Hospitality Operators: This labor situation has been coming for years.

I was listening to “S-Town”, a podcast by Brian Reed from Serial Productions. At the beginning of the series he is investigating a rumored and unsolved murder in a small town in Alabama. Reed begins the podcast by describing the problems associated with repairing an antique clock, a clock that has kept time quite well for two to three centuries. As the clock is handmade, there are hundreds of individual parts, each of which must function precisely with the other parts. The pendulum and assorted springs appear to be missing.

He then speaks of “witness marks”, marks inside the clock left by either the original clock maker or someone who has worked on the clock. The marks can be holes, outlines, or dents left by something that was part of or done to the clock in the past. These marks tell the tale of the clock, of what was there before, and of what has been done over the years. Witness marks leave clues about the clocks past. It is said that trying to read witness marks to fix an old clock can be maddening.

Is Hospitality an old clock that is now broken?

The antique clock analogy got me to thinking about the current staffing crisis in the hospitality industry. The situation with recruiting and hiring is maddening. In this business, we also have hundreds of pieces that need to interact with the others precisely. And right now, operators cannot get the pieces—in this case, the people—they need. No one is coming in the door for the jobs that are posted. All this while Covid restrictions are lifting and states are starting to let restaurants and bars move back to full capacity. But how do you serve guests with no staff?

Is Hospitality an old clock that is now broken? Is it completely malfunctioning? Or does it just not keep the time properly anymore? Are there witness marks that tell us what has happened to our industry over time? And are we willing and able to analyze them to perhaps discover a way to fix things? And once we have fixed the problems, will the internal pieces of our clock interact with each other the way they always have? Or will it be different?

It’s a lot to process. Such questions have the potential to take us out of our comfort zone. Such questions can make us view things in a way we have never viewed them before. They make us consider ideas and situations in a way we have never considered them before. It can become unnerving, and uncomfortable. And yes, maddening. But to survive, restaurant operators will need to get out of their comfort zones.

The fact is, our business has been slowly strangled for decades by various forces. To name a few: Immigration, Quality of Life Issues, Childcare, High Stress Work Environments, Long Hours, Drug and Alcohol Issues, Lack of Affordable Housing, and Tip Credit Wages. All have taken their toll. Hourly wages for tipped employees haven’t changed in 40 years. And tips are no longer viewed as a reliable source of income. This labor issue is a huge problem with many associated parts.

The fact is, our business has been slowly strangled for decades by various forces.

Today, restaurant companies find themselves fighting unemployment pay, apathy about returning to industry, health concerns, lack of employable college students due to schools being closed. and competition for staff from new sources. David Winer, Principle of the Eat Well DC Restaurant Group tells me that when it comes to recent job applications they get “No servers or hosts, and few bartenders.” Jesse Maas, Director of Operations at Rex Management LLC, another local restaurant group, told me that people don’t even show up for interviews. “We had 6 hosts scheduled for interviews last Monday, none of them showed up. ” He also stated that when they recently reopened one of their DC operations, Bar Deco, after being closed for a year, none of the old staff members returned. Jesse stated “People realize that there are other opportunities out there.” They got out, saw how life can be different, and are trying to ensure that they do not have to come back. Donna Shore, owner of Born Hospitality LLC, thinks that many people have moved on and used Covid as a reason to get out of the industry. “They all have taken a pay cut, but felt it was the right thing to do, because at least they were getting paid.  And now that the sector is re-opening, they have decided to not leave their new jobs or have thrived in their new jobs/careers.”

The Hospitality Industry is currently running on life support. We all believe the culprit’s name is Covid. A fairly sinister name, and a well know villain. Granted, Covid added health concerns to the long list It caused massive shut downs and layoffs. The past year presented challenges like no other. It created stressful situations that restaurant operators could not have imagined if they had tried. It created a huge uncertainty, and now that uncertainty has been replaced by another. But when it comes to labor, Covid merely exacerbated problems that were already there.

Staffing problems are not new. Almost every restaurant operator I spoke with while preparing this blog admitted that finding good staff was a problem before Covid hit. It’s important to face the facts, when it comes to staffing, all Covid did was shove the Hospitality Industry over the tipping point. The only way to solve this problem is to face the hard bitter truth. The Hospitality Industry is an antique broken clock. We now need to fix it. It’s going to be a maddening process. And it’s not going to look or feel the same when we are done.

We need to look at the Witness Marks and figure out how to fix it. We need to examine what damage was done in the past. We need to change. And to do it, we’ll need to get uncomfortable. Over the next few weeks, or possibly months, this blog will examine the different problems. And explore solutions for them.

So can you do right now? Try these six ideas to start:

  1. Don’t throw bodies at the problem. There will be a huge temptation to hire anyone who comes through the door. Don’t! This reactive solution has never produced good results, and it never will. All you do is end up with bad staff who will not properly take care of your guests. Plus they will drive away your good staff. Who, by the way, can have another job almost instantly.
  2. Start rethinking your staff positions and what they actually do. Everyone should be taking care of the guest: Hosts, busboys, cooks, etc. Rethink their job descriptions. Make sure no one has an “It’s not my job” attitude. Start retraining them. And rethinking your systems. They need to add aspects to their jobs that were not there before. Aspects that focus on guest relations and service. Anyone can be taught to greet a table and get a drink order.
  3. Don’t completely open up if you are not staffed and ready to do so. I know it’s tempting. But giving staff more tables and seats than they can handle will be disastrous for business. It will only lead to poor service. Plus many of your guests may not be ready or able to give up masks and distancing yet. Offer them space where they can still feel comfortable.
  4. Don’t assume that guest will be forgiving. They will not be. Feedback I am getting from operators is that guests are just as demanding now as they were before Covid hit. They are expecting service to be what it was. And they are not happy when it is not.
  5. Take care of your staff. Help them to make money. Do what you can to reduce their stress. The ball is in the employees’ court right now. Operators cannot replace them, and they know it. Plus, if you take care of them, they will take care of you, and your guests.
  6. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good. You’re not going to get perfection right now. But good is attainable.

The main point is, it’s time to change. It’s time to adjust to the new reality. It’s time to start addressing issues and situations that operators in this industry swept under the rug for years. Quality of Life was never a big consideration, it needs to be. High turnover has always been accepted as just part of the business, it shouldn’t be. Long hours and stressful work environments have never been a consideration, they need to be. Tips are no longer considered a reliable source of income, it’s time to accept that. Covid didn’t just bring an economic shutdown to this industry, it brought permanent change.

Please feel free to comment or contact me. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Or what your company is doing in this situation. Or what you think it should be doing.

Timothy Long is an educator, consultant, and experienced restaurant operator. Email: tlong@belmarinnovations.com.

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