The Labor Shortage: Blame the Restaurant, not the Staff

I’m not going to sugar coat this. The labor shortage is practically warranted at this point.

Our industry survives on pennies and nickels. In Pennsylvania, where I live, our bartenders make $2.83 an hour because of the tipped minimum wage. Sure, they can make more when customers are coming in and feeling generous – but what happens on slow days? They could be walking home with $22 in their pocket after a full shift. That’s not enough to live on.

And what about the cooks? Before the pandemic, they’d be making $14 an hour. But they’d be the first to get cut on a slow night. It’s a crapshoot. You never know how much you’re going to make. Maybe it will be busy, maybe it will be slow. You just don’t know. And employees get tired of being treated like that, and they get tired of cleaning down the whole restaurant on their $2.83 hour wages.

Think about that. When your team is cleaning up at the end of the night, they’re not getting tips. They’re doing that for $2.83. That’s not right.

And on top of the broken pay structure, the management in most bars and restaurants is abysmal. I’ll use my daughter as an example. The other night she was scheduled to work a double, from 9:30am-10:30pm. When 3:00pm rolls around, by law, she needs to be on her break. But what happens? The manager she was working with takes a break instead. She tells another manager she needs to go on break, but they don’t give it to her. They just keep pushing her back, and suddenly the place is busy again and she can’t take a break. And then they keep her an hour later to close. That’s a 14-hour shift. And on top of that it was storming – so she barely made any money anyway.

That shift was a disaster. It was let down, after let down, after let down by the management. In the end, what they demonstrated was a complete lack of respect for their employee.

The time has come for us as operators and owners to pay our staff more and treat them better. We’ve treated our employees like shit for years and we wonder why they’re not coming back after a pandemic. It’s not because of the unemployment checks (which, by the way, probably aren’t even covering rent). It’s because of the industry. And if we don’t fix it – soon – the results are going to be catastrophic. People are talking about unions now, and honestly, if that happens it’s the end of the industry. It’ll be done.

We have zero structure in this industry, and barely any accountability. We schedule our employees, and they base their lives around that. But then we change that schedule constantly. We cut their hours, or make them stay later. We call them in on their off days. How are we supposed to hold onto an employee when we’re that inconsistent? We’re not allowing them to live their own lives, and in some cases, we’re not even paying them enough to live.

For years I have been telling people to post schedules two weeks in advance. That schedule needs to be up in advance so your team has the chance to plan their life. If you work in a 9-5 job, you know your schedule. If you work in the service industry, you have no idea. All you know is you might be leaving around 11pm.

That inconsistency bleeds out beyond the restaurant and affects their personal lives. I mean, how can you even really have a personal life when your professional world is so chaotic? About 15 years ago, I was working as a corporate executive chef for a group, my staff was miserable. Why? Because of their schedule. It was all over the place, and it wasn’t taking people’s personal lives into account.

There was one person on the schedule closing Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. He was going to have no life that week, and that’s not fair to him. So, I changed it. And what happened? He came up to me in a panic. He wanted to know why he wasn’t closing. He was afraid he had done something wrong, that this was some sort of punishment.

There was a real fear there, and that’s not right. That’s no way to live.

I started rotating the schedule, and I told the team I wanted them to have lives. I wanted them to go out with their friends, and their partners. They started showing up a few minutes earlier, they were getting more done, they were more productive, they were more organized. It was such a simple change, but it caused a total shift in mentality.

But here’s the thing. A lot of operators don’t care about any of this, because they’ve been able to get away with it. In the past, if you disappointed an employee enough, they’d leave, and you’d replace them the next day.

That’s not the case anymore. We are no longer interviewing employees to come to work, we are being interviewed to see if they want to work for us.

We have to give them a reason to want to work for us. Pay your people well, train your people well and treat them well. That means good schedules, good organization and good management. The days of barking orders are gone. And if you can’t get with that, and learn how to adjust to the new normal of the industry, then you’re going to find yourself out of business really fast.

Next time you complain about how lazy your staff is, or how hard it is to find people to work for you, ask yourself: Am I paying my team well? Am I treating my team well? Am I giving these people a reason to want to work here? Because chances are, you’re not. And that’s the reason no one wants to work for you.

Chef Brian Duffy is the founder of Duffified Experience Group, a consulting firm focused on independent bars and restaurants, and a TV personality who has been featured on Spike TV, Food Network, HGTV, NBC and more. He also hosts the “Duffified Live” podcast and “Opening Night” on the Food Network.

He is a member of the Bar & Restaurant Executive Council and the culinary director of the Food & Beverage Innovation Center. He will be speaking at this year’s Bar & Restaurant Expo.

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