Carino's HR director Vici Lacy says some of the 139-unit chain's best performers have come from staff recommendations.

Attracting and Retaining Top Talent Is Key

Underline Image
Employing the best remains a critical step to operational excellence
By Daniel P. Smith July 2012 Employee Management

In an industry routinely tested by employee turnover, legislative mandates, and heated competition, restaurant operators big and small confront an ever-pressing challenge: attracting top talent and keeping that talent in the fold.

And it’s a challenge, many restaurateurs agree, that maintains a direct impact on the bottom line.

“If we can have a more consistent experience from the kitchen to our servers because of high-quality, long-term employees, then we’ll win with customers,” says Chris Campbell, president of Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse, a 13-unit chain spread across six Northeastern states.

Rick Parker, senior vice president of marketing at Snagajob, the nation’s largest hourly employment network for job seekers and employers, points to an internal Snagajob study that found restaurants earn 40 percent of their business from returning customers.

“And high-performing employees are critical to good business and getting people to come back,” Parker says.

Of course, recruiting and retaining first-rate employees remain tasks easy to discuss, yet difficult to execute.

On the recruiting side, Parker says, it’s a mistake for operators to rely on walk-in traffic alone, particularly at times of need.

“You’ll get enough people to fill slots, but you won’t consistently attract A-level players,” says Parker, whose Virginia-based firm currently works with more than 13,000 casual-dining locations.

Rather, Parker urges operators to seek a steady flow of employee candidates via advertising, referrals, and other applicant-attracting avenues; this, Parker contends, will allow the restaurant to be more selective in its hiring and resist falling into a trap of dire need.

Next: High turnover is reality of the business

High turnover is reality of the business

“High turnover is a reality of the restaurant business, so you need to constantly be in the mode of recruiting,” Parker says, adding that the “benefit of time” to make a more thorough assessment of candidates should help operators employ higher-quality players to boost performance and retention.

With an eye on creative talent sourcing, casual-dining chain Carino’s Italian leans on an employee referral program that provides instant gratification. If a staff member refers someone for a manager’s position and that individual is hired, the employee immediately receives $1,000.

“We’ve gotten some of our best candidates from our own employees,” Carino’s human resources director Vici Lacy says.

The same employee referral philosophy holds at Bugaboo Creek, where Campbell says current employees better understand the restaurant culture, enjoy the opportunity to work alongside like-minded others, and stand eager to sponsor new candidates.

“Winners stick with winners,” Campbell says.

It also helps, Campbell adds, when the restaurant is viewed as a “winner” itself. From the curb appeal and the food quality to smiling staff, Campbell says, a relevant brand will attract talent. Workers, he reminds, want to be a part of a lively organization that embraces fun, spirit, and success.

“If you keep the brand solid, don’t shortchange operators, and strive to deliver, then you’ll attract talent,” Campbell says. “The minute you begin losing this, it will directly affect how you attract people.”

Many operators and HR insiders also place a preference on local recruiting.

In Baltimore, B&O, a 5-year-old fine dining restaurant under the Kimpton Hotels banner, has established relationships with local universities, including Baltimore International College (BIC) and the University of Maryland, both of which have provided numerous job candidates. B&O representatives will frequently visit both university’s campuses to build strategic relationships, conduct presentations or engage in on-campus recruiting. The restaurant has also built relationships with a number of Baltimore-area nonprofits.

“We’re all about spreading the word from a grassroots approach, which we believe leads us to more interested and engaged candidates,” says Stefani Raggio, a senior regional director of people and culture for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.

Next: Don't overlook behavioral assessments

Don't overlook behavioral assessments

When examining candidates, Parker suggests operators look beyond skills-only assessments and embrace behavioral assessment tools, particularly of the technological variety, that explore a candidate’s aptitude as much as his or her attitude. Snagajob research found that operators who look beyond skills and experience to assess behavior report higher retention and management satisfaction with employees.

“The reality is that some people shouldn’t be representing your business,” Parker says, adding that behavioral assessment software can help operators design a series of questions tailored to a specific restaurant’s needs and vibe.

When Titan Brands opened Hussong’s Cantina in 2010, over 1,500 individuals applied for about 60 positions at the Las Vegas eatery. Every candidate took an online behavioral assessment test that not only scrutinized one’s cognitive thinking abilities, but also identified the good-natured, motivated personalities that would best match Hussong’s culture.

“From such a high number of applicants, we were able to quickly weed through and find those best suited for us,” says MJ Jasilewicz, vice president of operations for Titan Brands, which also runs the newly opened Slice of Vegas pizzeria.

Two years after its opening, Hussong’s has retained about 80 percent of its kitchen staff, a particularly strong number, Jasilewicz says, given Las Vegas’ transient population and recession-era struggles.

Similarly, leaders at B&O place a premium on personality. Rather than asking candidates to regurgitate their résumés during an interview, candidates are asked to describe the best guest experience they contributed to as well as the worst guest from which they recovered.

“This provides us better perspective on the candidate’s potential and how they handle a guest,” Raggio says. “The behavioral assessment has helped us increase our retention numbers because the match is better from the beginning.”

In both recruiting and retention, operators and HR insiders alike agree that a well-defined culture – characterized as what the restaurant recognizes, rewards, and develops as well as its non-negotiables – stands paramount.

5 Recruiting Best Practices

  1. ABR — Always Be Recruiting. Consistently accept applications and be on the lookout for new team members – whether visiting a local big-box store or talking with regular restaurant guests.
  2. Lean on employees. Ask current top performers for recommendations. By building an enjoyable and respectful workplace, current employees will want to bring their associates on board.
  3. Maintain brand relevance. No one wants to work for a “loser.” If the restaurant’s a hit with customers, is clean and comfortable, and carries cachet, interest in employment will follow.
  4. Go local. Build a rapport with local schools, churches, and nonprofits to source talent, and favor local job boards, such as Craigslist, over large-scale sites, such as Monster or Careerbuilder.
  5. Stand up to the competition. Know the competitive landscape and be prepared to offer pay, benefits, and perks that will entice top talent to join – and remain with – your team.

