Prior to the pandemic, with few exceptions, there was plenty of labor to go around. As a result, restaurants could deploy the right labor, in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things.
Today’s operating environment represents a stark contrast from the pre-COVID-19 days. Specifically, restaurants face a significant labor shortage, meaning they can no longer access labor in the numbers they need. As a result, operators must make do with what labor they do have, and, by the way, do it at a much more expensive hourly rate than before.
The other day I visited a drive-thru coffee concept that had closed its dining room due to a lack of labor. The drive-thru was so slow that I had to use a calendar, instead of a stopwatch, to measure my service time. As I approached the window, it became evident the employees in the store were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. The restaurant was not prepared to make the most efficient use of the labor on hand to maximize sales. If the restaurant had been able to do the latter, it would have been able to process a lot more cars that were there to use the drive-thru service. Instead, during my time in line, I saw several cars get in line and then leave.
So how can restaurants maximize the labor they have to drive the most sales possible?
Restaurants need to develop and deploy staffing schemes based on the number of employees working that shift, instead of the labor-management feels is necessary and would like to have. Operators must create guidelines that, by design, provide them instructions on where to put the employees they do have. These guidelines should define what staff should do and how they should do it. And these guidelines should outline how to use the technology and equipment staff have at their disposal to optimize the operation’s throughput capacity.
Going back to the coffee concept I referenced earlier, the restaurant made the right move in closing the dining room but did not take the next important step to figure out how to optimally use the labor that was available. The result is some employees were working feverishly, but inefficiently, while others were not doing much.
One way to help resolve this is to more specifically define the training new employees receive to ensure they can impact the overall business. Whereas before employees were taught a specific position, with the turnover and short tenure that most restaurants deal with today, it is more about teaching them to do certain critical tasks in a few positions. To do this most effectively, define the time it takes to do simpler tasks, and be ready to assign these to new employees, instead of worrying about training them to do all the tasks in a position.
Take, for example, a salad concept. A salad requires that someone first read a ticket/screen, mark the container, choose the components that go into the salad (including the dressing), mix the salad and close the packaging. While the first three tasks are what I would categorize as a high skill that requires a good amount of training, a new employee can quickly learn steps four and five. When you consider that in the production of a salad, most of the time lies is in the mixing and closing the container, you clearly see how a new employee can contribute significantly to serving the customer. By defining the tasks that would fall in the simpler category, a new employee can be productive almost from the start of their tenure with the concept.
A concept that has guidelines that work content and activity-based can easily pivot into doing what I am suggesting and make better use of the limited labor that is available in the current environment. A concept that does not, would need to use efficiency and utilization factors to create these. In either case, to optimize the labor that restaurants can get their hands on, operators need to create labor guidelines that are sensitive to the number of employees that show up for work on that day.
There are other solutions that can help restaurants deal with the labor shortage (including technology, menu rationalization, processes and procedures, converting to digital sales), but the most important still lies in deploying the labor in the most optimum way, in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things. Notice that the right labor part of this goal that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this writing is no longer a card that restaurants can count on in the current environment.