Restaurant Recruiting Strategies

Restaurant recruiting is an ironic description for what’s happening in the food industry today. Despite dangling everything from signing bonuses and premium pay to free college tuition to lure workers, restaurant hiring is barely a trickle.

So difficult is it to hire workers, especially the more skilled kitchen help, that most restaurants are short-staffed, leading many to curtail hours or close one or sometimes two days a week.

“It’s no secret that the labor market is tight,” said Kelly McCulloch, Taco Bell’s Chief People Officer, announcing a mass restaurant hiring event last month. Parking lots were converted into job fairs at some 2,000 Taco Bell’s nationwide. Applicants didn’t even have to get out of their car to be interviewed.

Taco Bell is far from alone in going to almost any lengths to fill vacancies – its goal was 5,000 hires. Other chains, both big and small, are trying a variety of restaurant hiring tactics:

  • Chipotle, which is looking to bring on 20,000 new workers this year, announced it would raise pay to an average of $15 an hour by the end of June. It will also pay workers $200 for referring a new crew member and $750 for apprentices and general managers. It also broadened its free college tuition program.
  • Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and other chains, raised its minimum wage to $10 and is dividing $17 million among its 90,000 hourly employees as a bonus, yet CEO Gene Lee told analysts, “I think our greatest challenge right now is staffing…It’s staffing, trying to attract people to come to work.”
  • At the 169 location Donatos pizza chain, the company is giving away a free large pizza to everyone who just interviews for one of the 2,500 jobs the company wants to fill.
  • Last month, the upscale boutique restaurant group KNEAD Hospitality + Design tweeted a $1,000 signing bonus for joining its team.


Despite the incentives, restaurant recruiting tactics are not paying off yet, say owners and managers. Just getting workers to apply and show up for an interview can be an exercise in frustration.

Laurence Edelman, owner of Left Bank bistro in New York City, told CBS Moneywatch that out of five interviews, only one candidate showed up. The situation at Manhattan’s highly regarded ilili, is no better. Even after running multiple ads for a cook, there wasn’t a single applicant.

A Florida McDonald’s franchisee with 60 restaurants is paying $50 to anyone just for showing up for an interview.

The reasons for the restaurant hiring shortage are nearly as numerous as there are restaurateurs. However, four are the most common:

  1. While restaurants were closed for all but takeout, other businesses were aggressively hiring. They feature steady hours and many like Amazon, Walmart and the home improvement centers, pay $15 or more an hour, well above that of quick service and casual dining restaurants.
  2. Combined with the normal state unemployment benefit, the federal $300 supplemental payment is close to or even more than restaurant work pays. Stimulus checks and income tax refunds provide an additional cushion.
  3. Servers, hosts, sommeliers and others who come into direct contact with the public, as well as the back of the house staff, may be hesitant to risk their health.
  4. Some who depend on schools for child care aren’t able to return to work, while teens and younger adults, the backbone of the fast food sector, have other job options or are simply not yet ready to join the labor force.


Making a tough situation worse is that restaurant hiring is occurring simultaneously all across the country. Says Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor, "All of these factors combined are creating a perfect storm hitting restaurants.”

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