By John Egan
Restaurant owner and operator Jamal Wilson has a lot on his plate these days.
Wilson, the founder and owner of a small chain of food halls, opened his first location, The Hall on The Yard in Orlando, in 2021. The Florida food hall has nine restaurants with 60 employees. Soon, Wilson will open The Hall at Ashford Lane in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, which will house 10 restaurants with about 75 employees. And in the third quarter of this year, The Hall at the Grove in Snellville, another Atlanta suburb, will offer 12 restaurants staffed by about 75 employees.
In less than three years, Wilson’s company will have hired about 210 restaurant workers. And as you might expect, it has struggled to fill job openings. To cope with labor shortages, Wilson and other restaurant operators are turning to newer technology and what you might call workplace anthropology.
“Hiring and managing labor has been a nightmare since the pandemic. Our guests have come back in person, sometimes at even greater rates than before the pandemic, but it’s been quite a challenge to hire and retain the amount of workers that are needed to keep up with the demand,” Wilson said. “There’s simply too much work to be done and not enough employees to do it.”
Wilson’s story is far from unique in the U.S. restaurant business.
In January, nearly 1.7 million jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector—which includes restaurants—went unfilled, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But despite the labor shortage, the National Restaurant Association predicts the U.S. foodservice industry will add 500,000 jobs by the end of this year. In a recent survey by the association, 87 percent of restaurant operators said they would likely hire more employees in the next six to 12 months as long as qualified applicants are available.
So, what are Wilson and his counterparts around the country doing to overcome the labor shortage?
For starters, Wilson has enlisted help from a robot nicknamed Hall-E, a nod to the lovable robot WALL-E in the 2008 computer-animated movie of the same name. Wilson’s company bought the robot from SoftBank Robotics America, which specializes in workplace automation.
“The robot works alongside our staff to automate repetitive and mundane tasks, like bringing food from the kitchen to customer tables or taking dishes from tables to the ‘dish pit,’ ” Wilson explained. “It allows our servers and other front-of-house employees to devote more time and energy to the higher-touch tasks like customer service, which in turn has a direct impact on ‘return on experience’ for our guests that keeps them coming back.”
Hiring workers for the “dish pit” ranks among the biggest staffing hurdles at Wilson’s restaurants, he said. But since “hiring” the robot, employee satisfaction and retention rates have climbed. Hall-E has proven so successful, in fact, that Wilson plans to place robots at all of his locations.
Besides technology, what else can restaurants do to hire and keep workers?
Wilson recommends prioritizing people above all else.
“Without servers and bussers and cooks and bartenders and hosts, you can’t keep your doors open,” he said. “Making sure that your employees are happy and finding cost-effective ways to make their jobs easier goes a long way toward boosting retention and keeping your valued employees for the long haul.”
A bonus: Ensuring employees are happy triggers positive word of mouth that draws more job applicants, Wilson said.
Christie Schatz, vice president of human resources at Sonny’s BBQ, which operates 94 restaurants in eight states, said that in the pandemic era, a stepped-up emphasis on hiring principles has paid off.
For example, Sonny’s instills in its franchisees and restaurant managers the importance of hiring workers with the “traits and talents” needed to deliver the Sonny’s experience, Schatz said. That experience adheres to this motto: “Throw a BBQ Slathered in Hospitality.”
Although Sonny’s hasn’t adopted robotics thus far, due to the “extremely experiential” nature of barbecue joints, it has embraced predictive scheduling software and predictive hiring tools, Schatz said.
Schatz said restaurant operators shouldn’t be afraid of using technology to help resolve labor issues.
“When used correctly, innovative technology solutions can go a long way toward supporting—not replacing—your workers,” she said. “And more often than not, the upfront investment pays dividends toward keeping your employees and creating an unforgettable experience for guests.”
Nonetheless, Schatz underscores a basic human element when it comes to staffing: the value of daily connections and weekly sit-downs with restaurant employees. Each Sonny’s location employs between 40 and 60 people.
“The flaw I see in our industry still is that we make hasty hires and do not check in with people because we are so busy,” she said. “However, we are in the people business, and our guests are also our team members. Treat them with gratitude and ask them to give you feedback as to why they stay.”