The Battle for Labor is HERE!

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Have you been hitting the snooze button on current events? If so, you may have missed all the posts and articles saying that the war for talent is coming.

It’s time for you to get together your battle plan—the battle for labor is upon us now! You must gather your team and make a plan that will get you and your brand through these turbulent times. Without a plan, many operators won’t survive an attack from the archenemy that lurks within us all: denial.

If you’ve ever spoken or thought these famous last words, your odds of survival are slim: “It won’t happen to me.” Aww, thou doth protest too much—it’s happening whether you want to admit it or not. Denial is a powerful drug because it keeps us stuck where we are. It’s easy to look away and not act.

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Failing to act is like drifting along in a canoe on a peaceful river without a care in the world. That is, until you hear the huge waterfall you’re about to go over and you paddle like hell at the very last minute to save your ass (if you can).

Awareness precedes choice, and choice precedes change. You need to be aware of what’s going on around you to make better choices that impact your future in a positive way. The biggest advantage that independent restaurants and bars have is their ability to take immediate action and change quickly. There’s a battle for labor outside your door—what are you prepared to do about it?

It’s time to formulate a battle plan to get you through these troubled labor times!

The 4-part Labor Battle Plan

1. Take a hard look at your menu.

This one might be a tough one for you, particularly if you’re the chef. With labor tight, you’re going to need to make a mindset shift from what’s ego driven and what’s profit driven. Being a chef myself, this line can become blurry at times. Times have changed, and we must adapt if we want to succeed in the new economy.

I sat in on a meeting with a restaurant team the other day, when the topic of looking harder at the menu (and possibly taking off some items) came up. The chef became physically agitated: deep breaths, moving around in his chair, eyes down, and writing frantically on his notepad. While he didn’t verbally say it, his body language let everyone in the room know he was pissed off! I had to give the owner a little coaching afterwards on how he could better approach the chef on the topic if he wanted to get him on board with the idea.

Read this: How to Amp Up Your Menu

Hard decisions are just that: hard. Looking at your menu can induce a lot of mixed feelings. However, with the labor market being what it is, you must do it. Even if you don’t change anything, you need to take it apart and see where there are opportunities. Yes, the common saying is, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” In this situation, I’m going to say, “Break it and make it better.”

Here’s where to start:

Purchasing: What can you eliminate or buy that will help production? I know you love to make your dressings or bitters from scratch, but do you really need to? Could you buy a base product and just make an adjustment to it? I know a chef who recently started buying a pre-made sous vide pork belly. After he added some red chili to it, you couldn’t tell he didn’t make it from scratch in his kitchen.

Production: On the other side, I had a chef who was just using jackfruit for a vegetarian taco. Taco sales never took off and he was throwing away lots of product, wasting prep time for something that didn’t contribute to the sales mix. Production hours need to be looked at under a careful eye of scrutiny. If the menu item doesn’t have impact on sales (profit driven), then its only purpose is for self-promotion (ego driven).

2. How can you train better?

Sometimes we’re the victim of our own competence. You’ve spent years honing your craft and it has gotten you to where you are now. It’s easy to forget that the journey was filled with mistakes, lessons, and character-building moments. We look at those moments in the past and experience a little short-term amnesia, forgetting that when we first started we kinda sucked! You can argue that you have “natural talent” but talent without highly developed skills won’t get you very far.

Michael Jordan has raw talent. It was his discipline to work harder than anyone else that elevated him to legendary status. Could you become the best at what you do? Seriously, could you become the best? If you said no, I’ll give you a second to change your answer. Could you become the best? Yes.

The real question to ask is, are you willing to train until you’re the best? Ninety-five percent of people won’t take on that challenge. I’m betting that you are in the five percent who will, because here you are reading this and pondering the possibilities.

Read this: 9 Behaviors You can Change to Become a More Effective Leader

You need to start taking your training more seriously. If you’re like most restaurant and bar operators, you dabble in training. I’m not saying you don’t train at all, I’m saying you just do most of your training on the front end of the hiring process. That’s a lot like going to the gym for one week and then declaring that you’re in shape and don’t need to return.

Why should you elevate your training in your restaurant or bar? Here are a few persuasive arguments:

  • Better training systems reduce errors and waste. People make mistakes when they’re not certain about a task. Instead of asking for help or clarification, they just wing it.
  • Better training gives you a competitive edge. Remember that 95% who don’t train to be the best? Well, by out-training every other restaurant or bar in your market you become known for the high training standards you have. People like to be a part of something exclusive. Why do you think it’s harder to get into Harvard over your local community college?
  • Better training reduces stress. Yes, the more competent and efficient your team is, the less stress will creep its way up to you! Training gives the team confidence that they’re ready for any situation.

