Note: This is the opening article in a two-part series on what employees want from restaurants at this stage of the labor bounceback. Check out part two here.

Restaurant sales aren’t the only thing that stalled in Q2. According to recent federal data, “eating and drinking places” sliced a net of 3,100 jobs in June on a seasonally adjusted basis. That marked the second decline in the last three months (April fell 7,200, while May grew 11,200).

In all, the category added just 900 jobs across the period, which represented the weakest quarterly employment performance since Q4 2020—a COVID-saddled time when the industry shed north of 285,000 jobs as the Delta variant hit.

The National Restaurant Association noted the slowdown mirrored a “soft patch” in restaurant sales. Eating and drinking places reported total sales of $93.6 billion in May, down 0.4 percent from April and the lowest monthly volume since October 2023 ($93.4 billion). Thanks to continued price hikes, real restaurant sales lost ground relative to 2023 levels. After adjusting for menu price inflation, the category’s sales retracted to their most depressed level since April 2023.

Even following June’s tepid run, the industry workforce remains slightly above pre-pandemic levels; it’s about 36,000 jobs (0.3 percent) higher than February 2020’s peak.

That’s a vital point to highlight, the Association said, in terms of how the dynamic has started to settle. There were fewer than 800,000 job openings in the combined restaurants and accommodations sector on the last business day of May, per the BLS—the lowest reading in more than three years and well above record highs (more than 1.5 million openings) registered during several months across 2021 and 2022. It was also slightly below 2019’s average monthly level of 875,000 job openings.

Or, spun differently, if you look past the headlines, today’s labor dynamics are more in line with pre-COVID realities than recent trends. One reason for the downward trend, the Association added, could be a reduction in the churn rate of existing employees.

Just 4.1 percent of employees in the combined restaurants and accommodations field quit their jobs in May, according to the BLS. It was the fourth consecutive month below 5 percent. Back in 2019, the average was 4.9 percent.

The full-service industry continues to face a steep climb. As of May, the segment’s employment levels were 233,000 jobs (4 percent) below pre-COVID February 2020 numbers. Employment counts in the cafeterias/grill buffets/buffets segment were 30 percent below.

Job losses in quick service were less severe through COVID’s early waves (drive-thru, off-premises, quicker return to sales norms), and, in turn, they’ve held longer and risen faster. By May, employment at snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars (like coffee, donut, and ice cream concepts) was nearly 125,000 jobs (15 percent) above February 2020 marks.

Staffing levels in quick- and full-service restaurants were nearly 150,000 jobs (3) percent loftier than pre-pandemic days. Headcounts at bars and taverns came in at 33,000 (8 percent) above February 2020.

What do employees want now?

Data can always be spliced and dissected. But restaurants are notoriously segmented when it comes to recruitment, retention, and competition. Concepts offer jobs through different dayparts, flexibility, pay, work-life balance, full- and short-term optionality, benefits, and on the industry’s ever-changing labor battle goes. Provider 7shifts, which counts hospitality maven Danny Meyer among its backers, recently released the 2024 edition of its report on what restaurant employees want at this turn.

In 2023, the company asked operators about the biggest roadblocks clawing back from the depths of COVID. Two answers: hiring and employee retention.

The industry was—and still is—trying to square up life after 2020’s “Great Resignation.” Although workers returned, especially younger ones, the stakes changed. Restaurants offered everything from hiring bonuses to iPhones to get staffed up. Wages climbed. Benefits became an arm’s race.

In 2024, 7shifts said, there’s now an inflection point to separate from peers beyond just pay. “The restaurants that prioritize the employee experience above all will come out on top,” it said.

To find out what that means exactly, the company asked more than 1,500 active restaurant employees what they wanted from work; why they chose hospitality in the first place; what motivates them; the type of benefits and training they need; why they leave; and more.

As noted, this is the first part in a two-part examination of the results.

The draw of flexibility

The restaurant industry has always been a cyclical, seasonal arena, which is one of the lead culprits for its high turnover. That’s both a hurdle and often the sector’s greatest allure. Two of the top three reasons given for job satisfaction in 7shifts’ report boiled down to scheduling. “Flexible scheduling” and “work-life balance” contributed to 56 and 39 percent of employee satisfaction, respectively.

“The flexibility offered by restaurants is a key factor in retaining workers, particularly students and parents,” the company said. “At times, providing even a small degree of schedule flexibility can make all the difference in whether employees choose to stay or seek opportunities elsewhere.”

What factors influenced your decision to work in the restaurant industry?

  • Flexible hours: 58.09 percent
  • Job availability: 55.38 percent
  • Passion for food and hospitality: 47.94 percent
  • Potential for tips: 34.73 percent
  • Career growth opportunities: 28.43 percent
  • Other: 4.29 percent

What are the top three factors that contributed to your workplace satisfaction?

