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FI Webinar Recap: Solving Labor Shortages in the Food Industry

Labor shortages have slowed the post-pandemic foodservice renaissance. Restaurants ranging from fine dining to quick serve are looking at approaches to combat the dearth of workers.

DMA and The Food Institute brought together four industry leaders to discuss tactics to bring in employees. Panelists included Gail Sharps Myers of Denny’s, Lewis Rudd of Ezell’s Famous Chicken and Kelli Valade of Black Box Intelligence. Gerry Fernandez of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA) moderated the discussion. Susannah Sellers-Ryan offered the supplier perspective from PepsiCo’s Dig In program to partner with Black restaurant owners.

Black Box’s Valade opened with observations about the current state of the industry. She said that customers know that restaurants are short-staffed but they don’t care. “People expect to be treated well now that they are back. They are not forgiving,” she said. Valade shared a quote from Brene Brown, “Everyone wants to know why customer service has gone to hell in a handbasket. I want to know why customer behavior has gone to hell in a handbasket.”

The main drivers keeping employees away are:

  • 57%: Higher pay through unemployment
  • 20%: Better quality of life in other industries
  • 14%: Higher pay in other industries

Hire Them Young

Myers and Rudd addressed the challenges. Both said that the inability to recruit at the high school level has hurt. Myers said that many Denny’s franchisees had previously created a relationship with high schools near the restaurants and shared success stories of high school students who got a job at Denny’s and stayed. Rudd said that he has always visited high schools to share his story of starting as a teenager at a chicken restaurant in Texas, and now owning 12 stores with 325 employees, including a location on the Microsoft campus.

Rudd has also spoken at local penitentiaries. He said, “people change and you need to be open to allowing people an opportunity to better their lives.”

Many Denny’s franchisees do on-the-spot hiring, bringing people in before a background check is completed. They go through two or three days of training and are given customer-facing jobs after passing the background check.

Denny’s also informs potential employees of its supplier diversity program, among the most respected in the industry. The theme is “I belong. You belong. We belong here together.”

Fernandez noted that the restaurant industry “teaches people how to work” and that employees will learn invaluable life skills. He believes that companies must tell their stories more effectively through social media, even assigning somebody as an “Instagram captain.” All agreed that grass roots efforts are the way to overcome the labor shortage.

Editor’s Note: PepsiCo has committed $50 million over five years to help Black restaurateurs succeed. It is advising restaurateurs on how to set up successful delivery operations and use marketing tools to make their presence known.

Ron Tanner, currently a senior advisor for The Food Institute, has observed and reported on the food industry for more than four decades, including 33 years with the Specialty Food Association. He has also presented hundreds of educational programs about the industry.