3. How can you recruit better talent?

You might have noticed that the flow of steady applications coming into your establishment has slowed down quite a bit. In some markets, it’s more like a drought! The days of sitting back and waiting for good people to come asking for a job are fading away.

You can’t afford to wait—you now must actively search for qualified talent. Recruiting is the key. Now, if you say that you put up help wanted ads on the internet or social media all the time, let’s be clear: posting ads is passive. Recruiting is active! It’s time you take the fight to where the talent is.

You must build a better mouse trap to catch better mice. That means culture is crucial. Your culture is the light that attracts people to your brand, whether you realize it or not. If you don’t spend time marketing and telling others why your restaurant or bar is different, don’t expect top performers to come running. Sadly, many restaurants and bars have a nasty reputation for treating their staff poorly. You must reverse this stigma by showing why you are not like the other 95 percent.

Does your culture promote the core values of the brand? Does it celebrate team members for their accomplishments? Do you offer a growth plan so your team feels there’s something to strive toward? Do you give back to the community or support a worthy cause?

Read this: Your Work Family: The Key to Your Legacy (Updated with video!)

The hiring market has shifted quite a bit from just 10 years ago. Today’s staff want to work for a brand they believe in and trust. Look at where they shop and the brands they support: Whole Foods is expensive compared to Kroger’s; the iPhone is more expensive than most other smartphones in the market. Yet both have loyal followers who won’t leave those brands for a few bucks. Those big brands have a culture that resonates with their market. You need to cultivate a culture that speaks to your potential employees!

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but the quality of people working in your restaurant is a direct reflection of the culture you’ve created.

4. Know your outcome.

If you were dropped off in the middle of the woods, hundreds of miles from civilization (I mean the real wilderness), could you make it back without a compass and a map? The odds aren’t great that you would. So why do restaurants and bars operate without a clear plan to get to the profits they want?

When you’re popular, it’s easy to be seduced by the seemingly endless flow of cash that pours into your bank account. Then another concept opens down the street and you feel a little bite into your market share. More competition opens their doors and the bites start getting bigger. Now, you’re in the fight of your life trying to get back to the “good old days” when you were flush with cash. It’s time to wake up: those old days would have remained good had you come up with a clear and concise plan before competitors came onto the scene.

You couldn’t make it back from the wilderness without a compass and a map. You can’t sustain long-term business success without a comprehensive plan. That means embracing something that many people hate: a budget!

First, you need to set some goals (or outcomes) for what you want to do with your business. This becomes your map. You’re going to need four goals for your map: yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily. And yes, you need all four. Having just one is like setting that same New Year’s Resolution you toss out every year. How’s that working for you?

Once you have some very specific and detailed goals outlined, it’s time to pull out the compass, a.k.a., your budget. Once again, break it down into yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily segments. You must use the budgets to see if you’re on the course you set with your goals. Too many go through the entire month and then review their P&L to see that they lost money. Oh shit, now what? They start making big cuts the following month to make up for it. Bad move. If you were on top of the numbers daily, you could’ve made the subtle corrections needed without getting too far off course.

You must have a weekly budget and then compare it to the actual. The trick is to look for that gap between what you said you would do and what actually happened—that’s the variance report. Variance is where the hidden profits are. You budgeted $5,000 for kitchen labor this week and the actual labor came in at $6,500. What happened? The goal of looking at variance is to see where there are opportunities to improve. Perhaps the kitchen labor was way over, due to overtime of many of the staff. That’s means you don’t have enough people hired to properly staff the kitchen without going into overtime.

Read this: Do More with Your Front Door: The Portal to the Guest Experience

Don’t look at budgets as a leash that constricts your creative flow. Think of it instead as an insurance plan to protect your business. We all need a little insurance against dark days. So, what do solid budgets have to do with the battle for labor? Two words: financial stability.

Employees today look for brands that demonstrate their capacity to be around for a while. If you’re running to the local Costco to buy product and seem to be stressed out every payday, they’ll start to lose faith in you and your business. Once that happens, turnover suddenly starts to accelerate. You win the battle for labor by making sure that your menu, your training, and your numbers are solid. Once you do that you can recruit with the confidence that you’re the employer of choice in your market.

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