Smart Ways to Mitigate the Labor Shortage

While restaurants remain hopeful business will continue to improve in 2022, the considerable labor challenges industry-wide can make fulfilling customers’ orders difficult.

Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed workers had quit jobs in the foodservice and accommodation industry over the past year at a higher rate than in any other sector—and, while the amount of job openings had grown, hiring largely remained stagnant.

Currently, 70% of operators said they don’t have enough employees to support consumer demand.

With a significant amount of individuals having left the industry, hiring and retaining a workforce is a long-term concern restaurateurs may be facing, according to Abe Ng, founder and CEO of Sushi Maki, which has multiple locations in Southern Florida.

“Finding and keeping talent has always been challenging,” Ng says. “But, for sure, in the last 20-24 months, it’s been harder than ever—whether it’s at the management level, front of the house or back of the house.”

To be able to continually serve clientele despite having a smaller staff, some operators are finding creative ways to offset their operational woes—including the following approaches. 

Making the Preparation Process More Convenient

Full-service restaurants are operating with six fewer back-of-house workers than in 2019—which can significantly slow kitchen operations down. 

Pre-prepared dishes and ingredients are an easy food prep solution that can allow restaurants that find they have a smaller-than-usual kitchen crew to serve a versatile menu.

Sushi Maki, for instance, makes some of the sauces and marinades used in its menu items in large batches at a central commissary Ng’s family has owned for decades, and then distributes the items to its various locations to use. 

“That’s one of our competitive advantages, that we’re able to have some prep work done in a centralized facility,” Ng says. “That makes for a more manageable workload for our kitchen production staff.”

In addition to sauces, using versatile pre-prepared base ingredients like rice and grains can provide increased operational efficiency and menu versatility. For example, BEN’S ORIGINAL™ Ready Rice™ for Risotto—a new product debuting in May 2022—is fully cooked and provides a neutral base to an endless variety of dishes. Selecting products that offer menu versatility, profitability and labor savings is key.

Optimizing Kitchen Bottlenecks

More than half (53%) of operators said consumers were ordering a narrower selection of menu staples early in the pandemic; so it’s not entirely surprising that by 2021, 63% of fine dining, 53% of casual dining and 47% of family dining restaurant operators said they had fewer items on their menu than before the pandemic.

When national restaurant chain Hooters decided to examine its line-up in 2020, there was no question staples such as its chicken wings and buffalo shrimp would stay; the company, however, also gathered input from operators about which menu items had caused bottlenecks in the food preparation process, says Hooters Chief Operating Officer Larry Linen.

“The kitchen is the engine—the heart of what makes it work,” Linen says. “With the increasing pressures—especially during the initial time when food was to-go and delivery only, and then not having as many employees—we looked at what the core items were, and what bottlenecked the kitchen the most [to help] them streamline the process to get things out faster.”

To further facilitate menu fulfillment, Hooters also made changes to its ordering process. In addition to standardizing the terms that are used to describe menu items, a new system the chain implemented consolidated the orders that are placed through Hooters’ app, call center or a third-party delivery service so the information is promptly conveyed to the back-of-house staff. 

“Before, it came into a tablet,” Linen says. “The person up front then had to type [the order] into the POS system. That all took time; now, the order fires directly to that kitchen. That also helps with the labor side because they're not transferring it from one device to another.”

Optimizing More than Just Menu Size

Sushi Maki also modified its menu during the pandemic to focus on its best-selling items.

“More than 90% of your sales come from a third of your menu,” Ng says. “Things we used to love just to have on the menu we’ve taken off because that reduces the amount of strain and stress [on employees].”

Like numerous other restaurants, Sushi Maki also began charging more to allow for higher operational costs, Ng says.

“We’ve had to adjust our prices to account for the increase we paid in labor at our management level; our frontline team member level,” he says. “Clearly, from a supply chain standpoint, things we buy and import have all seen increases. The same challenges we have in labor, our suppliers have—it all goes down the line.”

While some restaurants have undertaken efforts to augment their staff—Sushi Maki, for example, has cross-trained employees and given retention bonuses; Hooters offered referral and hiring incentives—the labor pains that the industry has felt of late may exist for some time. Approximately half of full-service, quick-service and fast-casual restaurant operators say they expect recruiting and retaining employees to be their top challenge this year.

However, by adopting a customer-centric approach to menu planning and execution—ranging from focusing on fan favorites to incorporating pre-prepared ingredients—can help small and medium chains, casual dining, quick service restaurants and other restaurants maintain both productivity and profitability, even if they’re working with fewer employees than they anticipated.

Learn more about how BEN'S ORIGINAL™ products can be a simple back-of-house prep option that provides superior quality and longer hold times than taking the time to make items from scratch on-site.