  • Getting along with my team: 60.8 percent
  • Flexible scheduling: 56.34 percent
  • Competitive wages: 42.08 percent
  • Work-life balance: 39.46 percent
  • Opportunities for advancement: 30.10 percent
  • Recognition and rewards: 21.87 percent
  • Employer benefits: 21.08 percent
  • Other: 1.31 percent

Portillo’s is a brand that often speaks to that “getting along with my team” figure that topped the pack. The notion of “having a best friend at work” is something that constantly shows up in its internal findings as to why people come to work for the brand. It influences Portillo’s training and recruitment tactics. “We’re not really looking for what’s on the resume, but we’re looking for who that person is and what they will bring to our life our purpose and our values. We ask questions through an interview guide and training of how do you create or how have you created lifelong memories for others?” Jill Waite, Portillo’s chief people officer, previously told QSR.

The influence of coworkers and team dynamics were just as important as “financial incentives” (more than half of those surveyed placed it as a top motivator) in why somebody picks a certain restaurant, per the report. When 7shifts broke data down by age range, restaurant employees who classified as Gen Z indicated they were highly motivated by people—both their team and their guests: 60.9 percent of Gen Z restaurant workers ranked their coworkers among the top motivators of daily work. And 37 percent scored positive guest feedback atop the list.

Restaurants are like retail stores in that they often recruit from their own fanbases. Especially in quick service, not many employees show up to, say, Taco Bell, without understanding what the brand looks and feels like, or as someone who’s never eaten there before. So that image and staff makeup, as well as customer profiles, can enable employees to feel like they’re part of and serving their “tribe.”

Last summer, Taco Bell teamed with Brooklyn-based artist Ricardo Gonzalez on an exclusive lineup of streetwear-inspired employee apparel. “If they love the brand as a consumer and they come in and that experience doesn’t match what they believed the brand to be—that’s a problem. We work very hard so it reflects that and they stay a fan of the brand,” Kelly McCulloch, chief people and transformation officer at the brand, said at the time.

What motivates you the most in your daily work within the restaurant industry?

  • My coworkers and team: 56.52 percent
  • Financial incentives (bonuses, tips, etc.): 54.51 percent
  • Positive customer feedback: 42.17 percent
  • Opportunities for advancement: 32.02 percent
  • Recognition and praise: 25.81 percent
  • Other: 2.97 percent

So how can restaurants stoke this point? Here are some thoughts from 7shifts?

  • 1. Use pre-shift meetings or lineups to foster meaningful connection among staff.
  • 2. Consider icebreakers, games, or activities to make it easier for staff to get to know each other.
  • 3. Rotate employees through different stations and responsibilities.

And getting back to “flexibility,” 7shifts suggested three more moves:

  • 1. Give employees their schedule as far in advance as possible.
  • 2. Actively promote and support work-life balance initiatives within the business.
  • 3. Get rid of “Clopens.” So no more close-to-opening shifts. And also, prioritize giving workers consecutive days off.

Why are people leaving?

7shifts’ data found 66 percent of respondents quit a restaurant job at some point, with a quarter of them having done so more than once. “Poor management” was cited by nearly half of all employees who did so. That was as common as low pay, which took the lead spot at 50 percent.

Worth considering is 58 percent of employees who left their jobs said they did so to work in another restaurant.

Why did workers quit?

  • Low pay: 50.54 percent
  • Difficult managers: 46.07 percent
  • Life circumstances: 34.34 percent
  • Lack of opportunities for growth: 24.55 percent
  • Not enough shifts: 21.16 percent
  • Lack of recognition or feedback: 15.96 percent
  • Career change: 13.78 percent
  • Don’t get along with coworkers: 12.70 percent
  • Difficult commute: 11.37 percent
  • Physical demands: 9.92 percent

“It’s essential to recognize that many restaurant workers balance school commitments like high school or college,” the company said. “Seasonal breaks, internships, and fluctuating class and club schedules can significantly impact their availability for work. While efforts can be made to accommodate everyone, flexibility has its limits. However, when adjustments can be made, it often leads to increased employee satisfaction.”

Although flexible schedules and work-life balance are carrots for recruitment, structure helps, too. Irregular hours can drive employees to other options simply because they need enough work to support themselves.

Three 7shifts ideas:

  • 1. Collect feedback directly from employees about their shifts and overall experience.
  • 2. Look for patterns in turnover to identify root causes.
  • 3. Keep communication lines wide open between team members and leaders with regular meetings and individual conversations.

In the next edition, we’ll break down the power of feedback, and the evolution of benefits and training for a changing industry.

Employee Management, Story