Culinary Talent Acquisition: Proven Strategies for Hiring Top Culinary Professionals
People are the heart of the hospitality industry. For a restaurant, catering service, cafe, or other food service business to succeed, it needs a kitchen staff with the skills to provide an exceptional customer experience.
Unfortunately, these positions aren’t easy to fill. In a 2023 survey from the National Restaurant Association, 9 out of 10 operators reported current staffing shortages, and 87% said they are likely to hire in the next year if they can find the right applicants. The data backs up these reports, with roughly 600,000 more job openings than hires in the restaurant industry as of July 2023.
While hiring chefs, cooks, and other culinary talent is a challenge in the current hiring landscape, there are ways to overcome it and build a skilled food service team that will drive business growth.
Common challenges when hiring culinary talent
Hiring and keeping high-quality staff members is an ongoing difficulty for the food industry. Restaurants especially are known for having high turnover rates, and finding candidates who are a good long-term fit for a key role has long required a solid hiring strategy.
These problems were exacerbated by the pandemic. Prior to 2020, labor supply and demand in restaurants tended to break even. The widespread closures and layoffs that hit the industry during lockdowns sent many restaurant employees seeking work in other industries, and many of those staff members didn’t return to the industry when restrictions eased in 2021. From October 2021 through March 2022, there were an average of 500,000 more job openings than new hires per month in the hospitality sector. Employers raised wages to entice team members to return, but the staff shortage has persisted.
Part of the problem is that pay isn’t the only factor that has sent many candidates away from the food industry. The fast pace, customer demands, irregular schedule, and long hours often found in restaurant jobs can have a negative impact on an employee’s mental health. Many former food service workers found new roles in industries that offered more stability, greater flexibility, lower workplace stress, and benefits like health insurance and paid time off that are rarely offered to food service employees.
Another issue compounding this problem is that a large percentage of food service staff historically doesn’t see it as a long-term career. Part-time employees are common in this industry, which has long been a source of employment for students, parents, caretakers, and others who just need a paycheck to support other aspects of their life. These part-time employees are a valuable piece of the restaurant staffing puzzle, but contribute to the industry’s historically high churn rates and make it a challenge to build a reliable team in any food establishment.
Overcoming these challenges takes more than a strong job posting and hiring process. It often starts with establishing an employer brand that demonstrates you’re responsive to these common concerns of food workers. Establishing that you have a track record of providing a safe and comfortable work environment, as well as your commitment to employee mental health and work/life balance, is a good start to attracting the right individuals to your open culinary position.
Assessing your hiring needs and goals
Another challenge facing culinary employers is the fact that the hospitality landscape is shifting. Customers look for different things from a restaurant than they did a few years ago. While most restaurant dining rooms have been reopened without restrictions for over a year, customers haven’t flocked back to them in the same numbers as before the pandemic. As of early 2023, data from the National Restaurant Association shows that on-site dining is 16% lower than pre-pandemic levels, though delivery, take-out, and drive-through sales have increased by roughly the same amount.
This means that many restaurants need the same total number of staff members that they did in 2019, but they need them in different areas. Kitchen staff is still needed at the same or higher levels than in the pre-pandemic world, while servers and other front-of-the-house employees can be staffed at lower levels.
Many restaurants have also adopted new systems and technology that streamline their operations and can help them do more with fewer employees. These include things like online reservation programs, digital ordering platforms, and integrated POS systems, which facilitate smoother communication between customers and staff.
Finally, food industry employers should remember that hiring a new chef or head cook doesn’t always mean looking outside the organization. A lack of upward mobility is a major concern for many long-term culinary professionals. Offering current kitchen staff members the opportunity to advance their careers with your company can be a win-win, helping businesses reduce turnover and overcome staffing shortages while growing employee loyalty by making an investment in their future.
Before you start your next talent search, take a second to reassess your hiring needs. Consider if there are ways you can better utilize the abilities and knowledge in your existing team before you start creating job postings. Along with this, analyze your current schedules, operating hours, and sales figures to gain insights into what changes have taken place in your customer volume and typical slow and busy times so you know exactly what roles you’ll need to hire into, and when you’ll need them to work. Taking the time to fully understand your current staffing needs can be a big help in determining the requirements, expectations, and recruitment strategy.
Strategies to source and attract candidates for culinary roles
The current data about restaurant staffing shortages can be intimidating, but don’t be too discouraged by these figures. There are still plenty of chefs, cooks, and other candidates with culinary expertise available to work. The trick for food establishments is knowing how to access that talent pool and get the attention of candidates who meet your qualifications. Here are some strategies that can help.
1. Post your positions to the right job boards.
All-purpose sites like LinkedIn and Indeed aren’t necessarily the best place to find food service professionals. While there are some industry experts on these platforms, there is also a lot of noise from other employers, and that can lower the chances that the right people find and apply for your postings.
Utilizing industry-specific job listings can help you achieve faster hiring success. Some of the top food and hospitality listings include:
- RestaurantZone – Employment site with an extensive database of hospitality talent
- CulinaryAgents – Networking site for food and hospitality professionals with an active job board
- HCareers – Website devoted to hospitality employment that is particularly useful for banquets, hotel and resort restaurants, and similar positions
- Poached – Job board for the restaurant and hospitality industries
Taking advantage of an existing online community for the food industry can be a more efficient way for food business owners to make connections with top professionals in their area.
2. Write effective, accurate, and detailed job descriptions.
The job description is your first opportunity to sell your role and company to potential applicants, and it’s imperative to get it right in a tight hiring market. An effective job description should do more than describe the responsibilities of the role. It should also give candidates information about your company and its culture, as well as key information like the typical schedule, typical pay, benefits you offer, and other things they’ll want to know before accepting an offer.
