Strategies for motivating restaurant staff so they stay

By Kristina Gansser|Apr 19, 2023|12:37 pm CDT

Today, we’re talking about how to keep your restaurant employees motivated and avoid being short-staffed. You know what’s not motivating? The labor shortage that’s hitting the industry hard.

837,000 leisure and hospitality workers quit their jobs in January 2023 alone. That’s a quit rate of 5.1%, and it’s higher than any other industry. The ones who didn’t quit?

They’re showing just how unhappy they are with the status quo by unionizing and even suing their employers.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Those 837,000 workers who quit? There’s a real financial cost to replacing each of them. Black Box Intelligence estimates it costs restaurants $1,956 per hourly employee to replace someone who’s left. That adds up to a jaw-dropping $1.6B to replace the leisure and hospitality workers who quit in January 2023.

That number alone should be enough to convince restaurant owners and operators of the importance of keeping their staff happy and motivated. It isn’t just about reducing turnover costs, though. Building an engaged team pays in other ways. According to Gallup’s extensive research, business units with engaged workers have 23% higher profits compared to those with miserable workers. Plus, teams with happy employees enjoy not only lower turnover, but lower absenteeism and accidents. They also have higher customer loyalty.

So how can you boost morale and prevent employees from joining the mass exodus?

We’ve got 15 tips to motivate restaurant employees.

So, let’s dive in and make your restaurant team the best team out there.

1. Pay a competitive wage

It’s no secret that restaurant work can be tough—long hours on your feet, dealing with hungry customers, and juggling multiple orders at once. Despite all that, many restaurant workers still earn a relatively low wage (earnings for waiters and waitresses in 2021 ranged from as little as $8.58 an hour to a high of $22.07 an hour, with a median wage of just $12.50 an hour).

Your restaurant staff is the backbone of your business. Without them, you’d be serving up plates of disappointment to an angry dining room. As Chef Brian Duffy puts it, “the time has come for us as operators and owners to pay our staff more and treat them better.”


It’s not just about being a nice boss. Paying your restaurant staff a competitive wage can actually be good for your bottom line. A restaurant operator in North Carolina shared how they significantly increased wages and added bonuses until they had the highest-paid fast-casual workers in most of their markets.

The result?

Paying employees more helped reduce labor costs and increase profits. They also saw turnover rates for workers and shift managers drop from 80% to 50%, and labor costs as a percentage of sales dropped from 33% to 27%.

2. Offer on-demand pay

Sure, everybody wants to make more money. That’s not a huge revelation. But you know what’s also super motivating to hourly workers? Not having to wait to get access to their pay. Offering on-demand pay to your restaurant employees is a savvy move.

Did you know that a whopping 95% of hourly workers prefer working for employers that offer earned wage access?

That means that if you’re not offering this perk, you’re likely not scoring the industry’s top talent. Even more telling, 79% of workers would even be willing to jump ship to a new employer if they offered on-demand pay. That ship could be yours.

3. Give bonuses

Another way to make employees happy? Put extra cash in their wallets with bonuses. A zero-risk option is to give bonuses based on performance. That way, your team will have extra motivation to give it their all and make sure the restaurant hits its goals. When business booms, they get a piece of that success.

Another option is to offer referral bonuses when your employees bring their friends and family on board. It’s a great way to build a team of people who genuinely care about each other and the restaurant. It doesn’t hurt that when employees are friends at work, it boosts engagement, job satisfaction, and productivity.

Finally, don’t forget about those who have stuck with you (just think of the thousands they’ve saved you in turnover costs). Reward their loyalty with a longevity bonus. It shows that you see and appreciate all the hard work they’ve put in over the years.

4. Boost their tip income

The restaurant industry runs on tips, and getting stiffed on a tab can put a serious dent in your employee’s take-home pay. The good news is you can help by making it easier for customers to put their money where their appreciation is.

Most modern point-of-sale systems (mobile or otherwise) can provide suggested tipping options. When customers can just tap a button to leave an 18%, 20%, or 23% tip, it eliminates the mental math and even makes them more likely to give a higher tip.

That gentle nudge for customers can make a big difference for your staff. According to one report, orders that included a tip were up 11% at fast food restaurants in the last quarter of 2022— 48% of credit card orders included a tip, compared to just 37% at the start of 2020.

5. Give restaurant staff control over their schedules

We talked previously about how unpredictable schedules lead to higher employee turnover. It’s not exactly surprising. After all, the restaurant industry isn’t known for its work-life balance. Unpredictable schedules wreak havoc on employees’ personal lives. They may have to cancel plans, miss big events, or struggle to find childcare. It’s no wonder workers are unhappy.

