Three reasons restaurant owners can’t sleep (and three cures)

Owners of quick service restaurants, fast casual chains, and casual dining concepts all have one thing in common: a more challenging business environment than ever. With more competition, fewer workers and continued competitive expansion, the situation is enough to keep any restauranteur awake at night. There are, however, a few basic steps that you can take to cure your stress-induced insomnia and improve your odds of success.

Cure #1: Boost sales from unexpected places

The closest thing to a cure-all for business ills is more business. Increasingly, you’ll find your best prospects for additional business sitting in two very different places.

The first is right in front of you, at your tables. Existing customers represent your best opportunity for more business, if you keep them coming back. Research shows that 86% of restaurant patrons will return if they have a good (read: personalized) experience. This should begin with a friendly greeting from your staff and continue throughout the visit, reinforced by everything from your customized napkins to the special, offers made right at the table. While personalization may seem like a lot of work, it doesn’t have to be labor-intensive or involve expensive promotional products. For instance, new, easy-to-use online tools let you customize messages that go right on your tabletop napkin dispensers.

The second most promising place to find new customers could be, well, anywhere – that is, anywhere people are online and on social media. In fact, in the fast-casual segment, 52% of customers get their information about restaurants primarily from social media. Here again, you don’t have to be an employee digital wizard or social media consultant to get the message out online. Just check with your suppliers to see who’s also supplying free social media tools for restaurants – the best of which not only create optimized images and messages for you, but also let you post them directly to your favorite social platforms.

Cure #2: Create a culture that attracts, engages and retains workers

Bringing in more business will, of course, require more service. More hands. More workers. Unfortunately, the restaurant labor shortage shows no signs of letting up, and 59% of operators point to it as their biggest challenge.

Pay levels are definitely an issue in a tight labor market, but pay is not the only hurdle to clear. Even a competitive hourly rate won’t keep your workers happy, productive and on the job unless it is part of an overall organizational culture that respects and nurtures the whole employee. Keys to an employee-boosting culture include:

Flexibility and consistency
Some two-thirds of service employees are millennials (or younger); they lead lives that go many directions and require a high-level of flexibility. Restaurants that only schedule according to their own needs are unlikely to work with these fluid lifestyles, nor retain the young people leading them. It’s time to use that fancy scheduling software to meet your mutual needs for flexible hours – and within that flexibility, offer welcome consistency.

On-going training
It’s simple: an untrained employee is a lost employee – confused, frustrated, even embarrassed, and ultimately unsatisfied. It’s critical that you either create your own training programs or adapt one of the online or mobile training modules available from third parties. Keep them simple enough that they can be used to train all workers, even those who are seasonal. Then keep on training, especially on food safety with periodic updates and encouragements for the entire staff. Also, be sure to take advantage of training tools that not only inform but also engage employees, such as with the many “gamified” approaches, from device-centered training modules to simple employee-learning competitions.

Constant communication
In an industry with astronomical employee turnover rates, it’s easy to start viewing workers as commodities. But the employer-employee relationship must remain exactly that, a relationship, if it is to succeed. Any human-to-human relationship lives or dies on the lifeblood of communication, and employers are wise to communicate regularly, and in very human terms.

Have managers personally check-in with and update employees. Consider an employee newsletter and solicit employee content or feature employees. Hold periodic staff meals, to literally nourish the relationships between you and your employees, and among the workers themselves.

Visible rewards
Your most valuable employees – the ones that excel at customer service, upsell like there’s no tomorrow, and help create a positive work environment – are the ones who should, in turn, feel most valued. Financial rewards are always appreciated but are also somewhat expected by high-performers. According to research from McKinsey, pay isn’t even the top employee motivator – it’s recognition. So, reward your employees, make the rewards known, and you’ll make them truly happy that they work for you.

Cure #3: Keep your business healthy by keeping your customers healthy

All of that revenue boosting and employee nurturing could go to waste, however, if you don’t also concentrate on the growing challenge of food safety.

A major university study showed that a single incident of food poisoning at a fast food restaurant, where just five people get sick (but no one is hospitalized and there are no legal actions) costs $4,000, while a major incident, where a food borne illness impacts 250 people, can cost up to $2.5 million. Compare that to the $15 per-employee cost of safety training (per the National Restaurant Association), and the ROI of teaching proper handwashing and food handling becomes dramatically self-evident.

In other words, effective, comprehensive employee training will not only slow the hiring-rehiring merry-go-round, it will also reduce safety related risks to the reputation, and even survival, of your restaurant business.

Do the challenges of running a restaurant keep you awake at night? Then try the three “cures” above and sleep easy.

Food Newsfeed: What keeps restaurant owners up at night
Tork USA: Ad-a-Glance
QSR Magazine: 5 tips to reduce employee turnover in your restaurant
Michelin Guide: Restaurant employee turnover
Decision Logic: Employee Turnover Costs
Toast: Restaurant Gamification
Toast: How to communicate effectively in your restaurant
John Hopkins University: Foodborne illness could cost a restaurant millions