Including information on the work environment, culture, and pay is especially important for food service jobs. The industry has a negative reputation for toxic work environments, a lack of employee agency and flexibility, and low compensation. Showing that you buck those trends as an employer can help you to get the attention of top talent.
3. Take advantage of employee referrals and other in-network hires.
One side effect of the high turnover rates in food service is that many professionals in this field build an extensive network of former coworkers and other fellow food industry workers. An employee referral program gives employers access to this talent pool.
Offering incentives for successful referral hires can drive more referred applications. Monetary bonuses are often the simplest and most effective incentive, but if your budget is tight you can offer other perks, like preferred scheduling, free or discounted meals, or privileged access to employee development.
4. Use social media to build and promote your employer brand.
The poor workplace culture in many food service establishments played a major role in driving staff away from these jobs in the aftermath of the pandemic. Social media platforms give restaurants a chance to show potential applicants the values and attitude that drive your culture, providing proof that you care about the happiness and well-being of your team.
Involve your current team members in this process by posting testimonials and v-logs that help applicants picture what it’s like to work for your organization. This kind of first-hand account comes across as more authentic and relatable than a basic value or mission statement.
5. Offer competitive wages and desirable benefits.
Wage expectations have increased in general over the past few years, and the food service industry is no exception. The average salary for a chef is $57,000 per year in 2023, while line cooks and other kitchen staff look for a pay of $15-$25 per hour, depending on their experience and the location. This is true even in states with a lower minimum wage. Remember that, when it comes to staff, you often get what you pay for. If you’re striving for excellence, paying the bare minimum is rarely the best way to go about it.
Salary isn’t the only type of compensation that will attract high-quality kitchen staff. Many long-time food service workers are frustrated by the lack of health insurance coverage, paid time off, and other benefits that are commonplace in other industries. Offering these types of benefits can help to bring back staff with a culinary background who left the industry in search of greener pastures.
6. Target your recruiting efforts toward untapped talent pools.
Many highly-skilled chefs never went to culinary school. The low barriers to entry in the restaurant industry have long been one of its appeals for many workers, and taking full advantage of often-overlooked talent pools is one way to overcome staffing shortages.
One option is to look specifically at people who prefer or require weekend and evening shifts, like working parents and students. You can also target people who often have a difficult time getting hired in other industries, such as the formerly incarcerated, neurodivergent applicants, or those with physical or intellectual disabilities.
Culinary candidate assessment and interviews
With a hands-on role like a cook or chef, a working interview is often the most efficient way to assess their ability and how well they’ll fit on your team. Not only does this give you a chance to see their cooking skills in action, but it also shows how well the person and their personality will mesh with the other members of the team.
Of course, you’re not going to want to welcome every applicant into your kitchen. Screen the initial applications starting with the skills and experience on their resume. It’s also important to check provided references and get a sense for how past managers and coworkers have felt about working with the individual. Remember that, even when it’s tricky to find talent, you don’t want to hire just anyone. A bad hire can leave you worse off than a vacancy, so you still want to put in your due diligence.
Once you’ve pared the applications down to a short list of the strongest contenders, it’s a smart move to have a face-to-face interview. This is a chance to get to know them a bit better by asking questions like:
- Where does your passion for food come from? Why did you decide to work in food service?
- Why are you leaving your current role? What attracts you to our workplace that you don’t get in your job now?
- What are your favorite and least favorite dishes to prepare, and why?
- Do you have experience creating or updating menus? If so, describe your approach.
- What types of cuisine or menu concepts do you have experience executing?
- How would you describe your overall philosophy toward cooking and food service?
- What is the best approach to ensure the quality and consistency of dishes?
- What are your greatest strengths as an employee? Your biggest weaknesses?
- What formal food industry training have you received, if any? Where did you receive hands-on training?
- Describe your experience managing or leading in a food service environment.
- What is your approach to ensuring smooth communication between FOH and BOH teams in a food service environment?
- Tell me about a time you’ve had a conflict with a coworker, manager, or report. How did you resolve that situation?
- Do you have experience managing vendors, inventory, and food costs?
Invite the candidates who give the strongest performance in face-to-face interviews to a working interview. Help them prepare in advance by providing the menu, floor map, and other key details. That said, while you want to set them up to succeed, you don’t want to hold the applicant’s hand too much. Part of the test is to see how well they prepare on their own. Do they show up in the correct attire and with the right tools? Do they arrive on time, or even early? Did they study the menu in advance or ignore the materials you provided them? All of these will give you insights into their potential as a member of your team.
Food industry hiring today and in the future
Every industry has seen disruptions over the past few years that required them to make adjustments to how they hire and retain staff. Few other industries have been impacted to the same extent as food service, however. The hiring strategies of the past are no longer effective. To remain competitive and keep their businesses fully staffed, employers need to meet the demands of today’s culinary workforce.
Culture and compensation are the main pillars of an effective food service hiring strategy today. Employers need to create a workplace where team members feel valued, respected, and safe. Paying employees what they’re worth is a good first step to demonstrating that you value their time and skills, but that alone won’t keep your top employees around if they have to deal with an unhealthy culture, or are overworked to the point of burnout. The hiring strategies outlined above won’t solve the problem on their own if your organization is hanging on to the toxic traditions of the past. By providing an environment that people want to work in, culinary business owners can best set themselves up to build the team they need to thrive.
Bristol Associates, Inc. is an executive search firm with over 55 years of excellence in recruiting nationwide. Bristol specializes in recruiting for the Casino Gaming; CBD; Facility and Concession; Food and Beverage Manufacturing; Healthcare; Hotel and Resort; Nonprofit; Restaurant and Foodservice; and Travel, Tourism, and Attraction industries.
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