Hard times make it easy for small businesses like restaurants forget about the things that make their operation successful. Revenues are down, customers are spending less, and costs only seem to be rising. The problem is, we are entering an era when the customer expects maximum value for their dollar, and at the same time, they expect to spend less.
That means most restaurants are engaged in heavy discounting to get customers in the door. But are you nailing your customer’s new expectations when it comes to bang for their buck? That’s the second half of the equation, and if you don’t have a dedicated, passionate staff, you’re going to lose customers fast, no matter where you set prices.
A constant headache for managers in the food service industry is employee turnover. Every time you lose one person and start another, your customer experience suffers. And while a good employee training program is key to effectively incorporating new staff, in general your preferred option would be to keep the employees you have.
Easier said than done, right? Fazoli’s, an Italian fast-casual chain, started taking employee retention very seriously a couple years ago. Recognizing that people tend to like their jobs more if they feel like they’re part of the organization they work for, Fazoli’s took it upon themselves to engage their staff, including holding an annual Pasta Bowl, which tests employee knowledge about their jobs and rewards the winner with company-wide recognition and an all-expenses paid vacation.
As a result, turnover at Fazoli’s has fallen over the past five years, and dropped 24% last year alone. Customer complaints have also dropped. So what are some strategies you can use to keep your best employees engaged?
Listen and recognize. Every day your staff experiences something while doing their job they realize could be done better. And more than likely they have their own opinion on how to improve those daily glitches.
Listening to employee feedback has two huge advantages: first, you can tap into a well of in-the-trenches experience that will help you improve your experience, and second, you create employee engagement and a sense of responsibility when you listen to what your staff is saying and then recognize those who offer an idea for improvement that is implemented. You’ll be surprised how much your employees appreciate it when their ideas are used, and how that sense of ownership will improve service and reduce turnover.
Reward top performers. Nothing motivates like a little friendly competition. The most important thing here is to avoid the cliché “employee of the month” approach, which can come off as playing favorites.
Instead, tie rewards to numbers that are indisputable. For example, reward the server with the highest sales, the kitchen employee with the least number of sick days, etc. Make sure these numbers are transparent and clearly posted to encourage competition and minimize conflict.
Also make sure you recognize second and third place and make the prizes meaningful ( a $10 gift card to your restaurant is NOT an acceptable prize!).
Plan an event. At least once a year, treat your employees to an event outside of work that makes them feel appreciated and allows them to relax and interact with each other outside of the normally stressful work environment. This is a simple and easy way to strengthen your ties to your employees and help relieve the strain created from working with the same people every day.
Embody your culture. First, decide what kind of culture you want to promote in your restaurant. More than likely this is going to be a culture of “customer first” service. Whatever your culture, write it down in a mission statement, communicate it clearly to your employees, and then become the living example of that culture.
Nothing reinforces the values you want your employees to follow every day at work like a strong culture, and nothing tears that culture down more effectively than the perception that management talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. Leadership is most effective by example, and if you follow that simple credo, your employees will stick with you through thick and thin.
Three of these four tips involve your business making an investment, which, understandably, can be a difficult proposition in an environment of reduced sales and dropping revenues. However, I would argue that it’s an investment that must be made.
The new watchword in the restaurant business is value, and after a year of discounting, value doesn’t mean low prices anymore. You have to give your customers an experience that goes beyond price and addresses their desire for a great experience.
The only way to do that is through your people.
And the only way to keep great people is to make an investment in them.
Fazoli’s has proven, on a fairly large scale, that a few simple steps can dramatically reduce turnover and improve customer service. Use the strategies I mentioned in this post to replicate their success in your own business, no matter how small.