Fast casual restaurants are pushing the food industry toward a revolution, one that’s built on better-sourced ingredients, sustainable supply chains and greater menu variety. But an equally sizable shift is happening behind the scenes, as more quick-service and fast casual restaurants level up their recruitment and retention efforts to stay competitive in the talent wars.
"Recruiting and marketing are a lot alike," says Kristine Sexter, founder of WorkWise Production and a talent management consultant for hospitality organizations. "Restaurant employees have a lot of options in foodservice, and they can also cross industries [within foodservice] seamlessly. So what are you, as an executive or an operator, doing to attract their attention?" she asks. "Today’s hopeful employees want to know how you’ll support them."
Take a page from restaurant chains large and small that are paving the way in next-level talent management.
In 2014, Starbucks announced a partnership with Arizona State University’s online program, in which the corporation would provide scholarships and need-based financial aid to employees who work an average of at least 20 hours a week. The program has since been expanded, and Starbucks expects to help 25,000 people graduate by 2025.
"The Starbucks of the world—those big corporate players—can extend benefits to part-time employees that have traditionally been reserved for full-time workers inside those classic office settings," Sexter says.
Starbucks isn’t the only company helping employees further their education, and it wasn’t the first: McDonald’s has a 56-year history of investing in employee development. According to Business Insider, students attending the restaurant’s U.S. Hamburger University campus can earn up to 23 credits toward their Hamburgerology degree or an associate or bachelor’s degree. More than 1,500 U.S. colleges and universities accept credits from the program.
And at Taco Bell, employees can earn up to $5,250 in annual tuition assistance, as well as time with education coaches and admissions advisers.
Education is a particularly powerful recruitment tool with millennials, Sexter says. "Millennial workers are so much more savvy when it comes to things that are non-tangible," she says. "They’re not always motivated by money and wealth, but by choice and by acquiring skills."
In addition to larger efforts like providing education assistance, consider the smaller, regular perks that move the needle on engagement and retention, suggests Datassential Senior Project Director Ann Golladay. "A benefit doesn’t have to carry a big price tag to have a real impact," she says. It does have to truly stand out from the crowd and align with the brand, though. And it needs to be relevant to staff’s interests and needs.
Golladay offers a couple of examples: New York City-based chain Luke’s Lobster started a zine to showcase the artistic work of its employees. And Honeygrow, a stir-fry-focused fast casual chain launched in Philadelphia, attracts tech-savvy candidates with the promise of incorporating virtual reality into training.
"There are plenty of smaller perks that can attract employees without breaking the company bank," says Sexter. "Consider a paid day off, free meals or organized carpooling to make it easier to get to work."
Work environments that employees can embrace and cherish are good for individual restaurants—and good for the industry too, pushing foodservice into the “career path” category in the minds of workers nationwide, rather than a quick, temporary way to make money. "The industry has struggled with getting people to think of it as a viable career path since the beginning," Sexter says. Robust employee benefits can be one way to shift that perception.
Sexter points to a regional client of hers, a 30-unit barbecue restaurant that stretches across multiple states. Each year, the owner gives his employees time to volunteer on his dime. "The team works for Habitat for Humanity," Sexter explains. "Millennials want a big-picture contribution." And employees who are treated well on the job are more likely to stay with the company and treat customers and co-workers well.