The Science of Servers

CRITICAL ISSUES: Employee Hiring Retention

Hiring right people can make or break your restaurant

server takes customers ordersIt might surprise you to hear Brett Steiner’s No. 1 priority for his servers at Russo’s New York Pizzeria in Germantown, Tennessee: “School comes first,” says Steiner, who owns one of the 30 Houston-based franchises.

Five years ago when he launched Russo’s, Steiner started with “a choppy, sketchy staff.” But he wanted the reputation of an owner who cared about his employees’ education and personal welfare. With that, a steady stream of loyal workers grew up from area high schools, community colleges and universities. Within six months of opening, Steiner had his dream team. He was told that labor would be his biggest challenge, but he turned it into his strongest suit.

“They’re a great group of kids,” he says. “A lot of them have been with me since age 15 or 16 and are finishing college now. I keep a larger waitstaff, only because I am very happy to tailor my schedule depending on their school schedules and their needs. As a result, I have a higher quality and more enthusiastic individual that works here, plus loyalty.”

server plates pizzaSteiner has hit on a salient point: Employment is a two-way street by which people’s performances are commensurate with the way they’re treated and respected, say restaurant consultants. True, most restaurants thrive on good food and libation –– but the service often leaves something to be desired. So how do you hire and inspire good servers, hosts and bar staff for your front-of-the-house operation?

First, what traits are you looking for in a server? James Sinclair runs OnSite Consulting of Los Angeles, a national restaurant consultancy that focuses on challenge, distress and growth models for restaurants operators. His advice is to look for one talent: greatness.

“That can be defined as the willingness to be great, to try hard to resolve issues, and more importantly, to execute common sense. So you are hiring for a great attitude and great outlook. Everything else, I can train,but you cannot train someone to be instinctively great,” Sinclair says.

The server is the marketer, the advertiser and the pacifier –– and you need someone who fits all three attributes, he adds.

David St. Louis is HR manager for Field Staffing for Pizza Hut, a division of Yum! Brands. He urges: “Hire for personality; train for skill.” A strong front-of-the-house employee “is someone who connects with people and is energetic,” he says. “Think about it from a personal standpoint: Which would you rather have as a customer? Someone who is grumpy? So strive for people with an over-the-top mentality.”

Pizza Hut ferrets out that type during the selection process, using a personality assessment test provided by an outside vendor. “If you want an animal to climb a tree, do you want the squirrel or the moose? It’s harder to train personality traits that you desire,” he says.

Follow up with training. The trick to hiring a great employee is to be a great boss, Sinclair says. It’s incumbent to “give them the tools to be fantastic.” Identify systems and processes and train heavily: what to do during down time, what to do when it’s busy, what to do when they have a crisis? “Without training and expectations being defined and without strict processes, you are solely setting them up for failure,” he says.

For example, Sinclair recently went into a busy restaurant and asked what was on tap. The bartender impatiently pointed to a lineup of bottles behind her and exasperatedly quipped that she didn’t have time to list them for him. “I could get angry at that person, but no. I get angry at the manager for not training her on how to deal with the crisis,” he says.

Pizza Hut also heavily emphasizes training, St. Louis says. “We have a lot of data on this. The better trained the employee, the more productive and less turnover you have. If the cook quits, the server is interacting with a guest who may not be happy. That is something we coach very aggressively on and work to build skills to diffuse situations.”

Steiner doesn’t leave his workers hanging. They’re trained to get a manager and not handle customer complaints alone. “I’m a field marshal, not a General Underhill, who is the last to get the information,” he says. “If you’re in the trenches, you’re the first to know about problems and build camaraderie. I don’t sit at a table drinking wine. You’ll see me cooking and washing dishes. I’m always the first to know if there’s a hiccup within the four walls, and by doing that they acknowledge you as the leader. How you manage conflicts will affect whether people come to you with open arms.”

Finding The Talent

If you wait for candidates to walk into the door, you’re already losing in the hiring game, says Pizza Hut’s David St. Louis. “We encourage the restaurants to be active. We hit career fairs regularly. Depending on the needs of the restaurant, we typically will hold fairs once a month or so. Our great stores will have a regular process. They have a day blocked out in the week for interview times and build it into the monthly process.”

And the company is getting involved in the social networking space, too. “The application process can feel like a black box. You submit it online and hope that it gets acted on, so we’re trying to break that feeling,” St. Louis says. The company has created a Pinterest page for all recruiters.

“We talk about all things interesting for us. I have beach pictures, charities, different organizations I admire and applicants get the personalized feel about each of us,” he says, adding that Pizza Hut has also just launched a Facebook page. And some recruiters are on Twitter. “We’ve learned that candidates have different ways they like to be interactive, so we take a multifaceted approach,” he says.

Heidi Lynn Russell specializes in writing about the issues that affect small business owners.

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