I worked my way up to the president of the company, and I credit a lot of my success to the people I’ve been able to hire and train along the way.”

Building that kind of team requires a keen sense of the human element, explained Adenah Bayoh, a serial entrepreneur whose 17-year career has included founding Cornbread: Farm to Soul, a QSR chain that specializes in bringing quality food to underserved communities and food deserts, along with owning five IHOPs and launching the Urban Vegan brand.

“I’m just here to talk about people and how I fundamentally believe that we’re in the business of people, and we’re only as good as the people that work for us,” Bayoh said.

Changing times

Dawn Petite, president at Friendly’s Restaurants, answers a question from Rahkeem Morris by describing the changing times for hiring and retention.

Times have changed and hiring/retention are a completely different game.

“Well, let me let me start by telling you what I started 40 years ago, I didn’t, I didn’t have to really recruit people just came knocking on the door,” Petite said. Over the years, she had to take action to attract attention, but it was relatively simple stuff, like a neon “hiring” sign in the window, but today things have become much more complex.

“You have to go where they are now,” Petite added. “We have to figure out how digitally to attract these candidates — we have to go on job boards, we have to have ATS platforms, we have a lot of social media. We have CRM software and chatbots — now we’re talking to people where they’re located, on their phones. And that today is one of our most successful ways of doing things.”

Still, it’s easy to get lost in shiny tools and gadgets and forget the fundamentals that Petite learned from her own journey starting four decades ago.

“I think the one key is getting the employees who work for you now to want to bring in other people,” she said. “When you create an environment where people feel good, safe, comfortable working for you, they’ll recommend you to their friends and family and people that they know. And I think sometimes we were so busy looking at the boards and doing our day to day jobs and we forget that these employees are right in front of us they have to be cherished and grown and when they feel good and this is their work family they’re the ones that are going to recruit for us and I’m lucky enough to I have a lot of employees that have been with me for 40, 30, 25 years, and their children, and my own grandson works for me now. So, to me, that’s where the opportunity lies.”

This human element is something Bayoh also leaned into. “For me, I look for alignment. I believe that when you are working with people, you’re in a relationship, and oftentimes a really intimate relationship,” Bayoh said. “I have had the pleasure of having people that worked for me for 15, 16 years, that have their kids now, working in some of my restaurants. That is the greatest honor someone can give you, to work for you and say, ‘I’m gonna have my child work for you.'”

Genuinely caring and investing in your employees as human beings generates tremendous loyalty, in Bayoh’s experience, and she has a policy of considering the individual applying, regardless of past mistakes like the kind of marijuana-related offenses that still serve as obstacles for some job applicants in American restaurants.

“I’m gonna give you a second chance,” Bayoh explained. “I’m gonna give you the opportunity to ultimately live out who you want to be while you’re here, and I’m here to support you. And I think when people come to your door, and you have these kinds of conversations with them, it is so much harder for them to leave.” Bayoh paused before adding, “I sound like the best girlfriend you ever had!”

It’s also vital to reject the myth that new generations of workers are disinterested, Petite added. “They’re just looking for a safe place, and they do value quality of life, which is something different — and we have to figure out how to let them know that quality of life is there, and we got to let them know that right from the from the beginning.”

Like any relationship, it’s also vital to get creative to stand out from the crowd to attract attention and woo employees, Petite said. During one hiring season she was struggling to attract cooks, despite posting numerous ads. When she examined competitor ads for similar positions, she realized the problem — they all looked the same. So she spiced up the ad with a new title — grill master — along with specifically offering competitive pay and benefits. “Well, guess what, all of a sudden I started getting candidates.”

David Walsh, VP of People Services for New England Authentic Eats, added that his team’s research has shown that job seekers are hungry to build a career and need specific information about pay and benefits, from 401K to referral bonuses; this is the secret to standing out from a crowd of similar ads by showing applicants that “this is not just a job here. And now there is an opportunity for career development.”

Learning to listen

But recruitment is only part of the puzzle, Mike Speck, CEO at FUSIAN, cautioned. “I believe that a person comes to a job or at least job for only three reasons,” he said. “That’s all we talk about, as we hire somebody: make sure that we have they understand lifestyle, they understand how to grow, and they understand how well we pay them and how they can be paid more.”

Most folks end up staying or leaving based not on economic and data reasons, Petite added; it’s all about how they feel about their restaurant. In well-staffed restaurants, she notices that people feel valued and enjoy the environment; but she notices that other restaurants seem to have chronic staffing issues. “And it’s because we’re not investing in those people. And investing is not just monetarily investing — you’re sort of tying its heart and soul so that these people feel a part of things.”

You fix that by involving your employees and listening to them, Petite said, and offering to meet their needs in evolving ways to compete with a changing market. For example, offering flexible work schedules, or being willing to do four day work weeks for management staff, are great ways to make employees feel valued and accommodated, especially with benefits that are becoming more common.

Keeping an eye on how your competition is treating and compensating their teams can help you stay competitive. For example, David Walsh explained that his company invested heavily in raising wages above minimum wage, which was a hefty initial investment, but which also had an immediate impact on recruitment and retention. “Here’s the point — without people, and without putting people first, we don’t have an industry in our business,” he said.

Bayoh told the story of how she discovered the challenges her employees were facing when an employee passed away during the pandemic; she was horrified to discover that not only was the family suffering from a lack of life and health insurance, but their predicament was actually fairly common among restaurant workers. She not only helped pay this family’s expenses out of her own pocket, but she immediately began researching the issue and provided health, dental and vision insurance for all employees. “I can’t ask my employees to smile for customers if they’re self-conscious about their teeth,” she said.

In the end, the lion’s share of solving the hiring and recruitment problem has less to do with emerging strategies and technologies, and more to do with timeless, proven business principles that have worked for decades: investing in employees both in terms of compensation and benefits along with investing in them as human beings and fostering their lifelong career success.

Adenah Bayoh summarizes the most powerful lessons in people investment from 17 years of restaurant ownership and franchising experience. Video credit: Daniel Brown.

Networld Media Group will host several other food-service summits this year, including the Pizza Leadership Virtual Summit July 26, 2023, the Fast Casual Executive Summit Oct. 8-10 and #QSRNext Nov. 9, 2023.

Daniel Brown is the editor of Digital Signage Today. He is an accomplished technology writer whose experience includes creating knowledge base content for a major university’s computing services department. His previous experience also includes IT project management, technical support and education. He can usually be found in a coffee shop near a large pile of books.

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