After two grueling years, COVID-19 restrictions on indoor dining are lifting, and customers are returning to their favorite eateries. That’s great news for restaurant operators, but operators are now facing an altogether different challenge. While their customers are coming back, employees are not—at least not at pre-pandemic levels and certainly not at what operators say they need to run their restaurants.
It’s a byproduct of a nationwide movement dubbed the ‘Great Resignation.’ The mass exodus spiked in November 2021, when a record breaking 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs. In February 2022, another 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs. Almost 7 percent of America’s food and beverage workforce walked off the job, leaving nearly a million job vacancies and restaurant operators scrambling to recruit new hires.
Navigating the “Big Quit”
Many restaurant workers who lost their jobs during COVID-19 have chosen to leave the industry altogether. No one knows that better than Chef Gregg Brickman, corporate executive chef at Henny Penny, a global manufacturer of premium commercial foodservice equipment. “COVID was just the tipping point,” he says. “People who had dedicated their lives to restaurants—myself included—found themselves unemployed when the restaurants they worked for closed. Out of necessity, they had to pivot, and many found more stable, better-paying jobs.”
Brickman’s not alone. One study found 30 percent of former restaurant employees transitioned to office jobs, while another 17 percent now work in education.
To say there’s a surge in demand for restaurant workers is an understatement. A recent State of the Restaurant Industry report shows half of restaurant operators surveyed expect recruiting and retaining workers to be their biggest challenge in 2022. In an effort to rebuild their teams, many employers are offering higher wages and improved benefits. Take McDonald’s, for example, which responded to the labor shortage by hiking hourly wages for current employees by 10 percent and raising entry-level wages to between $11 and $17 an hour.
It’s Not Just About the Money
While money matters, other intangible things like being appreciated and recognized do, too. Some employers are offering incentives like higher wages, sign-on bonuses, and flexible scheduling. New York City-based fast-casual restaurant, DIG, is even offering its hourly employees a four-day workweek.
HOA Brands—the franchisor of Hooters, fast-casual Hoots Wings, and three virtual brands—is aiming at making workers feel valued with a generous referral program, which gives hourly and manager-level team members who recruit new employees a bonus.
Say “Bye, Bye” to Difficult, Dirty, & Dangerous
Some restaurant tasks are dirty, difficult and, at times, even dangerous. While higher wages and better benefits certainly play a role in hiring and retention, so does making the job as appealing and uncomplicated as possible.
Here are three things operators can do now to better position themselves in the competitive space.
- Embrace Easy-to-Operate Equipment
“The difficult, dirty, or dangerous jobs are the ones nobody wants to do,” says Josh Frank, director of product strategy at Henny Penny, which has been at the forefront of developing equipment designed to solve some of the industry’s biggest challenges. “With product development, we focus on equipment solutions that eliminate or greatly reduce the ‘3-D’ tasks … We can’t produce equipment that makes the problem worse. Our focus and commitment is to make equipment that’s easy to deal with from an end-user perspective, from an ownership perspective, and from a service perspective.”
“We have fryers that will filter automatically after every cook cycle,” he says. “We have fryers that can filter at the press of button. We have fryers today that can automatically lift baskets in and out of the oil. All of those things reduce the amount of labor it takes to operate equipment.”
The Easier, The Better
One of the dirtiest jobs in the industry that no one wants to be tasked with is scrubbing fryer vats. To help restaurant operators, Henny Penny developed Prime Cleaner, which is a non-caustic degreaser specially formulated to remove tough zero-trans fat oils, grease, even carbon scorching, all without harsh chemicals or heavy scrubbing.
For example, Lee’s Famous Recipe uses Prime Cleaner to keep its fryers in immaculate shape, so much so that Lee’s was able to make a 21-year-old fryer look brand new.
“It’s kind of like Easy Off, but for a commercial fryer,” says Brickman, who’s scrubbed his fair share of fryer vats. “Staff go from having to scrub for 45 minutes to an hour to not having to scrub the fryer at all. If you’ve ever had to do that job, you know how welcome an innovation like this is for kitchen employees.”
2) Prioritize Turnkey Training
Another key to improving the employee experience is to simplify and streamline training. “Whether I’m a franchisee, general manager, or store manager, I need to be focused on doing what I can to simplify my employees’ on-the-job experience,” said Pete Krause, director of training and digital assets at Henny Penny. “With the majority of our equipment, when you make a purchase, we provide startup training on site. So, we’re right there with you making sure employees understand how to use the equipment.”
The company’s fryers and combi ovens also come equipped with fool-proof prompts built into the controls. “The prompts are going to walk you through step-by-step how to do different tasks,” Krause says. “For example, you don’t have to remember when to add the cleaning solution or to add water when you’re scrubbing a fryer vat with our Prime Cleaner. The controls automatically prompt you and confirm every step is completed.”
Henny Penny also provides customers with easy-to-understand wall charts and video tutorials accessible by QR code links featuring step-by-step visual operating instructions. And any of the company’s more than 90 distributors are also available to provide 24/7 assistance to customers.
3) Employees are Still No. 1
Another consequence of COVID-19 and the subsequent labor shortage is the rapid-fire demand for automated food service equipment. One significant change customers may notice, especially in quick-service restaurants, is the integration of robotics, which are doing everything from flipping burgers and making tortilla chips, to baking pizzas and serving diners.
Some of Henny Penny’s customers, including some well-known global restaurant chains, are already using the company’s fryers in conjunction with robotic arms. While robotics is the future and Henny Penny certainly conversations with customers and robotics companies about integration, a lot is still being done on the equipment level that will continue to help operators.
“At Henny Penny, we are innovators. It’s in our DNA,” Frank says. “Throughout our history, we’ve developed a reputation for solving some of the industry biggest challenges. When we were founded 65 years ago, it was to help address a throughput problem at a small kitchen in Eaton, Ohio. Ever since, our company has been solving the challenges our customers and prospective customers face.”
Frank says that’s why the innovative equipment Henny Penny engineers isn’t just designed to last, it’s also designed to reduce the amount of labor it takes to operate that piece of equipment.
Looking ahead, bots—or “autonomous kitchen assistants”—are here to stay, but Chef Brickman says they’ll never replace the human touch, which is as important as great tasting food.
“You’re always going to need workers to ensure quality and consistency, but most importantly, a robot can’t care,” Brickman says. “They lack the personal touch diners experience when they walk into their favorite restaurant and are greeted with a warm smile or personal ‘hello’ from a server who remembers them, and that can’t be replaced.”
Ready to get rid of the difficult, dirty, and dangerous jobs in your kitchen? Click here to get connected with a Henny Penny Team Member today.