Competition for customers has always been fierce, but competition to attract and keep staff might be getting just as tough. In a recent survey conducted by TouchBistro, an iPad POS company, 100 per cent of restaurant owners surveyed said they have struggled to staff their restaurants in the past year, with 88.9 per cent saying that skilled cooks are the hardest positions to fill.

On the flip side, TouchBistro also surveyed 100 food and beverage workers about how business owners can improve staff retention. The top three areas where they said improvements can make a difference are company culture (28%), better pay (11%) and employee benefits (6%).

What actually works to attract and keep staff? Below are five tips from behind the scenes of two successful Toronto businesses, from two women who will be sharing their insights at the upcoming Industry Sessions hosted by TouchBistro: Kim Montgomery Rawlings, co-owner of Montgomery’s, a family-owned restaurant that focuses on seasonal, local ingredients and sustainability, and Elisabeth Bottomley, Marketing & Recruitment Manager for The Distillery Restaurants Corp.

Always-On Recruitment Strategy

The supply and demand equation has done a total 180. The shortage of skilled labour continues to dwindle as the Toronto restaurant scene continues to boom, and larger conglomerates are competing for talent.

At Montgomery’s, which has gotten much fanfare with local media, it is still not infrequent that they interview candidates who haven’t previously heard of their restaurant.

The Distillery Restaurants Corp. uses targeted, paid social media ads, to really reach people and to “let them know who you are,” says Bottomley.

It’s not enough anymore to just be posting a job on Craigslist. You can’t rely on the same avenues you have before to find employees anymore. They are not going to find you. It’s certainly not just that we’re hiring at those standard couple times a year anymore. You have to constantly be out there; there needs to be a real consistency to it. Marketing and recruitment, which in the past were separate business functions, now go hand in hand.

Restaurateur Diaries: How to Attract and Keep Staff

Alignment with Core Values and Culture

Restaurateurs across Toronto have already resorted to a sort of bidding war just to attract and keep staff. Bottomley says that often people are leaving for a $1-$2 increase in pay. But 43 per cent of workers surveyed by TouchBistro stated that management and co-workers are factors that have influenced them to stay at their current jobs.

It’s interesting that we’ve always been able to draw upon the labour pool by inspiring others who respect our core values [supporting local, sustainability and family-owned], says Montgomery Rawlings.

When the pool of experienced labour dwindles, she and her partner “look for people with the best attitudes, who are keen to learn and are hard workers that have positive work ethic.” She says they invest the time and effort to train them and get them up to par.

At The Distillery Restaurants Corp, Bottomley says “we try to create a culture that makes people want to stick around.” They pay their stages a stipend of $100 per day, partly to “acknowledge that people have to take a day off work from their job to do their interview as a cook, and are expected to perform labour — historically for free.” Stages are also given a free meal to see if there’s a good fit on both ends. The group has also turned to hospitality colleges and programs to fill the labour shortage, and they pay their interns, unlike most foodservice businesses.

Communication and Transparency

At Montgomery’s, transparency and communication aren’t just observed during the hiring process — it’s an ongoing dialogue with staff. “When we do our hiring, we’re very open with expectations and what our hours will be,” says Montgomery Rawlings. “We’re very open and honest with our staff about shift in work hours during our slower and busier seasons. It’s a constant dialogue that we have — from what you’re hoping to have hourly on the floor, what your goals are for the current situation; in two years? in five years?” This has allowed Montgomery’s to plan in advance and anticipate their labour needs. There have been staff in the past, who have committed to staying for a period of time, and knowing in advance has helped them plan for and transition staffing needs. When the average cost of turnover is around $5,864 per employee, it pays to talk!

Transparency and communication also impacts employees’ feelings on distribution of tips — 58 per cent of workers surveyed don’t believe tips are shared fairly, with many calling for an “industry standard” when it comes to tip pooling. There is a wide range of tip pooling ranging from “pay what you feel” to back of house getting $1 tip out per hour worked to 3 per cent of sales.

Restaurateur Diaries: How to Attract and Keep Staff

Rewards, Not Just the Monetary Kind

If everyone is in a bidding war to attract and keep staff, perks and rewards are just one way to differentiate from the competition. At The Distillery Restaurants Corp., the kitchen staff do monthly field trips to visit local suppliers, like dairy farms and flour mills, to have a holistic look at the food and supply chain, but also to bond with their co-workers. To encourage creativity and promote growth, cooks can take part in a monthly culinary black-box competition with cash prizes. Annual recognition events award staff at The Distillery Restaurants Corp. for their efforts and success. The employee of the year wins a trip for two to anywhere in the world.

Workers are looking for benefits on top of financial compensation; 21 per cent of workers surveyed by TouchBistro said their benefits and vacation are what keep them at their current jobs. “We don’t currently offer benefits, but that is something that is becoming competitive,” says Bottomley. “We definitely want to, and are talking about it all the time, and we eventually will. But right now, a lot of people are offering benefits just to say they offer them, but they’re not great. We want to do it right.”

At Montgomery’s, benefits come by way of education and professional growth. “We’ve hired people who don’t even have basic wine knowledge, and by the time they’d left, or even while they’re still here, you can see them grow,” says Montgomery Rawlings. “We’re taking the time to help them learn, and they appreciate that we are helping add that skill set to their repertoire that they can use to upgrade to the next position or role they go to.”

Humanizing the Experience

Your staff aren’t just servers, cooks, dishwashers; they have goals and aspirations outside of work — and feelings too. Factors like stability, professional and personal development, and respect are common qualitative factors in overall employee satisfaction.

At The Distillery Restaurants Corp., the executive chefs have begun testing staff schedules with a 4-3 work week; working longer days, but having more time off, promotes balance. This past summer, they hosted their third annual 416 Cooks BBQ, to recognize the contribution and hard work of their current back-of-house staff, and as an open-house for all cooks in the city, where they gave away two trips to New York City. “Sharing in the wealth is more than just the money,” says Bottomley.

At Montgomery’s, staff are supported and encouraged to pursue their extracurricular passions and activities. “You get so caught up with your everyday grind, you lose sight of what you could also be stepping towards in the meantime,” says Montgomery Rawlings.

But if you offer your employees the opportunity to chip away at some pressing issues, things that are important to them, like going back to taking classes or having side projects, it allows everyone to feel satisfied with where they are today, and allows them the opportunity to build their own portfolio for future endeavours.

In terms of what the industry as a whole can do better to attract and keep staff, Montgomery Rawlings points to having “better forums to help promote hospitality industry employment”, as well as “having more people openly talk about how working in hospitality can be a very fruitful, stable means of gaining income.” She states that the stigma that a career in hospitality is an “in-between” job, or something that you did part-time while in school, needs to change to make a positive shift for the health of the overall industry, and to entice younger workers to enter and stick with hospitality and foodservice careers.

Restaurateur Diaries: How to Attract and Keep Staff

The Industry Sessions: How to Deal with the Labour Shortage
takes place at General Assembly on Monday, Sept. 17.
Tickets can be purchased via Eventbrite and all proceeds will go to the Dandelion Initiative.


Yvonne lives to eat. She’s known to her friends as the “Ask Alexa” for the best restaurants in cities all over North America. She is PR Manager at TouchBistro, the iPad POS that’s helped over 12,000 restaurateurs around the world run better and easier businesses. In her spare time, she's a freelance food and drink writer and tells the origin stories, struggles, and successes of restaurateurs – veteran and new.