Key to Foodservice Success: Find and Retain Top-Notch Staff

TEAM SPIRIT: (left to right): Robert Bechard, Samantha Ravenda, Adam Colquhoun, John Petcoff, Tyler Scherer, Raven Danylkiw and Matthew Middleton

One of the keys to success in foodservice is finding and retaining top-notch staff

When Dave Norris bought his east-end Toronto pub, Busters by the Bluffs, four years ago, he had no prior experience in the foodservice industry. He was eager to run a successful business, but his number-1 problem was finding and keeping good staff. There was high turnover, and he knew it was hurting his bottom line. “To be successful in this business, you have to retain your staff,” he says, noting this is especially important at a neighbourhood pub like his, where regular customers like to see the same friendly staff week after week.

Four years later, Norris’s sales are up 30 per cent, and he’s certain it’s partly due to staffing improvements. He’s had very little turnover lately — most of his current employees have been there for well over a year, and he’s thrilled with all of them.

So, how did he turn things around? Interestingly, Norris began focusing less on hiring people with impressive résumés and more on hiring people with enthusiasm, a positive attitude and a willingness to work hard. “The biggest thing I would recommend is taking a chance on someone,” he says, explaining that some of his best employees didn’t have tons of experience but were enthusiastic, honest and extremely responsible. To keep employees happy and engaged, he gives each of them management responsibilities rather than micromanaging them, has regular staff meetings where he listens to concerns and promptly addresses issues and pays above minimum wage. Although it’s more expensive at the outset, Norris has learned his approach is important, because it keeps employees happy and makes them feel respected. Happy employees stay longer, and Norris believes lower staff turnover boosts his business’s profit margin infinitely more than keeping staff wages to the minimum.

Adam Colquhoun, owner/operator of Toronto’s Oyster Boy, agrees respect is key. “I treat my staff like co-workers. I’m strict, but I’m fair.” In turn, his employees are friends, which results in a fun working atmosphere. And, he’s flexible in terms of scheduling, too, understanding his employees have other interests. “It might be going to school or acting or making jewellery,” he explains. “So we always make room on the schedule for their other activities.” As a result, he has no problem retaining workers. “My staff never leaves,” he laughs. As someone who “grew up in the restaurant business,” starting out as a dishwasher then moving up the restaurant ranks, Colquhoun encountered countless owners over the years who were downright mean to their employees. “I said to myself, when I’m an owner, I will never treat people that way.”

Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the Toronto-based Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA), says attitudes like those of Colqhoun and Norris — treating employees with respect, being flexible, paying adequately and offering a fun, collegial atmosphere — are going to become increasingly important as the Canadian economy improves and labour becomes more of an issue.

“During the recession, the labour market kind of loosened across the country,” says Whyte.“But now, as the economy starts to pick up, the labour shortage is returning quickly in certain pockets across the country.  It’s still not [at pre-recession levels], but it is getting worse in certain pockets. We’re starting to approach 2000 and 2008 levels again in Northern Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan and even in some areas of B.C. It’s starting to come,” says Whyte. He adds that labour has always been tight in remote communities, regardless of the state of the economy. “There’s always been high demand for late-night QSRs in remote communities, for example.”

The trick is finding the right candidates. The Internet seems to be one of the main recruitment tools nowadays, with many companies also using social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to get the word out about job openings. Whyte points to “national hiring days” as another way large companies are getting creative to find top-notch staff.

McDonald’s, for instance, had its first National Hiring Day April 19 with the goal of hiring 4,000 new employees across Canada. On the designated day, potential applicants were encouraged to drop in at participating McDonald’s restaurants, learn about local opportunities, then apply and possibly get an on the- spot interview with the local team. Meanwhile, an online live chat via Twitter gave potential candidates an outlet to ask the McDonald’s human resources team questions about working at the chain. Overall, results were better than expected, with McDonald’s Canada hiring nearly 5,000 new staff from a field of 33,000 applicants. “We were thrilled,” says Louis Payette, national media relations manager for McDonald’s Canada.

These days, the company must work harder to recruit and retain good staff. “Retention is a huge consideration,” Payette says. Over the past few years, McDonald’s has been renovating its restaurants to give them a more modern look, and this has contributed to making the chain a more desirable place to work. “Employees love working in our new restaurants,” the media relations manager explains.

And, it doesn’t hurt that McDonald’s boasts flexible shifts, competitive compensation and growth opportunities to attract the younger generation. Although there is some age diversity among McDonald’s staff, young people still comprise the bulk of employees. “Seventy per cent of our employees are 24 and younger,” explains Payette. “We know we are a lot of people’s first job, and that is a responsibility we take seriously.”

That trend is prevalent across the sector. Look no further than the CRFA’s recent public opinion poll that shows 22 per cent of Canadians surveyed said their first job was in the foodservice industry. It’s a stat that hasn’t gone unnoticed as media continually scrutinize the work ethic of today’s youth, with stereotypes, including a low threshold for boredom, a need for constant praise and a strong desire for a fun, stimulating work environment. “Also, more of them are staying home longer and not working,” says the CRFA’s Whyte. “They’re demanding more flexibility from employers, and you have to develop strategies to deal with this new reality … you have to treat your employees like gold.”

