Restaurants don’t just have to fill seats. They have to fill jobs, and careers. And in a tight labor market, it’s getting more difficult to find and retain employees. But new approaches, many with a personal touch and others that lean on technology or financial incentives, can help operators succeed at recruiting and retaining great employees by making their restaurants truly great places to work. Check out this roundup of winning strategies from leading restaurant companies and innovative independents. They prove that taking care of employees takes care of business. 

Rev up recruitment and hold on to the talent.

Throw a party

Taco Bell

Ring the dinner bell as a recruitment tool. Beyond serving workers free meals while on the job, Taco Bell Irvine, Calif., holds hiring parties offering free food in a festive atmosphere with on-site applications and on-the-spot interviews. Some sites report receiving twice the number of applications needed to fill open positions. 

Reward recruitment

Recruitment

Corner Bakery Café, Dallas, gives any team member a $75 bonus after a recruit they found completes two weeks on the job and another $150 after 60 days if they and their recruit still work there. The company offers bigger bonuses for higher-level and hard-to-fill positions. Referring employees are entered in a quarterly raffle giving them one chance per recruit to win an iPad. 

Give due credit

Car

To reward general managers and kitchen managers who foster employee growth and advancement, Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants, Woodridge, Ill., developed a point system that measures their efforts. Managers who earn enough points get a leased BMW; insurance included. Almost all the company’s manager positions are filled from within. 

Play games

Team

San Antonio, Texas-based Whataburger’s biennial WhataGames competition offers $250,000 in cash prizes as it pushes employees to improve their operational skills, the guest experience, and company knowledge through contests. 

Dine together

Dine-in

The Lighthouse, Brooklyn, N.Y., enjoys a 70% retention rate. Sister-and-brother team Naama and Assaf Tamir established staff dinners, where everyone cooks dishes from the menu for each other. It’s a family-style dinner where they catch up, talk about personal lives and restaurant business, and experience the food they serve firsthand. 

Create mentors

Mentors

Promoting and training high-performing hourly employees as mentors hones their leadership skills and builds relationships on the floor at The Common Man’s 16 restaurants in New Hampshire (based in Ashland). They get a taste of management and earn higher wages as they coach new hires for a few months.  

Set the tone

 

Set the tone

Michael Gulotta, owner of New Orleans Maypop and MoPho restaurants, follows the philosophy of Fair Kitchens, a movement that inspires healthy kitchen culture. Following the TEAMS mnemonic, it encourages the staff and management to talk openly, excite passion, act as one, make time, and say “good job.” 

Build financial security

401k

A 401(k) program offered to all employees is a top benefit at The Common Man, which matches employee contributions up to 25% with no cap on the amount they put in the account. 

Subsidize tuition

Starbucks

Emphasize — and provide — the benefits of higher education. Full- and part-time Starbucks, Seattle, employees can attend Arizona State’s online program and the company covers 100% of the tuition for four years. McDonald’s Archways to Opportunity offers discounted tuition.   

Schedule well 

Shake Shack

… and in advance and allow staff to trade shifts online or, as at Clyde’s Restaurant Group, Washington, D.C., slate managers for a five-day workweek and two consecutive days off. Shake Shack, New York, is testing four-day (but still 40-hour) workweeks for managers in a handful of West Coast locations. 

This article was created in partnership with Unilever Food Solutions, the National Restaurant Association’s Centennial Founding Partner.