Holiday dining arrangements in the US have changed quite a bit over the past five years. Nowadays, people are less inclined to spend their hard-earned leisure time preparing elaborate meals. Instead, they want to create different traditions, explore new places, and spend even more time with their loved ones. According to some experts, the shift happened mostly due to Millennials and the fact that the traditional at-home family dinners lost favor with some groups across the US. 

As a result, the searches for “restaurants open on Christmas,” and “Christmas menus” have nearly doubled. For most restaurants, this means that the weeks between Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and throughout January will be the busiest time of the year. Restaurant hiring already improved in October adding 47,500 jobs during the month, and ending a summer slowdown. 

Despite the strong run of restaurant hiring, holiday staffing still remains one of the biggest challenges for the restaurant industry. Almost every restaurant has to deal with understaffed shifts as soon as the season begins—and sometimes, staffing emergencies happen in the middle of service. 

Staffing issues can hurt the restaurant business both in terms of organization and financially. From delays and poor customer service to employee burnout, staff shortages can dramatically jeopardize a restaurant’s opportunity to make the most of the festive season.  

Some of the most challenging tasks for restaurant managers are building a reliable and strong team and putting together an employee holiday schedule that suits everyone’s availability. This is especially difficult when employees are required to balance long days, late nights, and their personal lives during the holiday season. With the unemployment rate being the lowest it has been since 1969 (there were 57 million gig workers in the US economy in 2018), restaurants are expected to make an additional effort to attract enough seasonal workers. 

Retail vs. restaurants: The shift in benefits seasonal employees are looking for

According to a study by Restaurant Business, most seasonal workers (25%) ages 16 to 34 plan to seek employment at a retail store versus a restaurant (16%). The same study claims that the majority of seasonal workers are more interested in flexible working hours than staff discounts on merchandise (66% of respondents expect to work less than 25 hours a week). That means that if restaurants can provide more flexible scheduling, they might be able to attract more temporary workers through the holiday season and finally level the playing field with retail.

After flexible hours, the second most important benefit to seasonal workers is pay: 32% of respondents said they expect to make at least $13.21 an hour, which is above the $12.15 average servers make per hour. The federal minimum average hourly wage for waiters is $12.15 and $12.30 for bartenders and it can vary widely with an additional tip income. 

How restaurants can avoid scheduling issues and attract more workers 

There is always an uptick in the number of leave requests and staff no-shows during the holidays. Combined with increased reservations and high expectations from customers, holiday staffing and scheduling can be very stressful. Here’s how to avoid the most common issues in the restaurant business during the holidays. 

  • Plan everything ahead

Experienced restaurant operators usually start developing a robust recruitment plan before the holidays begin. Positions for the holiday season typically start filling toward the end of the summer, so most restaurant managers are advised to start planning for the holidays as early as they can.

Planning ahead should involve coming up with numbers of people the restaurant will need for hiring and training during the season. For example, training could require a few months to help temporary workers figure out what’s it like working at a specific restaurant.

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Another good strategy is to organize and schedule the holiday workforce as far as possible using employee scheduling software. This will allow staff to trade shifts among themselves. Since flexibility is the main benefit seasonal workers are looking for, allowing them to trade shifts that suit their own plans encourages work-life balance, and gives them the ability to control their time better.

  • Build goodwill with employees during the entire year 

Besides planning and hiring temporary workers during the holidays, it’s also essential to focus on loyal employees. The last thing that restaurant managers need during the holidays is a rise in turnover. But building trust and satisfaction among employees doesn’t happen overnight. It is, therefore, important to stay flexible with the team during the entire year. 

More importantly, restaurant operators should remind their staff they appreciate them during this busy time of the year. For example, restaurant managers can give each staff member a small holiday gift, or spend some free time with their employees by throwing a big “family” meal before the work starts. 

  • Create a holiday pay policy

There is currently no federal law in the US that requires employees to provide time off on national holidays. In other words, there is no legal precedent for how the restaurant managers should pay their staff during the season. 

Traditionally, the role of a restaurant employee determines whether they are paid hourly or they are given a salary. Restaurant managers and chefs are usually salaried, while most other front- and back-of-house employees are paid per hour. 

Of course, salaried employees are entitled to their full weekly salaries even during weeks that include days when the restaurant is closed. Restaurant operators who offer the best holiday package will most likely win in competing for talent. Just because it isn’t required by the law, it doesn’t mean that managers can’t go the next step and use pay bumps and other benefits as a competitive advantage. As for hourly workers, some restaurants might consider giving them bonuses for working holiday shifts. 

Restaurant operators should consider developing a holiday policy for their restaurants as they are governing documents that set clear expectations around holiday scheduling. Putting systems in writing makes it easy for everyone inside the organization to have a complete understanding, which minimizes the chance of error. While providing paid vacation time isn’t mandatory, it can be an excellent way to differ from other restaurants who are already having a difficult time finding employees.  

To sum up, it is clear that restaurant owners and managers need to give their establishments a competitive edge to attract top talent during the holidays. There are a few ways they can achieve this: they can provide benefits to employees, offer competitive compensation (whether it’s salaried, hourly, or hourly plus tips), and create a supportive work culture. It requires a bit more heavy-lifting, but it will pay off tenfold.