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Workforce Series: Tips on Retaining Restaurant Workers Part 2

By Maura Kay, Consultant, Analytics

Our Workforce Series will be examining the way the pandemic, Great Resignation, worker's rights movement, and other factors are reshaping the way we work.


In Part 1 of this post, we considered why the restaurant industry is disproportionately impacted by the Great Job Reshuffle. After considering the challenges workers face in work environments and pay structures, particularly around tipping, we offered some strategies restaurants can take to better support employees. This time we’re reviewing the role economic and community developers can play in promoting worker-supporting strategies in business districts. During Women’s History Month, we also consider the unique challenges working women face in the restaurant industry.

The restaurant industry was already changing before COVID, though not in a direction that promoted workers. Instead, the rise of the quick-service model, coupled with the digitization of the dining process saw a move away from human-to-human interaction. David Weisman, a 20-year restaurant veteran who recently left the industry, described this as the “systemic stripping of humanity.” Weisman revealed that while he had been considering a career shift after not being heard by management, the lack of health and safety enforcement around COVID finally caused him to leave the restaurant industry. As the distance between management and the on-the-ground experience has grown under COVID conditions, workers face losses in autonomy, creativity, and access to upward mobility.

Women in Restaurant Work

Women working in restaurant settings face additional COVID-related challenges. More than half of restaurant workers are women. Of the third of mothers working in restaurants, half are single mothers. These workers may face inequitable treatment in the work environment and in their pay, as well as from customers. In states with subminimum restaurant wages, 21.6% of women working in restaurants live in poverty, compared to 6.2% of men.

In addition to facing wage inequity, women face additional challenges to their safety. A new, terrible term, ‘maskual harassment’ emerged to describe women workers being asked to remove their masks for the satisfaction of customers. In addition to being a form of tipping abuse, workers face mental health impacts and risk their physical health.

Communities and economic development professionals are in a position to promote restaurants and their owners. Just in the short-term, these groups can highlight innovative, equitable kitchens, expand access to arts and business resources to restaurant workers, and promote local employee ownership.

Highlight success cases in local kitchens

Communities naturally take pride in their hometown food and favorite local spots. This low lift strategy would see communities feature restaurants with new practices, such as increased wages or alternatives to tipping, to introduce new work standards locally and highlight the importance of restaurant work.

Community organizations may need to create a pathway to hear from restaurant workers directly. Convening or surveying restaurant workers is the best way to discover which strategy to take. An open forum could allow workers to weigh in on whether to roll tips into menu costs or move to hybrid models. Additionally, committees on growing a business district or night time economy should include local restaurant worker representation. Community groups, such as Community Development Corporations, are uniquely positioned to gather businesses together and promote new practices across restaurants or business districts, creating campaigns or educating dinners. If one restaurant alone attempted to rewrite base wages or tipping culture, it risks facing consequences. A community organization is in a position to help diminish marginal costs from falling on one particular establishment.

Treat restaurant work as a career, not a gig

If expecting professional work, restaurants must pay a professional wage. Increasing base wages is an essential step in retaining restaurant talent. While owners may dismiss this change due to up-front costs, they should consider turnover and training costs into their expenses. Merit-based boosts could present pathways for career advancement or wealth building, by earning stakes in the business itself.

Economic development professionals should begin acknowledging the role of restaurants and restaurant workers in main street economic development strategies. Following creative class discussion of the last few decades, restaurants have become proxies to attract creative class professionals. However, restaurants themselves present opportunities for cluster development that benefits workers and newcomers alike. More attention should be given to main street workers as drivers of creative clusters.

The culinary arts are overlooked pathways for workers who do not pursue higher education and should no longer be referred to as ‘unskilled labor.’ Cooking is a craft, while other tasks around a restaurant are direct service. Increasing wages and professional development pathways in an existing industry, provides a quicker, more direct pathway than retraining.

As workers face limits to their creativity within restaurants, nonprofits and community events give workers additional paid avenues to expand or experiment with their craft. Such a shift can allow arts and culture organizations to open grants, residency, or programmatic opportunities to restaurant workers.

Encourage employee ownership

The closing of long-time establishments can hit communities hard. However, succession planning ahead of owner retirements is attractive for new entrepreneurs as the business may already have an existing audience. Exits are the perfect opportunities to encourage employee ownership. First offers for the restaurant should go to existing workers. Community organizations can play a coordinating role in these cases, referring would-be entrepreneurs to resources. Again, specific grants or classes could target restaurant veterans ready to give their concept a try.

The culinary arts are overlooked pathways for workers who do not pursue higher education and should no longer be referred to as ‘unskilled labor.’ Cooking is a craft, while other tasks around a restaurant are direct service. Increasing wages and professional development pathways in an existing industry, provides a quicker, more direct pathway than retraining.

Worker ownership is a solution that addresses many push factors. While restaurant positions are often less susceptible to background or training barriers than other industries, restaurant ownership is not as easily accessible. Eliminating the distance between workers and management better positions restaurants to address changes and health/safety matters.


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