Running a quick-service restaurant often requires relying on seasonal employees who come from high school or college, or stay-at-home parents who work when school is in session. Many of these employees tend not to stick around for longer than a season, which means operators must constantly invest time and money in training a new crop of workers.

Reducing this sort of seasonal turnover is a struggle, but engaging temporary employees and offering the right kind of workplace incentives can keep them coming back year after year, human resources experts say.

A big factor that can contribute to a seasonal employee leaving is not feeling welcome or like a part of the team, says Deb LaMere, vice president of HR strategy and employee engagement at Ceridian, an employee wellness and assistance program.

“A seasonal employee may also leave out of boredom,” she says. “If the role wasn’t what they signed up for or there are not goals attached to the position, then they are more likely to up and leave. Seasonal employees are also likely to leave if they are not recognized for their work.”

LifeWorks helps organizations like restaurants improve employee wellness, increase productivity, and increase employee engagement—all factors in retaining workers, LaMere says.

Setting goals for employees is one strategy LaMere suggests for quick-serve operators. Tangible progress markers in a job help an employee get value out of their tasks and feel accomplished, she says.

“If the full-time, permanent employees make the seasonal employees feel welcome and do not treat them any differently than they would a permanent worker, then the seasonal employees … are more likely to stay,” LaMere adds. 

Amit Kleinberger, CEO of California-based Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt, says the challenge of retaining seasonal team members is one all quick serves must deal with. His answer to the problem revolves around flexibility.

“The food category is often considered like a train station, with people coming in between phases of their life, so we deal with a lot of seasonal-type employees,” he says. “What we found that works is being flexible with their needs, and the more lenient you are, the more you will find yourself retaining them long-term.”

Studies show that only 19 percent of restaurants offer flexible scheduling to their employees, and this is one of the biggest benefits seasonal employees look for, says Nate DaPore, president and CEO of PeopleMatter, a service industry HR consultancy.

“Giving [employees] the ability to be flexible and change shifts when needed … will set you apart from your competition,” DaPore says. “Employees want to be part of something bigger—they want to see value in their work. Giving them a sense of purpose will make them more engaged, perform better, and lead to better sales for your business.”

Another factor in employee retention is paying above minimum wage. Kleinberger says better pay can attract better talent and ultimately save an operator money that would be spent training new hires.

Many quick-serve restaurants today operate on extremely thin margins, and it’s not uncommon for the turnover rate to be close to 100 percent, DaPore says.

But if an operator can better understand who their employees are, what they want, and how to engage them, they can unlock potential that will make a difference for the team and the bottom line, he says.

“With the average cost to replace a single hourly worker over $3,000, reducing turnover is a top priority for businesses because it directly impacts their bottom line,” DaPore says. “The key to keeping a steady, engaged workforce is putting your employees first. Studies show that highly engaged employees outperform their coworkers by 20 percent.”

Jesse Gideon, COO and executive chef for 12-unit, Atlanta-based Fresh to Order, tells his franchisees and corporate stores alike that you have to “bait the hook with the proper bait for the proper fish” in order to find and keep seasonal employees.

“You need to recruit from where those employees are; seasonal employees or non-seasonal employees are often your best recruiting source,” he says. “A referral program will often provide additional motivation for great employees to bring you more great employees.”

Fresh to Order aims to give its seasonal employees a reason to stay or return and makes them feel welcome when they do, Gideon says. Employees are offered flexible hours as an incentive to return, and a “fun work environment with clear expectations” appeals to many of them, he adds.

The largest seasonal and part-time employee demographic is 16–24-year-olds, and more than 80 percent of them own a smartphone, so utilizing mobile apps and texting capabilities to communicate with employees is a great way to keep them engaged, DaPore says. Some restaurants even allow employees to view and change their work schedules from their mobile devices.

DaPore recommends creating a plan for seasonal and part-time employees to be recognized for their successes and demonstrate a clear path for job progression.

“Giving a seasonal employee the opportunity to advance to a higher job role or take on more responsibilities after proving themselves motivates them to work harder and continue to come back each season,” he says. “You should also hire employees who are the best fit for the job and your culture. Those who are the best fit will provide the best customer service and stay longer.”

Back of House, Employee Management, Story, Fresh to Order, Menchie's