“We use to be able to just put a sign out front that we were hiring, or use word of mouth,” recalled Stephanie Breitbach, manager at Reds Alehouse in North Liberty.
“Now we employ all of the hiring sites, Facebook and more just to get a few applications in the door.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 7.5 million restaurant and hotel workers quit last year, the most since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began releasing that metric in 2001.
Around 10.7 million food-service and hotel workers were hired last year, but there were an average of nearly 900,000 job openings in the restaurants and accommodation sector in each month of last year, a record, federal figures show. And quit rates this year are even higher, the article noted.
The situation can be compounded in Iowa due to the state’s overall jobless rate, recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at 2.6 percent in June.
Biggest challenge: Finding quality applicants
Restaurant hiring managers and owners in the Corridor say they are definitely facing challenges when it comes to hiring staff.
Those challenges are enhanced in some areas, thanks to growth within the communities.
“North Liberty is growing at a crazy rate, so one of our biggest challenges is finding quality applicants,” Breitbach said. “There is so much more competition here than a few years ago, which is great, but it definitely demands that we expand our benefits and do a little more recruiting than the past.”
Andy Schumacher, who owns Cobble Hill and Caucho in Cedar Rapids with his wife, Carrie, agreed.
“I think there are more challenges than there were a year ago, for sure. But the thing is, there are more restaurants popping up that folks want to work at, which is a good thing. That means our culinary scene is growing, which is great,” he said.
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“It just makes it harder to find employees, as those that are serious about cooking or the restaurant industry have more options.”
“Especially here in Cedar Rapids, the pool of people that want to work in kitchens is small,” added Ana McClain, who owns Lion Bridge Brewing Co. in Cedar Rapids with her husband, Quinton. “As a community, as we plan for growth, we need to look at our workforce and try to retain and attract people to stay here at all skill levels in order for this community to be able to continue to thrive.”
McClain noted Lion Bridge has started offering a 401(k) with a match and subsidized health insurance to full-time staff.
“We have a great culture at Lion Bridge and these were great ways to help make sure people feel a part of something and stay with us for the long run.”
Schumacher agreed hiring can be particularly problematic for the kitchen.
“Kitchen work is hard, it doesn’t pay as well as front-of-house, and it often requires long days on your feet,” he said, noting that they have five employees in each of their restaurant’s kitchens. “It takes a special kind of person to be in the right mind-set to be a kitchen employee.
“We also have high standards in our kitchens. I tell my staff, ‘My primary job is to make you a better cook and a better version of yourself, sometimes that’s uncomfortable but it makes you grow.’”
He noted that their focus on looking for staff with a strong work ethic and a desire to learn has been key thus far.
“We get our cooks to contribute creatively and expose them to techniques and methods they won’t see anywhere else around here,” he said. “When the right person gets exposure to that, they really see the value and thrive in that environment.”
Retiaining restaurant employees is another challenge
With how busy restaurants — especially those with patios — can get in summer, it can be especially tough to keep staffing levels where they are needed.
“During the summer when our patio is open, we basically double the number of employees we need,” Breitbach said.
Reds has 55 front-of-house team members — including bartenders, servers, hosts and managers — which is a little less than the 60 to 65 they’d prefer to have during the summer. In the winter, that need drops to about 30 to 35 employees.
Reds also has 26 staff members working in the kitchen.
“Generally we either have people who don’t last more than a couple weeks or they stay for years. There is very little in between, but it’s hard to put in time and money training an employee for them to no call no-show a week after hire,” Breitbach said.
“We have a referral program for our current employees,” he added. “If they refer someone who is hired and works for more than a month, they receive a cash bonus. And I would also say that 75 percent of our applicants apply because they love coming here as a guest.”
At Reds, she said they almost always hire on-site.
“We have trust in our management team that we will all make the best decision for the restaurant. If one of my shift managers receives an application, they will sit down with the employee in that moment and make a decision,” she said. “We want to avoid the person leaving and potentially never hearing from them again.”
And once they’ve made the hire, Breitbach said they offer “outside the box” benefits to retain those employees.
“We work with area businesses like Versa Fitness and Massage Heights, for example, to get our employees special rates or discounts. We offer many opportunities to work with local charities so they have a chance to make a difference in our community.
“And we have reward cards that we hand out fairly liberally, that award the recipient with a free meal or drink when they are going above and beyond our expectations.”
Breitbach said the most important thing they offer, however, is support.
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“Our management team and ownership is very open to employee input and feedback,” she said. “We have frequent check-ins with our full time team where we ask them how things are going and how we can improve their experience as an employee of Reds Alehouse. We have often implemented changes or ideas that employees bring us.”
Stigmas of working in the restaurant business
There are some stigmas that come with the work as well.
“I think people are wary of working in the restaurant industry because of bad experiences or because they don’t take it seriously,” Breitbach said. “I want people to realize, especially kids in school right now, that if you work for good owners who have developed a good team of people that care, there are so many doors that can open for you. There is room to advance and create a career where you can make a difference in so many people’s lives.
“We take pride in our company and the people who work for us, but we do expect a level of commitment that the outside world doesn’t always see,” she added. “The idea that this can’t be a ‘career’ really keeps some people from considering working in a restaurant.”
“The restaurant business by nature is seen as a steppingstone for something else for many people, especially for part-time servers,” she said. “Managing that reality with the needs of the business is always a challenge, so honest communication is huge here.
“You need to know what the person is looking for, how long realistically they will stay around and manage through that.”
Above all, restaurateurs still want to find the right fit in a hire.
“We look for a passion in our brand and mission first and foremost,” said McClain, noting they currently have five full-time and 21 part-time employees, including staff who are event-focused and not on the regular schedule.
“We also look at reliability and if the person has jumped around a lot in the past. Past experience is always a plus, but we are always willing to train the right fit,” McClain said.