But, Andrew Martin, vice-president of Human Resources at the Vancouver-based casual-dining chain Joey Restaurants, isn’t convinced today’s youth are any different than the youth of yesteryear. “Every generation looks at the generation before and says, what’s with those people?” he laughs. “At the core of it all, people’s needs and desires have always been similar. Everybody wants to come to work and feel good about it. They want a fun place to work, an enjoyable place. They want to have an impact. They want to be able to see that they’re growing and learning.”

To that end, Joey makes a point of fostering a fun environment and helping employees with personal career growth. The company has a policy of promoting from within as much as possible. “If good people aren’t seeing growth opportunities, they’re going to leave,” says Martin.

Luckily, the chain hasn’t yet been hit hard with labour shortages as the economy has improved, “with the exception of Alberta — Alberta’s just an economic anomaly. There’s so much money to be made in the oil sands that it sucks everybody from everything.” Still, they work extremely hard at Joey to find and retain good staff.

Being proactive about staffing has always been a high priority for the chain. Martin acknowledges the Internet can be a good source for recruiting but believes if you take the easy route — simply posting an ad online and hoping good people apply — then you’ll get the same people who are applying for every other job. To get really high-quality staff, you have to use other methods, too, says Martin. “There’s nothing better than recruiting face to face; there’s nothing better than recruiting through people you already know.” This may mean getting some of your best staff to recruit their friends to work for you or spotting someone who gave you excellent service elsewhere — even outside the restaurant industry — and asking if they’d be interested in working at your restaurant. “[It could be] a great person working in a convenience store, for instance, someone who provided great customer service, gave you that extra smile — you can’t see that in the answer to an ad.”


Government-set minimum wages will always be a hot-button issue in foodservice. Battling the government on minimum wage hikes has been on the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association’s (CRFA) agenda for years. “Wages are always an issue, because there’s a tight profit margin in this industry,” says Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the organization. “But now, with the shortage of labour, you do have to pay adequately to hold on to staff. Part of it is not just the starting wage, but also quickly moving them up as they get more experience — especially around the oil fields [of Alberta].”

It’s why Adam Colquhoun, owner/operator of Toronto’s Oyster Boy, along with countless operators, says a different set of standards should be set for the restaurant industry when it comes to wages and tips. Minimum wage increases “mess everyone up in this business, especially small operators like me,” he explains. It’s not that he doesn’t want to pay staff adequately; it’s just that with the tipping system, wages end up out of whack. “I agree with [minimum wage hikes] if it’s people working for a Taco Bell or KFC,” he explains. But with many of his front-house staff averaging $200 in tips a night, it sets up an unfair system of compensation, where the kitchen workers don’t take home nearly as much money as the wait staff. Back-of-house workers aren’t getting paid what they’re worth, because the restaurant simply can’t afford it. “For my front-house workers [who make tips], they should be making a much lower hourly wage; then I could pay my kitchen people a lot more.”


When a labour shortage hits, and workers are scarce, one option is recruiting from abroad through the Canadian government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

“As the shortage of labour comes, we’ve got to look at a menu of strategies,” says Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (CRFA). While some Canadians oppose this system, because they think foreign workers are taking jobs away from Canadians, Whyte contends these workers are being used in areas where there aren’t enough city natives to fill the gap.

“The government has really helped in making improvements to the program,” says Whyte, who’d like to see some system fine tuning. For instance, as the labour market improved during the recession, the government offered one-year work permits instead of two-year permits. “The problem is, now that the economy is warming up, they’re processing twice as much paperwork, because work permits have to be renewed. So we’re going to ask the minister to move back to the two-year permits,” says Whyte.“The other thing is, because the government sets the rate for foreign workers, sometimes they’re estimating the average rate for jobs in that region, and in some pockets of the country the wages are overestimated. That means in some areas of the country, the foreign workers are being paid 25 per cent more than Canadian co-workers. And, that can cause a problem, so we’re working with the government to provide accurate wage data to correct that situation.”

To make it easier for operators to find reliable and trustworthy foreign recruiting agencies, the CRFA has deemed two specific foreign recruiters as “CRFA-approved.” And, although that helps, Andrew Martin, vice-president of Human Resources for the Vancouver-based Joey Restaurants, has begun experimenting with the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, hiring a few workers to try out different agencies. Joey’s HR department isn’t planning to use the program a lot, but management is keeping its options open. “If things go crazy in Alberta, we want to make sure we’re ahead of the curve. So we have set up relationships with potential organizations that can support us,” explains Martin. “If you don’t do your due diligence in advance and you have to scramble, there’s a lot of unscrupulous groups out there that will take advantage, and we don’t want to end up in a human-trafficking ring.”

In fact, there have been some allegations of mistreatment of foreign workers in B.C., where a class-action suit representing approximately 50 members of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program was filed against Denny’s Restaurants earlier this year. According to a statement by the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada government department, “[There’s] no indications of a pattern of abuse by foodservice employers.”

The government believes the system is working well but is continually monitoring and amending it, introducing a series of amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations, to further protect temporary foreign workers. “The amendments include a more rigorous assessment of the genuineness of the job offer and a two-year prohibition from hiring temporary foreign workers for employers who fail to meet their commitments to workers with respect to wages, working conditions and occupation,” reads the statement. “These regulatory changes complement current efforts by various provincial governments to protect temporary foreign workers. Better oversight minimizes exploitation and abuse and helps ensure temporary foreign workers come to genuine jobs to work for employers that are compliant with the requirements of the program.

photo by Margaret Mulligan

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