Next: Cultural tone starts at the top

Cultural tone starts at the top

And the right cultural tone often starts from the top.

Bugaboo Creek’s Campbell hosts regular sit-downs with each manager, remains on a first-name basis with more than 800 employees, and doesn’t think twice about bussing a table or talking with diners while visiting his units.

“I do the things I ask others to do,” he says. “We want to be hands-on and supportive, but if I don’t hold myself to those standards, then who else can hold people accountable?”


B&O employees such as Myisha Lamar and Ebony Wright are encouraged to provide feedback to restaurant leaders that will both enhance the working environment and improve operational efficiencies.

At B&O, restaurant management leans on the seven values inherent in Kimpton’s culture: personality, individuality, focus, passion, integrity, continuous improvement, and creativity. By hiring with these values in mind and promoting the values among staff, Raggio says, B&O empowers employees to make decisions that ensure guest satisfaction.

“We believe that the trust and empowerment inherent in the organization keeps employees happier and builds trust,” Raggio says.

B&O also employs employee feedback to bolster retention. All staff members complete an annual employee survey, while all management personnel are required to maintain an open-door policy. In addition, Kimpton senior vice president of restaurants John Inserra regularly visits company-owned restaurants to host fireside chats with hourly staff. Furthermore, all Kimpton restaurants, including B&O, have an employee action committee that meets monthly with the restaurant GM and executive chef to discuss concerns, improvements, and employee issues.

Raggio says the interactive events and feedback mechanisms build trust through engagement and afford staff an opportunity to offer best practices and solutions that improve working conditions and operational productivity.

Next: Be sure to talk and listen

Be sure to talk and listen

“The more you can talk and listen, the better your retention will be,” Raggio says. “You want to consistently show that you value your employees’ input and contributions.”

Likewise, Titan’s Jasilewicz believes in empowerment and employee engagement as a tool to build retention as well as a more efficient, responsive restaurant.

“Just by asking employees their thoughts, you’re building a rapport with them that promotes retention,” he says. “People don’t want to work under an iron fist.”

Employee recognition programs are yet another oft-cited retention tool.

Carino’s Italian runs a formal recognition program with tenure that includes employment anniversary bonuses up to $2,000 for those who reach 3-, 5-, 7-, and 12-year employment milestones.

“Those monetary bonuses show our employees that we value their commitment and want them to stick around,” Lacy says.

By rewarding staff in sincere, thoughtful ways, particularly in the form of recognition, incentives, perks, and benefits, many operators say loyalty and retention follows.

At both Hussong’s and Slice of Vegas, Titan Brands offers incentives for positive secret shopper reviews, provides complimentary meals to any on-duty employee, and routinely sends staff to leadership training and hospitality-related seminars as well as continuing education courses in food, wine, beer, and tequila.

Additionally, Titan Brands contributes $110 each month toward every hourly employee’s health insurance and doubles that investment for managers. While the contribution certainly spurs retention, Jasilewicz says it also underscores leadership’s respect for the worthiness of its individual team members.

“We err on the side of taking care of our employees, and that goes a long way toward keeping employees with us,” he adds.

At B&O, restaurant leaders dish out a number of perks that build professional and personal competencies and increase retention. The restaurant offers tuition reimbursement for students who take food-and-beverage-related classes, such as food pairings, wine, and service execution, at places like BIC. Reimbursement also covers English as a second language (ESL) courses.

“We’ll support the student further by modifying their schedule so they can get to class,” Raggio says, noting that the company has also increased its 401(k) match while adding backup daycare and expanding an employee assistance program in recent years. All programs are available to staff members on day one of their employment.

Campbell adds that such thoughtful investment in employees’ present and future heightens staff retention.

At Bugaboo Creek, each restaurant claims three managers and two manager assistants. Those five employees all have an individual development program (IDP), which Campbell describes as a list of 3-4 items the employee is working on to reach the next level, such as cooking procedures, back-of-the-house systems, purchasing, or profit-and-loss statements. Each month, the staff members individually review their IDPs and progress with a Bugaboo Creek executive.

Next: 'Retention is all about developing internal talent'

'Retention is all about developing internal talent'

“Retention is all about developing internal talent and encouraging them to see the possibilities,” Campbell says, adding that Bugaboo Creek’s regional team is filled with “lifers” who have all ascended the company’s ranks.

Carino’s Italian, where Lacy says about 75 percent of management hires come from within, also places an emphasis on developing internal talent and showing employment opportunities, particularly as a tool to heighten retention.

“We all know the value of people familiar with our concept and our culture,” Lacy says, “and if we’re going to keep them, we have to show we care, we have to show the possibilities, and we have to be thoughtful every day of the year.”

5 Retention Best Practices

  1. Hire “right” from the start. Use behavioral assessments, perform background checks, call references, hire for the right position, and bring people on with qualities and abilities that match your needs, vision, and culture.
  2. Build and promote culture. Define what it is the restaurant rewards and values and ensure that it is practiced throughout the organization.
  3. Invite employee feedback. Empower employees to speak up, which will provide operational solutions and foster a workplace environment grounded in trust and respect.
  4. Reward employees. Provide employee recognition, incentives, and perks that show employees that the restaurant values their commitment and contributions.
  5. Value internal development. Promote from within, invest in and encourage staff development, and train staff for the “next thing” they can do within the restaurant.