Employee Retention Can Be a Silver Bullet for the Labor Issue in the Restaurant Industry

Finding—and then retaining—employees continues to be a top issue for bars and restaurants, and it’s one that was covered extensively at the 2024 Vibe Conference.

Jennifer Krapp, director of restaurant operations for The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, presented on this topic at Vibe in a session titled, “The Key to Effective FOH Staff Recruitment and Training: Building a Hospitable Culture.” In her session, she covered the crucial elements of Front of House (FOH) staff recruitment and training and how to build a hospitable culture not just for your guests, but for your staff as well.

“Culture is what most people are going to always leave for, so it’s being very relentless in creating that and saying, ‘we're not going to do it any other way,’” says Krapp.


The Indigo Road Hospitality University

Krapp is practicing what she preaches. She has a long history of developing training programs in the restaurant space and helped launch a new training initiative at The Indigo Road last year called The Indigo Road Hospitality University (IRHU or Hospitality U).

With IRHU, employees from all levels, except management, can be nominated to attend the training. The leadership (general managers and/or executive chefs) at each location is called upon to nominate individuals who have shown a desire to grow with the company, have the heart for hospitality, and are ready to learn. After the nominations are in, a strategic committee selects a cohort that mirrors the diversity and core values of the company.

Krapp says she developed the program with the Indigo Road leadership team to recognize and nurture employees who exhibit a passion and an investment in The Indigo Road. It all comes down to culture and building from within. “We're saying to ourselves, how do we keep the culture that we have, how do we keep what makes us special, which is how we take care of people. So let's take people that already have ‘drank the juice’ so to speak and believe in us, and let's help them because when you start pulling people from outside the company to come in at higher levels, it can derail a little bit of what that culture is,” she says. “At this point in time for us at The Indigo Road, we do not want to hire anyone outside the company that's above an executive chef, or a general manager because we want people to integrate and know our culture.

“So Hospitality U came from that want to grow from within and help people understand that there is a way in which you can have a path with our company, and then also, what do you need in order to create that? What do you need in order to get to that next level?”

At the moment, IRHU is held annually with a small group of chosen employees, and the bespoke education and training is not built until the final group of employees is set. All the senior leaders in the company block off the training days in case they are needed, depending on what type of education is curated.

Krapp said last year’s training had nine participants, including a marketing employee who wanted to learn events; a line cook who wanted to be an executive chef; an assistant general manager who wanted to be a general manager; and an administrative assistant who wanted to get into events.

The Indigo Road looks at what the employees may be lacking and what they need to learn to reach their chosen goals, and specific classes are curated for them based on the answers. There are also general classes that The Indigo Road feels are beneficial for all participants, such as a training on how to have uncomfortable conversations.


Surprise and Delight

In addition to the IRHU initiative, The Indigo Road has other practices to build the company culture and make employees feel valued. For example, the company has a “surprise and delight program” that aims to do special, personalized things for employees.

The company has all new hires fill out questionnaires, which include questions on personal preferences like favorite coffee and favorite meal. “So then, on their opening shift, we might do a family meal that is curated for the food they love the most just to welcome them in,” says Krapp. “If you as a company don't care about the attention to detail on showing them that you are so excited that they are working with you, then they're not going to feel seen or heard. They might or might not stay, or they might or might not care about the training that you're trying to give them.”

hispanics bar and restaurants
(Photo: Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez, iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Communication & Leading by Example

Krapp says another important tactic is for existing employees, especially management, to set the example by showing new employees who they want them to be. And it starts before employees are even hired, at the interview. She encourages employees to do things like be on time when interviewing someone and to dress the part for an interview even if the restaurant isn’t open. Small actions like these show the prospective employee that you care and your work matters.

Communication is also key, and Krapp says the internal dialogue among employees is important. Gossiping or bad mouthing amongst employees is toxic behavior that can easily spread and poison a company’s culture.  

“It’s about not being afraid to have the uncomfortable conversations to say, ‘This is this is how we're going to be, we have collectively decided this is the way in which we want our operation to be and how we want our restaurants to run. We have to be able to do this. And I need everybody's buy in.’ And if you can't get their buy in, then maybe they're not a good fit.”

Above all, Krapp reminds bars and restaurants that building a hospitable culture is about action. “People talk about hospitality, but they talk about it as noun instead of a verb,” she says. “Hospitality is an act of service, and I think a lot of people sometimes forget that when they use the word hospitality. If you want to blow guests the way, the only way you're able to do that is if you blow your staff away, and the staff understands what that feels like.”


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