For Restaurant Owners, Employee Retention is Key During the Pandemic

The dining room at Batch Gastropub Miami.
The dining room at Batch Gastropub Miami. Photo courtesy of Batch Gastropub

For the past year, the world has been in the grip of a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc on nearly every aspect of life.

The hospitality industry has been hit as hard as any, with forced dining-room and bar closures at the height of COVID-19. Many restaurant workers lost their jobs, and a large number haven't returned.

A report released by SnagaJob, a website dedicated to helping hourly wage employees find work, and Black Box Intelligence, found that only 17 percent of restaurant workers consider it a career choice. A whopping 87 percent of respondents said they'd prefer a livable hourly wage to the prevailing structure of tip-based earnings.

The poll of 4,700 former, current, and hopeful restaurant workers found that access to childcare, higher pay, consistent schedules, and stable mental health were the top factors in seeking a new job. The report also notes that "71 percent of operators believe higher pay through unemployment or even higher pay in another industry is the main driver behind the industry’s labor shortage."

Kevin Danillo is preparing to open his fourth restaurant, in Fort Lauderdale. A partner at Batch Gastropub, Danillo agrees that it is harder to find people for his new restaurant — and his others in Miami and Palm Beach County. But even more important, says Danillo, is retaining the people who stuck with Batch throughout the pandemic.

"We felt something wasn't right in incentivizing people off the street, yet telling ten-year employees, 'We're not doing anything for you,'" Danillo tells New Times. "You're almost telling your tenured employees to quit and go somewhere else."

Danillo and his partners decided to distribute retention bonuses to staff who'd been with Batch for years. "We paid out $75,000 in bonuses to hourly employees," he says, adding that his eyes were opened when some shared that they'd never been paid a bonus before. "It's shameful to think this is the first time we ever did this. Why did it take a pandemic to do this?"

The revelation "pushed open a floodgate of ideas," says Danillo, who also instituted a two-year retention bonus system, in which employees earn a bonus on their second anniversary.

Then Batch initiated what Danillo calls a culture program. "We gave each location a chunk of money with the instructions that you have to spend this on the employees." Danillo says that each location has come up with different incentives, like monthly employee excursions and raffles for large-screen TVs and other items.

On top of all that, Danillo and his partners are building a cabin in North Carolina where managers will be invited to take their vacations. The cabin will also be offered to hourly employees as a raffle or incentive, Danillo says. The idea is to reward the people who keep Batch going. "Our employees are the ones who take care of our guests," he says. "It's on us to make this a more exciting industry."

The restaurateur hopes that the programs will entice newcomers to join the Batch family.

"We are currently hiring for our new Fort Lauderdale location of Batch New Southern Kitchen & Tap," he says. "There are less hospitality workers, but how do we convince people to get into this industry and think of hospitality as a career?"

Some say switching to hourly wage is the answer, but Danillo doesn't see it that way. The key is to attract employees who see hospitality as a career choice. "Our people are tipped well and we pay our people above average. We want people to make a great living and have a great life."

Otto Othman, CEO and cofounder of the local chain Pincho, says his fast-casual business model helped the company through the pandemic. "We didn't furlough team members and made the decision we would take a financial hit, so we're not seeing the hiring shortages that other people are."

Othman also agrees that the key to survival is employee retention. "We don't give hiring bonuses, because it's not fair to our current team," Othman says. What Pincho does do, is offer referral bonuses to team members who bring new people aboard. "We're constantly hiring, constantly developing people internally."

Othman and his partners also tried to figure out what would make his employees happier. "Besides the fact we pay a good starting salary, we offer healthcare to everyone and free food on the job," he says.

Pincho also invites employees to participate in Pincho University, a series of online classes in leadership and communication. "We teach people soft skills and that paves the way to moving up at Pincho — or they can take those skills to their next job."

Respect and admiration, Othman says, are two things that cost employers nothing, yet could make the difference between constant employee turnover and being fully staffed.

"People want to be part of a team where they feel like they're learning and can contribute. If there's one thing this pandemic taught us, it's that people don't want to be stuck where they're unhappy. At the end of the day, this is not an easy gig."
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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss