Retaining Restaurant Employees During the Pandemic: 5 Effective Ways to Reduce Turnover

The pandemic has brought a talent crisis to the restaurant industry, with a recent survey showing that more than 55% of hiring managers had difficulty sourcing hourly workers, while about 45% expressed difficulty scheduling interviews (1,2). The pool of younger workers in the industry is also expected to drop sharply in the next five to ten years (3), and workers are also leaving the restaurant industry for good in search of “more stable, reliable jobs” (4).

With most restaurant operators in a tighter bind to find new talent, high employee turnover has come at a greater cost. Retaining employees during the pandemic has become a critical factor in ensuring your restaurant’s success long term.

Here we suggest five operators can reduce employee turnover.

Identify stressors and eliminate them.

Detecting why your employees leave and addressing them before that happens is a powerful strategy for employee retention. According to Theresa Navarra from Upserve, a restaurant POS and management software company based in Providence, RI, this is especially true for restaurant industry workers who face a high degree of stress every day (5). “For employees that leave or are unhappy, a common complaint is that they feel as if no one is in their corner and they receive minimal support,” said Navarra.

One such stressor that is highly relevant in 2021 is safety concerns around COVID-19. “Employees are considering their personal safety as a priority these days,” said Danny Klein from QSR Magazine (6). Restauranteurs should consider the following: Does the restaurant have low-contact options, including delivery, drive-thru, and curbside pickup? Is there proper enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing? Temperature checks and counter shields for increased safety? These are all factors that impact your employee’s safety and can even be a cause for high employee turnover (6).

Other workplace stressors could include lack of flexible scheduling, conflicts between coworkers, or lack of transparency and communication. “As an owner or manager, identifying the stressors in your restaurant is the first step to working to eliminating them (or at least making them more manageable),” said Navarra (6). “Talk to your staff regularly about their pain points and ask them how you can help.”

Engage Your Employees

There are many benefits to having engaged employees. One Gallup poll found that team members with higher engagement levels generally produced better outcomes, treated customers better and attracted new ones, and were even more likely to remain with their organization than those who were less engaged (7). Another poll showed that “over half of disengaged employees will look for another job, and almost three-fourths will want to quit” (8).

Consider having your employees be a regular part of the business’ decision-making process to increase employee engagement. These decisions do not have to be big ones—they can be as small as choosing uniform styles, weighing in their opinions on new policies, or even allowing them to choose the background music. Allowing your employees to be a part of the business decision-making process has many advantages, and according to one Harvard Business School article, team decision-making positively impacts employee engagement and enables collaboration and communication (9). It also makes employees feel heard and holds them accountable for their decisions, which also boosts their motivation and loyalty. These sentiments, when all combined, go a long way to making sure that your employees stay with you and your business.


These are uncertain times, and restaurant workers, like everyone else, don’t want to be kept in the dark. “Understandably, restaurant workers are scared,” said Nick Powills, Chief Brand Strategist for No Limit Agency, based in Chicago (10). “Leaders need to alleviate that fear while being transparent about the challenges facing their business.”

While transparency has always been a cornerstone for building and maintaining great workplace culture, transparency has without a doubt become a top priority in this pandemic. Employees who are disgruntled by poor management are likely to leave their jobs, including their top talents, and that’s why operators must communicate openly with their staff. For example, discuss with your employees and new policies or changes in the business before they happen; let employees know when you’re expecting a busy week, so they can be prepared for what’s to come. Operators can also set up text and email threads or even intranet hubs with regular updates about the business and resources for employees who need help (10). According to Powills, these small steps “will advance idea generation and empower teams to work proactively, rather than defensively, to face their challenges” (10).

Raise Your Value

Consider the value your business gives to its employees. For employees, a good job is one where their needs are met and are catered to. A great one is one that gives them ways to develop as better workers and versions of themselves, “one they can’t get anywhere else” (11).

Employee retention increases when your business’s value increases. Giving new opportunities to your team members and supporting their professional growth will increase this value and increase the likelihood of your best talents sticking with you long term. For example, surveyed 1,000 job candidates and found that 29% of the interviewees prioritized learning and growth opportunities, while salary came at 23 percent and location at 20 percent (12).

According to Vivian Wang from QSR Magazine, operators who wish to retain employees long-term should “think carefully about growth opportunities even if candidates are applying for an entry-level, minimum-wage job, and building career progression into all roles” (13). “This is exactly how Ricky Girardi, previously director of HR and Training at a Chick-fil-A franchise, approached it,” Wang said. He helped reduce employee turnover from almost 200 percent to less than 50 percent in just 16 months by recruiting more thoughtfully and building an environment that promoted employee retention (13). “This involved him bringing in good talent even if they had low availability, being open to hiring younger staff that they could cultivate into long-term employees, and giving existing team members plenty of opportunities to take on more responsibility.”

The second-best strategy to increase your business’s value and reduce employee turnover, not surprisingly, is increasing wages. For example, Upserve’s data team pulled the numbers from their 10,000+ customer database and found that employee turnover was lowest in states with a higher minimum wage (14). In one of their articles, “8 Ways to Reduce Staff Turnover in the Restaurant Industry,” Stephanie Resendes, Upserve’s Content Marketing Coordinator, argues that a raise is cheaper than financing restaurant turnover in the long term.

Good workplace culture

Finally, create a positive workplace culture. Research shows that having your team composed of staff whose personality and values align with that of the business are happier and more productive (16). It is this link between employee happiness, engagement, and productivity that lowers turnover and produces profit, and there are many additional benefits to a well-established workplace culture that help cultivate a unique restaurant identity, engage employees and attract customers (17). You can read more about what work culture is and how you can make a great one in our previous blog article here (17).

The Takeaway

Your employees are one of your business’s greatest assets. They form the foundation of your brand and contribute much more than their hours by dedicating their abilities, knowledge, and experience to the business. While retaining employees takes effort and hard work, it is important to recognize that it is far easier and costs less to retain an employee than hiring and training a recruit. Consider ways to increase your business’s value to your employees and cultivate a positive workplace culture that supports their well-being and growth. Not only will you see an impact in lowering turnover rates, but you’ll also most likely find your business reaping profits when your workers are more engaged and productive.



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