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Innovating around the labor shortage: A page from the coronavirus playbook  

Jul 1, 2021 | Reopening 2021, Restaurant Reopening Guide

The pandemic forced the hospitality industry to adapt and innovate. Some changes were temporary, but others are now permanent fixtures in a business environment that is forcing operators to stay as lean as they can. In March, the Washington Hospitality Association hosted a virtual roundtable (available on our members only Facebook page) to discuss innovative practices that Washington businesses were using to thrive during the pandemic. Months later, the hospitality industry faces new challenges in a worldwide labor shortage. We caught up with Adam Hegsted, owner of the Eat Good Group and one of the participants of the roundtable, to ask him how his restaurants are combatting the shortage.  

Many of the innovations hospitality businesses implemented during the pandemic aimed to get more done with less. Employees weren’t able to come into work and some restaurateurs played every role in the restaurant as they scrambled to meet takeout order demand. Hegsted says that’s one thing that hasn’t changed. There are a lot of opportunities out there and workers are taking them, leaving his restaurants to compete for workers with other formidable offers in and outside of the industry. Intuitively, his restaurants, located mostly between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, raised wages and offered larger signing bonuses. They were already providing full benefits to employees.  

 But raising wages and offering bonuses has not been enough for many who have already moved on to a new role or industry. In that regard, cultivating the relationship between employees and employers has been one of the most effective retention tools for Hegsted. 

 “We have the advantage of being able to offer great career opportunities as we grow, we almost always move employees up to open positions,” Hegsted said.  

 Hiring from within is a great way to encourage an employee to stay with your business. We learned from the pandemic that employees with a long tenure are more likely to stick around through tough times. Indeed, Hegsted says most of the long-time employees returned after shutdowns.   

 Another aspect of the current labor shortage that may remind you of the pandemic is the disruption of the global supply chain. The disruption has left businesses short on necessary items from food to plastics. Hegsted, who started streamlining his restaurant’s distribution lines early in the pandemic, was prepared. With multiple units, they are doing their own buying and distributing as much as they can. They also source locally to avoid delays stemming from the shortage of truck drivers and workers in industrial sectors.  

 There are benefits to streamlining operations inside of your business as well. Whether you run a restaurant that scaled its menu back to adapt to a delivery-intensive model, or a hotel that is washing linens by request only, the efficiency measures many adopted during the pandemic are increasingly useful. Consumer habits have shifted to expect — or at least accept — the permanency of pandemic-era changes to operations. Doordash, for instance, continues to offer no-contact delivery. 

 The labor shortage will not be solved overnight, but hospitality businesses are no strangers to change. Operators should not be afraid to try new strategies — some are even trying referral programs that reward their customers for recommending applicants. Flexibility in your hiring criteria, whether you begin hiring teenagers, or offer more part-time positions, will help attract potential employees and help you keep the ones you have. Meeting your prospect’s needs, together with a lean, efficient business model can go a long way to keep your business thriving.