How to hire and retain restaurant staff

Hiring and retaining good staff is an ongoing problem in hospitality that started during the pandemic and has been exacerbated by a cost of living crisis. Can it be fixed? And if so, what’s the answer?

It’s an ongoing problem in hospitality that’s been exacerbated during the pandemic: hiring and retaining good staff. We talked to some restaurateurs and managers to find out how they’re finding and nurturing their teams in a world of constant, often robust, change.

Finding new staff

There’s not enough qualified staff on the ground across the country, so businesses have to think differently about how to find the right people.

Martin Pirc, owner and operator of Melbourne CBD wine bars Punch Lane and Juliet, as well as the recently rebranded Waygood in Richmond, looked far afield during Victoria’s 2020 lockdowns.

“We tried to become very broad reaching. The New Zealand borders were open, so we thought, maybe if we advertise on SEEK NZ but we knew it was a long shot and we didn’t get much traction,” he says. He went back to advertising in Melbourne and Victoria.

Nathan Toleman, co-owner of Lune Patisserie, and CEO and founder of the Mulberry Group whose stable includes Dessous, Hazel and Liminal in Melbourne CBD, Beach House Geelong, says, “In 2020, we were fortunate to keep a lot of staff with JobKeeper but unfortunately over the past 18 months a lot of great people left the industry and chose not to return. To make matters worse, the overseas workers we had couldn’t work, even if they wanted to. It was difficult.”

Toleman went through the usual channels of Seek, Instagram and other social media platforms to advertise for staff, “but the level of response was so much less than what it used to be and the talent pool was so much smaller.”

Toleman and the Mulberry Group are dedicated to creating a strong, positive workplace culture. Their Common Ground Project is a different way to entice staff looking for more values-based employment.

“It’s a place of training, farming and connection. Mulberry Group staff are able to work on the farm, working with the Farm Manager and Community Engagement Manager. All the produce is grown to sell to the Mulberry Group’s restaurants, as well as used to provide meals for people facing disadvantage in the community.”

He adds, “We have a long-term core of staff who often introduce people to us and others reach out to us because of our stance on sustainability and what we’re doing at Common Ground Project.”

Many thought the end of the pandemic would give way to a boom period and more staff returning to the hospitality sector. But in fact, years on, the opposite has happened, which is largely in part to a cost of living crisis and spiraling inflation. As a result, many businesses are struggling, worn down by the compounding staff crunches and lack of applicants to fill vacancies.

All is not lost, though, Dan Lualhati is the manager of Malt Dining in Brisbane’s CBD and while he says employment sites like Seek are helpful they also use Barcats, an agency that finds staff at the last minute and for unexpected situations.

“Although we do find that Facebook is what drives us at the moment to look for staff. It’s the most cost effective way through pages like the Brisbane Hospitality Network and Brisbane Bartenders Network.”

Can technology help when you’re short-staffed?

Technology will never replace the vital human connection that is so pivotal to hospitality, but what it can do is offer to manage core elements of the business so the staff can focus on their guests. Lualhati says that this is where OpenTable comes in.

“I think systems such as OpenTable are very helpful in terms of managing reservations and communicating with staff and customers. We can move the dining room availability around to what we need on any service.”

Pirc also likes the pliable nature of OpenTable: “You can make quick decisions and close off bookings or tables if you don’t have the staffing. We can easily communicate with those bookings, too, which is so important.”

Toleman agrees that OpenTable has made things much more manageable regardless of the hospitality landscape. “When we haven’t had enough people to man the business, with OpenTable we are actually starting to turn off some tables and limit the people we can seat. OpenTable helps us do that,” Toleman says. “OpenTable’s system is so helpful and so fast. We can manage limitations on bookings when restrictions are applied, we can open up more tables when we’re allowed to. All this can be done literally with the press of a button.”

Keeping your good staff

Three restaurant workers in a restaurant scene, one of them is holding a tablet
You’ve found the staff and technology your business needs. How do you create an environment in which they want to stay and thrive?

“I think the choices people make about where they want to work are becoming more value-based, it’s more than food and drink, a venue can provide a sanctuary for staff and for customers,” says Pirc, “and it’s important we nurture an atmosphere that gives a sense of community.”

Lualhati works on creating a relaxed environment for his staff. “We try to make sure we have a chill work environment,” he says. “We are serious to an extent, but we like to have fun at work and encourage our staff to enjoy their role. I do try to be the cheeky one, to get the staff smiling and try to make sure I have an upbeat attitude. It can be easy to push your feelings onto others, but I don’t believe that is helpful for the team.”

“People want more than just a job now they want to work where their values are aligned, and we can provide that in terms of sustainability.” says Toleman. “It’s not just about working in a restaurant, our purpose is supporting our community and building a better world through food and farming, so everything we do is built around that.”

As well as nurturing your own business’s community and culture, measuring staff performance based on guest feedback is also a valuable way to retain good staff. It helps generate a healthy dose of competitiveness and motivation within the team.

The methods by which you choose to find and keep your staff will be determined by the foundation on which you’ve built your business. Keeping abreast in a constantly changing world is a challenge; the best advice is to stay true to your brand and your ethos.

What does the future hold?

The future of finding and keeping good hospitality staff in Australia’s restaurant sector faces ongoing challenges. The industry is currently grappling with a nationwide staff shortage, which is particularly acute for skilled roles such as chefs. The situation is further compounded by restrictions on visas for foreign workers entering the country to take up these vital roles.

To address these issues, there have been calls for the government to provide training and incentives, adjust visa programs for skilled workers, and support businesses in recruiting and retention.

Restaurants themselves are also evolving by examining work-life balance policies, pay rates, and ways to align with changing consumer preferences. There is also a push towards new technologies, like AI, and existing tech, like OpenTable, as well as sustainable practices that could future-proof the industry.

Retaining staff remains central to creating positive work cultures and delivering exceptional service. This includes fair rostering, avoidance of back-to-back shifts, clear communication of roles and responsibilities, and investment in training.

So, while the environment for finding and retaining top staff is one of the most difficult in decades, taking the right approach, such as creating a strong culture and leaning on technology, can give restaurants the resources they need to meet demands and more.

Summary: hiring and retaining restaurant staff

The ongoing challenge of hiring and retaining restaurant staff demands fresh solutions. With grit, creativity, technology and community, restaurants can build resilient teams and business models primed to deliver exceptional hospitality against the odds.