Giving your workers a more predictable schedule and the power to choose their shifts can be a game-changer. Employee scheduling software with demand forecasting helps restaurant managers build more accurate schedules (in a fraction of the time) and ensure they have the right people doing the right job on the right shift.

6. Offer a short workweek

The idea of a 4-day work week has been making headlines lately, but in the restaurant industry, one less day of work often means less income for hourly workers. Many think it’s a perk that just won’t work for our industry.

Thankfully, that didn’t stop Justin Lindsey, Chick-fil-A owner-operator. Lindsey implemented a 3-day work week at his Florida location to reduce burnout and increase employee retention.

The voluntary program lets workers squeeze a full-time schedule into just three days, giving them the freedom to pursue other interests or simply enjoy some well-deserved downtime. The results speak for themselves—just eight months after implementing the program, Lindsey achieved 100% retention at the management level and a flood of new job applicants.

It’s worth getting creative with your scheduling to see how you can give your restaurant staff more flexibility to pursue their interests and goals outside of work.

“ is my belief that in order to change the perception of the restaurant business and make our career choice more desirable to future generations, we must be aggressive in our approach to sustainable lives and careers.”

— Fred Catellucci, President, CEO of Castellucci Hospitality Group

7. Get creative with benefits

QSR Magazine released its list of the Best Brands to Work For in 2022. They all have one thing in common: they’re showing their teams the love with benefits, benefits, and more benefits.

There’s a lot you stand to gain by beefing up your benefits. A recent study shows 86% of restaurant employees who are unsatisfied with their job benefits would stay if benefits were improved, and 2 out of 3 workers are more likely to apply to a restaurant with health benefits (but only 58% of restaurants offer them).

Education benefits are also becoming the norm, with major brands like Chick-fil-A®, KFC®, Brinker International, Inc., MOD Pizza, and Starbucks® investing big in hourly workers’ education (and that’s just the restaurants).

To stand out as a top employer, you’ll need to get creative and tailor your benefits to your team’s needs. Anything you can do to make life a little sweeter, be it free meals, immigration benefits, or whatever else you dream up, will pay you back in greater loyalty.

8. Focus on onboarding new employees

Over half of quick service restaurant employees bailed before reaching 90 days of work in 2022. And they had zero patience for miscommunication. Workers were 5X more likely to quit over miscommunication during their first 90 days than after.

Restaurants like Chipotle see onboarding as a critical factor in reducing turnover. Its focus on re-establishing operational standards includes changes to its new employee onboarding experience. Now, new employees report to restaurants sooner for more in-person training.

“If you see someone hit the three-month mark, the reality is, they’re going to be here for at least a year,” Marissa Andrada, chief people officer at Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., told the Wall Street Journal.

Take a long look at your current onboarding experience. Where can you make improvements that will set new hires up for success? No one wants to feel like they’re in over their head or don’t understand what’s expected of them. Ditch the sink-or-swim mentality and pair them up with a mentor who will show them the ropes. Provide thorough training and make sure managers check in and give positive feedback often.

9. Prioritize training and development

Ever heard the old saying, “if you’re not growing, you’re dying?” It may be a cliche, but the sentiment rings true. Especially in the restaurant business, where new trends and tastes fuel constant innovation. Here’s another truth: workers want to work for a company that helps them grow.

62% of restaurant employees say they’re more likely to apply to a job that offers training opportunities than to one that doesn’t. That’s not all. According to Great Place to Work, hourly workers who receive training or access to continuing education opportunities are 20% more likely to give extra effort at work.

It’s simple. If you want your team to thrive, you need to help them grow.

10. Provide a clear path for career growth

So, you get that you need to offer training and development to your team. But what’s it all building toward? That is the question workers want to know. It turns out frontline employees (defined by McKinsey as hourly workers making less than $22 an hour) rank job growth as the number one thing they want from employers. It even edges out higher pay.

Who can blame them? After all their hard work and long hours, it’s only natural to want to see progress. Maybe they want to take on more responsibility, move into management, or take over your job. Who knows, but whatever their goals, they want to see the path to get there. You need to make sure every worker understands the growth opportunities available to them and the steps they’ll need to take to get where they want to go.

11. Hire and develop better restaurant managers

Over half of employees leave their jobs because of a bad boss. Over half. But on the flip side, a quality manager is the glue that will hold your team together. It takes more than a 20% raise to lure most employees away from a manager they love.

