While national unemployment remains at a steady 9 percent, many companies are planning to repeat their annual hiring surge to support this year’s holiday season.

Quick-service restaurants will play a visible role in the effort.

According to Chicago-based staffing consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas, about 625,000 seasonal workers are expected to be hired in 2011. Though seasonal hiring levels remain short of prerecession highs, the holiday hiring outlooks are more cheerful for 2011 than it has been since 2007.

More than half (51 percent) of hiring managers in hourly hiring firm Snagajob’s holiday survey reported they would be adding seasonal help in 2011, many of whom are prompted by a more optimistic consumer-spending outlook.

Twenty-five percent of respondents say this year’s fourth-quarter sales will exceed 2010.

“The recession isn’t over, and managers shouldn’t hire like crazy, but there is a sense that things are improving,” Snagajob’s senior vice president of marketing Rick Parker says.

While retail stores gain heavy seasonal hiring attention, quick-service restaurants are a largely overlooked yet still vital element in today’s marketplace.

Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day are robust days for restaurant meals. Toss in the season’s proliferation of marquee sporting events, on-the-go shoppers, and holiday gatherings, and it’s easy to understand restaurants’ need for holiday help.

Colorado-based Boston Market, for example, will add about 125 phone agents at its corporate office to field holiday meal and catering orders. In addition, many of the chain’s 482 domestic restaurants will bring on three to four order takers and two to five delivery drivers. All told, senior vice president of operations Tony Buford says, Boston Market will add about 2,000 jobs throughout the system.

Dave Melton, a Domino’s franchisee who oversees four New York City outlets, says he often adds four to five employees per store to his holiday workforce. Although some join the stores’ bicycle delivery staff, most become cross-trained workers able to take orders and make pizzas.

Many operators view the seasonal workforce as not only a necessary move, but also an investment in the restaurant’s earnings, competitiveness, and sustainability.

“Ultimately, you do this because you’re trying to create and maintain a certain experience as things get busy,” Parker says.

For smart seasonal hiring, experts say employers should hire for personality above all else.

At Melton’s Domino’s locations, most guest interactions run two minutes or less, compelling Melton to seek employees with a pleasant disposition above all else.

“I can teach the necessary skills, but I can’t teach someone to be nice,” he says.

Fifty-one percent of hiring managers reported they would be adding seasonal help in 2011.

Sage Employer Solutions general manager Johnny Laurent says employers should look for smiling employees who carry an upbeat personality. He says they should think about having the candidate meet current employees to gauge interaction with others. Also, by asking open-ended questions and providing real-world scenarios, employers force deeper responses and gain insight during the interview process.

While the seasonal employee may only join the restaurant for two months, those are two busy months, demanding workplace focus and teamwork. As a result, employers should check an individual’s references to investigate the individual’s past, which can help predict future performance, Laurent says.

When seeking talent, Melton says his fellow quick-service operators should consider young employees who are “clean slates” and excited to tackle their first job. Employers can receive recommendations from a high school counselor or coach, he says.

Many operators also use their existing employees as a source for leads on potential candidates, while others turn to returning employees as the holiday season dawns. Fifty-three percent of respondents in the Snagajob survey said they would be hiring returning workers in 2011.

“Employers want to hire people who are proven, and what better way to do that than to bring on someone you know,” Parker says.

One of the best seasonal hiring tactics, however, is to tackle the process early. In the Snagajob survey, 45 percent of managers said they started seeking applicants before October 1.

Employee Management, Web Exclusives, Boston Market, Domino's