In today’s labor market, morale needs a boost
The refrain since the pandemic began is “We can’t find good help.” We see pizzerias daily shortening hours just so the owners and staff can get a break. While a plethora of factors have worked in unison to create today’s tight labor market, improving employee morale obviously goes a long way towards retention. In this roundtable discussion, we spoke with some of the country’s most successful pizzeria owners to tap their insights.
Nicole Bean (Pizaro’s Pizza, Houston)
Lars Smith (State of Mind, Los Altos, California),
Pasquale Di Diana (Bacci Pizzeria, Chicago),
Michael Androw (E&D Pizza Company, Avon, Connecticut).
Pizza Today: What are some measures you have taken to keep employee morale up during the pandemic?
Bean: We’ve been perking up our employees with positivity and positive reinforcements. Some weekends we grab cookies or energy drinks for the staff. We’ve also tried to pin-point problem areas that can alleviate the employee struggles, such as modifying expo areas to create a more productive workspace or implementing visual cook charts to reduce mistakes in the kitchen. The biggest assistance has been flexibility, acknowledging that the staff also needs that mental break — so we’ve been providing more opportunities for requests off even if it’s a little more work on us at the end of the day.
Smith: This has evolved over the course of the pandemic for us. In the beginning, we wanted to make sure our employees’ needs were being met. Most of our team were laid off from their second jobs, and we had to layoff most of our front of house staff. We were buying extra supplies and groceries for our staff to take home if needed. We also kept all of our laid-off staff on health insurance.
Things we have done more recently are pretty simple, really. We see our staff as an asset worth investing in. So, we have made sure we are paying competitive wages and giving raises where they are earned. It’s so much easier to invest in our existing staff rather than hire in this market. We are checking in with staff regularly to see how they are doing, not just at work but in general. People are burnt out in our industry, and we want to make sure we are able to give staff some extra days off when needed. We also closed for an extra couple days after Christmas to give staff a break. Finally, we have made a huge effort to make sure we aren’t running shifts short staffed and adding to our employees’ stress level. We have modified service or hours as necessary to make sure our staff has the most positive work environment possible.
Di Diana: I was on a flight from OKC to Chicago years back, and I was lucky enough to sit next to Coach Billy Donovan. At that time, he was the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. About an hour into the flight, I built up the courage to introduce myself, and asked him: “Coach, what is the secret to your success?” And he answered me without hesitation and said it was his team. And the key to building his staff was letting them know how much he cared; hence he was on a late flight to Chicago in the off-season to go meet with a player and one of his staff members. Anyway, I really took that advice to heart during the pandemic. As a restaurant operator with multiple sites, the pandemic and initial lockdowns felt like the apocalypse. And while I was busy with everything on my plate, I had to take a step back and say to myself: “If I’m this worried about things and I’m supposed to be the captain of this ship, how scared must my team members be?”
My perspective really changed a few months in, and I really dove into constantly communicating with everyone on a daily basis, making sure that not only in our restaurants — but in life — I was there to help them navigate this pandemic. Being there for them with their concerns, their fears for their families, their questions … was how I was able to keep their morale up. Also, for the initial few months I was allowing staff, especially those whose hours were cut due to it being very slow, to bring dinner home to their families.
Androw: We have seen a substantial increase in our already busy business since the start of the pandemic. This has put more stress on the staff to churn out more food in the same amount of time. I’ve taken the additional income and put it into the pockets of the staff. Everyone has seen substantial raises throughout. A hefty, fat paycheck has a magical way of keeping morale up.
PT: Are you seeing a light at the end of the tunnel with the universal staffing issues the industry has experienced?
Di Diana: I suppose so, although the light is not a very bright one. Meaning this: it is better, and I see more applicants than the first year of the pandemic, but nothing like the times before. My three pillars of recruiting, maintaining and multiplying great team members has never been harder, and I anticipate that’s how it will be moving forward for years to come. Too many people have left the industry due to many factors, and I’m just not seeing many people enter. So talented, reliable and competent employees are very scarce and harder to come by than ever.
Androw: We are definitely seeing the tide start to turn in regard to staffing shortages. There was a period during the height of the pandemic where we were stretched very thin. Things have begun to change as we now have applications coming in on a regular basis once again.
Smith: We are really lucky to have an incredible management team and kitchen staff that has stuck with us throughout the pandemic. Like I said above, we have made a huge effort in investing in our employees both in terms of paying good wages but also in time to train them. To be totally truthful I have no idea if the staffing issue is going to get better soon or not. But I think the tight hiring market highlights the need for us as business owners to create jobs that both pay well and have a positive work environment.
Bean: There’s definitely been a ray of light shining through the hole! We’ve seen an uptick in applications. However, quality isn’t what it used to be — but we are learning to work with what we have and what we can manage.
PT: What is the number one request you receive from employees in terms of making the workplace the best it can be for them?
Androw: The most common request from staff is time. Most of the kitchen crew work doubles, so it can be exhausting. We have started a rotation of sending someone home early every night. As soon as the hit is done you walk out “rock star style”. That means you just drop what you’re doing and peace out. You don’t clean or restock anything. The rest of the crew stays a few minutes extra at the end of the night to take care of that person’s station. And then tomorrow night it’s the next person’s turn. Everyone seems to appreciate getting that extra time to themselves.
Smith: The number one request we get is for flexible work schedules and the ability to request time off when needed. We make a huge effort to be able to honor time off requests and to be able to work around our employees’ availability. I think the pandemic made so many people re-evaluate their priorities and how much they want to work. Our staff wants to be able to take time off when needed without feeling bad or guilty about it.
Bean: Flexibility and fairness. Both of which are extremely challenging when they want both simultaneously. And the current working employees want to be treated equally when it comes to scheduling and of course pay. While some tasks come easy to some it’s difficult for others, and each employee has their own personality. I’m not a parent, but I imagine my staff are my children and each of them have different needs. My management team is always working to provide a happy work environment, but every once in a while they will receive the “that’s not fair” response. We are always trying to solve the puzzle: how can we make it fair across the board when the board is uneven? We do our best to resolve one problem at a time. It’s a learning experience for all of us.
Di Diana: Clear, honest feedback and direction. That’s what I’ve come to notice. And flexibility when it comes to scheduling — which is one of the hardest things to provide in the restaurant industry seeing that peak days are on weekends.