Managers are the linchpin of employee engagement. They account for 70% of the variance in engagement scores. It’s critical to hire and promote restaurant managers who aren’t just skilled in the kitchen but also have the chops to lead. If their idea of leadership is barking orders from the back office, it won’t end well for you or your team. Managers at every level need to work in the trenches with their teams to understand the realities of the job and show they know what it takes to do it well.

Hiring and promoting great managers is just a start. Training and development are just as important after a promotion as they are leading up to it. Provide leadership training, coaching, and mentorship opportunities so they can grow into the kind of managers your employees will love to work for.

“The best managers are gifted with the ability to inspire employees, drive outcomes, overcome adversity, hold people accountable, build strong relationships and make tough decisions based on performance rather than politics. When companies systematically pick the right managers, they can achieve 27% higher revenue per employee than average.”

— State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders. Gallup, Inc.

12. Create a culture of recognition

According to Gallup, employees who reported that their managers were great at recognizing them were 40% more engaged at work. Sure, it’s nice to know recognizing your team means they won’t be checked out and feeling unappreciated. But there’s more to it than that. Gallup’s data found a strong link between employee engagement and retention, productivity, safety, and profitability.

But don’t rush to slap a “good job” sticker on their uniform and call it a day. The key to effective recognition is making it honest, authentic, and individualized to each employee’s preferences. So, whether they’re into big announcements, handwritten notes, or simply a fist bump at the end of their shift, take the time to find out how they like to receive recognition. One thing is sure, the occasional cash or gift card “thank you” is almost always appreciated.

When recognition hits the mark, employees are

5X more likely to feel connected to their culture

4X as likely to be engaged

5X as likely to see a path to grow at their organization

4X as likely to recommend their organization to friends and family

Unleashing the Human Element at Work: Transforming Workspaces Through Recognition. Gallup, Inc.

13. Foster open communication

Stellar communication is the secret sauce to keeping your staff motivated. Consistent communication—whether talking face-to-face, jumping on a quick call, or shooting off a text—directly correlates to higher engagement.

It’s also important to remember your staff can’t read your mind (no matter how hard you try). You need to set clear expectations and communicate with employees regularly, or there’s zero chance they’ll perform like rock stars.

Don’t forget to listen as much as you talk. When your people feel like they have a voice and their ideas are heard, they’ll be more invested in the restaurant’s success.

If you’re worried all this communication will become a major time suck, remember better communication will ultimately save you time and energy in the long run. Mistakes and misunderstandings are less likely to happen, and that means less time spent putting out fires.

14. Build a close-knit team

A busy shift in the restaurant industry can be nothing short of brutal. But when teams view their co-workers as friends, the daily grind feels less like a chore. In fact, research shows that people who have a best friend at work are seven times as engaged. They’re also significantly more likely to get more done in less time, have fewer accidents, innovate, and share ideas.

Creating opportunities for your team members to bond and build relationships is essential. Prioritize team-building activities.

Consider starting (or ending) the shift with a family or staff meal where everyone can break bread and talk about life outside of work. Or plan a fun activity like a group outing to an escape room or close the restaurant for a staff-only party.

We spend most of our waking hours at work. Create a work environment that brings your team closer together, so they actually enjoy their time there.

15. Lift the burden of tedious tasks

Have you ever listened to a restaurant manager gush over how much they love building schedules? Or overheard shift workers composing odes to the joys of counting inventory? We didn’t think so. That’s because the tedious but necessary tasks that come with the job can quickly suck all the joy out of work.

The right technology can be the difference between hours (centuries?) wasted on mind-numbing manual tasks and getting back on the floor to do the work that really matters—making delicious food and serving happy customers.

The beauty of automation is that it helps everyone, especially managers. Cutting their time spent on operational tasks means they can focus their energy on supporting their team and building a culture that motivates employees to not only stay, but thrive. Fourth’s intelligent technology and solutions give your team the tools, insights, and support they need to streamline operations and get things done faster—from hiring to scheduling to task management to ordering (and more).

A happy crew equals happy customers

Keep these tips in mind the next time you’re stuck and need a few ideas to motivate your team. From financial incentives to recognizing good work to simply sharing a few laughs over some well-earned drinks, you have a ton of ways to keep your restaurant staff happy, healthy, and motivated. So go forth and conquer the day—the world is your oyster (or lobster, or whatever else you’re serving up).


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