How to Hire Your First Restaurant Employees

Recruiting a staff that will help you succeed isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most important things you’ll do.
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Developing and executing a hiring strategy is key to finding the right employees for your restaurant. (Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Besides creating a winning menu, hiring the right staff is the most important aspect of opening a restaurant, said Stephen Zagor, dean of business and management programs at Institute of Culinary Education. Why? “Because you’re only as good as the people that are working with you.”

But in this market, hiring the people you really want won’t be easy, so be prepared to hustle.

“It’s very competitive out there for the best people,” said Zagor. “It’s really a challenge just to get the first group of people there who are going to be productive and represent your business well and are going to be trainable to the level you need.”

Related: NCR Silver’s Guide to Starting a Restaurant

To get help with staffing, make two key hires first, at least a month before you open: someone to run the front of house, if that’s not going to be you (in other words, a general manager or assistant manager) and a production chef to run the back of house. One or both of these people should have the experience and expertise to help with the staffing plan and maybe even the hiring. “An owner that has not been involved in the business before relies on their managers,” said Zagor.

Another option: Hire a restaurant consultant to help create the staffing plan, do the hiring and help with the training.

To find your managers (and the rest of your staff if you’re taking that on), follow the advice of two industry veterans who’ve hired or helped hire thousands of restaurant employees between them. Here’s the plan of attack that Zagor and David Kincheloe, president of National Restaurant Consultants, laid out.

Where to advertise

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Don’t limit yourself to simply displaying a ‘Now Hiring’ sign. Try posting on various social media outlets and online job boards to expand your reach. (Photo: De Repente/Shutterstock)

The first and foremost place to advertise is Craigslist, said Kincheloe. Zagor also recommended Craigslist as a starting point. Just be prepared to wade through a sea of under-qualified respondents, he noted.

Also look for local job boards that mimic Craigslist, Kincheloe advised.

Next, there’s social media. “Social media also plays a really big part in hiring,” said Kincheloe, who recently ran a successful ad campaign on Instagram. Use a stock photo or an image of your restaurant under construction. “But before you can do that you have to have spent some time developing your followers on social media.”

Kincheloe has also had luck running boosted Facebook posts. These ads let you target the audience down to the type of follower and specific region. They will also help you increase the number of followers you have, he noted.

Industry specific job boards such as goodfoodjobs.com and harri.com are also option, advised Zagor, as are culinary school websites.

Kincheloe turns to one more outlet: “For line cooks especially, we advertise in the local Hispanic newspapers.”

The industry grapevine, if you’re plugged into it, is another good place to go. “It’s a really small industry,” said Zagor.

Zagor said he’s even gone to restaurants for the sole purpose of poaching employees. If he sees a server or manager who’s doing a good job, he’ll give the person his card and ask them to call him if they ever have an interest in changing jobs.

Related: Why Small Business Owners Should Try Facebook to Recruit Hires

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After Craigslist, social media — particularly Instagram — is one of the best places to recruit restaurant employees. Don’t be afraid to get clever. (Photo: tinyeyespowell/Instagram)

Screening resumes

When looking at resumes, keep in mind that if you’re an unknown startup, the top tier candidates may decide not to work for you. Be prepared to dip into the second and possibly even third tiers — and then be prepared to do more training and more motivating, said Zagor.

“What’s going to happen is you’re probably going to get people that would not be immediately hirable by the A list restaurants, that are not going to be as motivated, personable or interesting as the A list,” said Zagor. “You’re going to have to settle and you’re going to have to train and amp them up as much as you possibly can.”

The interview

A face-to-face interview can tell you most everything you need to know about a person’s experience, appearance (including hygiene) and above all, personality. You’re looking for an easy smile and a pleasant manner.

“You can train a lot of things for a server, but you cannot train a personality into it,” said Kincheloe.

Personality is just as important when it comes to back-of-house positions, Zagor explained. “I’ll never hire anybody that I wouldn’t want to go out to have dinner with. In fact, you don’t want there to be a barrier between the front of the house and the back of the house. You want everyone to get along, have dinner together, be part of a team. The days of people screaming and yelling and being mean to each other are going away.”

Zagor and Kincheloe both advised asking situational questions (“what would you do if”), which can reveal a great deal about both attitude and experience. For example, “How would you handle it if two diners were complaining about their meals yet they had already eaten half of it?”

“I want to hear the hospitality in your heart,” said Zagor.

You can ascertain a line cook’s level of knowledge and ability just by talking with them, according to Kincheloe. Drill down into “if this happens on the line, what would you do?” Ask about what kind of equipment the person would use to make a certain dish and how long it would take them. If you have a buffalo burger on your menu, ask how they would cook it so that it stays moist. “You just kind of drill down a little bit further and you’re able to figure out if they know what they’re doing or not,” he said.

For management positions, Kincheloe said they usually do reference checks and background checks.

Hire more people than you need

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Hiring 10 to 20 percent more staff than you think you need will assure that you are sufficiently staffed. (Photo: CandyBox Images/Shutterstock)

It’s very common, Zagor said, to offer someone a restaurant job and have them reject it or simply never show up.

Kincheloe echoed that point. “Recruiting for a brand new restaurant, you want to hire 10 to 20 percent more staff than you think you actually need,” he said. “In the restaurant world, you get a lot of no-shows, people who show up one day and don’t show up the next, so you want to make sure you’re adequately staffed. History indicates you’ll have to hire 12 people to get 10.”

Once you hire your initial staff, don’t stop interviewing. Large companies continually interview candidates whether or not they have job openings. “You have to do the same,” said Zagor. “Interviewing is an ongoing process. It doesn’t just stop when you think you’re hired up.”

Have employee manuals ready to go

As soon as you make your first hire, you’ll need to have policy and procedure manuals ready to distribute due to the always-present threat of litigation, said Zagor. They should cover everything from what the training is going to be to where employees will change their clothes.

It’s best to have a labor lawyer develop them for you, said Zagor, though most new restaurant overlook this step.

Related: Paid Sick Leave from the Business Owner’s Perspective

Keep your employees happy

Once you’ve managed to recruit the staff you want, do your part to keep it.

“You’ve hired a great staff, you’ve trained them so they’re executing what you need them to execute and you want them to say. One of the biggest ways to get employees to stay is to listen to them and to make them feel they’re wanted and needed and appreciated,” said Zagor.

To that end, “One of the coolest techniques that I have ever seen is the use of employee comment cards.” When an employee leaves a shift, they’re required to fill out a brief comment card (anonymous) noting how the restaurant did in achieving its goals and place it in a locked box. This could be done daily or weekly. “It’s amazing the feeling that it conveys to employees that owners and management care.”

Related: 4 Ways to Thank Your Waitstaff

When Zagor was general manager at a popular Manhattan restaurant, reading the employee comment cards was one of his first tasks each morning. One morning, he noticed several waiters had commented that customers said the soup was cold. He talked to the chef and realized the soup tureen wasn’t getting hot enough — and then he thanked the staff.

“Too often we tell, we talk, we punish. We don’t praise and we don’t listen — and those are elements of a successful business. Praise appropriately and listen all the time.”

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