The Future of Food Service Hiring: Trends to Watch

Food and Beverage, For Employers

The Evolution of Remote Work and Virtual Interviews in Executive Search

Hiring is one of the biggest challenges that food service businesses face in 2023, and experts don’t predict that it will get any easier in the year to come. The industry has bounced back in a big way from the disruptions of the pandemic. Sales have already exceeded pre-pandemic levels and are growing at nearly twice the rate they did in the decade prior. Yet staffing levels haven’t yet recovered to their 2019 levels, and the industry has had the highest quit rate since July 2021 according to the Department of Commerce.

What does this mean for hiring in the industry in the coming months? Let’s take a closer look at the key trends likely to impact food service hiring in the next year.

Food service hiring outlook for 2024

The National Restaurant Association predicts that the foodservice industry workforce will reach a total size of 15.5 million by the end of 2023, an increase of roughly 500,000 jobs compared to 2022. 

That growth is projected to continue, not just through 2024 but for the next several years. Data from the Department of Labor indicates there will be 2.6 million jobs to fill each year through 2032, amounting to roughly a 19% increase in hiring. Getting more granular, fast food and counter workers will be needed the most, with roughly 789,000 hires needed each year to keep pace with demand. Food service companies will also need to hire more than 252,000 cooks, 189,000 supervisors or managers, and 113,000 bartenders. 

How these figures make you feel likely depends on your role in the industry. For professionals, it means there will be a lot of job opportunities to choose from. Already, food service operators are increasing wages and implementing incentives to attract the workers they need, and it is likely that it will be a workers’ job market through 2024. 

For those who hire food service professionals, these figures are more anxiety-inducing. Many are already struggling to maintain a full staff, and those difficulties aren’t likely to ease in the next year. It will be increasingly necessary for food industry businesses to explore new talent pools and optimize their recruitment strategy to ensure they can attract, hire, and keep the right people for their team.

Current trends in food service hiring

Wage increases and reforms for tipped workers

In many states, workers like bartenders and servers who receive tips are not required to be paid the same hourly wage as other staff. In some states, the minimum wage for tipped staff is less than $3 an hour. While these employees often make more than hourly employees once tips are factored in, exactly how much money they’ll take home in any given week is unpredictable and inconsistent. 

The last few years have seen tipped food industry workers across the U.S. pushing to change these practices and increase the tipped minimum wage. Some regions have already started making changes, such as Chicago, which will be phasing out its subminimum wage for tipped employees over the next 5 years. Similar changes will be on the ballot in four states in 2024.

Some food industry employers seeing the rise of this trend have decided not to wait for legislative decisions to get on board. Some restaurant operators are doing away with tipping entirely, while other food and beverage companies are preemptively increasing the base pay for tipped employees.

While it is yet to be seen which locations in the U.S. will be changing wage rules for people that earn tips, increasing hourly rates can be a smart move for business owners in the food and beverage world who are eager to attract the best talent to their team. Tipped employees often have the most impact on customers’ dining experience, and paying a higher rate than competing businesses is one way to attract and retain high-quality people with a genuine desire to provide an exceptional experience for guests. 

While making this move does increase payroll costs, increasing employee pay can have a variety of benefits. These kinds of investments in the team can actually improve customer loyalty and overall profitability, along with employee engagement and retention. Increasing pay can also be an effective strategy for a food industry company to overcome staffing shortages. In a 2022 survey from Employ, Inc., higher pay was the number one reason candidates look for a new job, cited by more than a third of respondents (34.4%) as their primary motivation for seeking a new position.

Labor rights and organization

Workers in the United States voted to form more unions in 2022 than at any point in the last two decades, and public approval of unions is at its highest point in 50 years. This push has spanned multiple industries, including the foodservice industry. Historically, restaurant industry employees had some of the lowest unionization rates. Only 3.4% of workers in food and beverage businesses were in a union in 2020, compared to 10.8% of workers overall. In the past few years, however, there has been an increased push to close this gap.

A number of factors have contributed to this trend. Food service workers were heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and its lingering effects, from the changes to indoor dining to the increased demand for takeout and delivery services. These disruptions added to ongoing concerns for food service jobs, like a lack of health benefits, high-stress work environments, and a lack of work/life balance that contributes to high burnout rates.   

The bottom line is that candidate expectations have changed over the past few years, and the food service industry is no exception. While things like wages and work environment are still important for job seekers, many are just as concerned about how a potential employer ensures their employees’ rights are protected and that team members have a voice in policies that affect their life and work. 

Fair chance hiring

Finding the right job opportunity is always a challenge, and often more so for people who have a criminal record. This is a larger segment of the population than many people realize. Nearly one-third of adults in the United States, or roughly 70 million people, are formerly incarcerated, and face significant barriers when they re-enter the employment market after their release. Even with the ideal mix of skill sets, education, and experiences on their resume, ex-offenders frequently struggle to even land an interview, much less to be hired for the role. 

Fair chance hiring practices aim to change this. These policies remove employment restrictions based on a candidate’s criminal record by requiring an employer to not take criminal background information into account until after evaluating the applicant’s resume and interview performance. 

Federal legislation like the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act of 2019 enacted these practices for jobs with government agencies, and there has been a shift toward adopting similar policies in the private sector, as well. Fifteen U.S. states have mandated removing questions about convictions from job applications, while five states (California, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, and Wisconsin) only allow employers to disqualify candidates if their criminal record meets certain criteria, such as posing a risk to public safety or being directly related to their work.

The movement to “ban the box” has seen increasing popularity in recent years. This refers to the check box on many job applications that asks whether the applicant has ever been arrested or convicted of a felony. As of 2023, 37 states and more than 150 counties and cities have adopted ban the box policies.

For many restaurants and other food businesses, this concept is nothing new. Food service has long been an industry that welcomed the formerly incarcerated, especially in back-of-the-house roles like chef or line cook. Restaurant operators understand what business owners in other areas are coming to realize: that someone with a criminal background can still achieve great success in their career if given the right opportunity. 

Employers who want to improve the equity and inclusion of their hiring processes should consider all of the requirements in their job postings through this lens, and removing questions about arrest history is one of the easiest ways to do this. Staying open to this large and often-overlooked segment of the population is also one of the top strategies for overcoming staff shortages as the demand for food service talent continues to rise.

Technology’s role in resolving staff shortages

Many food service employers have found themselves under conflicting pressures when it comes to hiring. On the one hand, 62% of operators reported having too little staff to meet consumer demand in the National Restaurant Association’s 2023 State of the Restaurant Industry report. Yet many of those eateries can’t afford to hire more. In that same report, 89% of operators cited high labor costs as a significant issue, especially with the price of ingredients, equipment, and other essentials going up at the same time. 

Smart use of food tech is one way for food industry businesses to break free of this catch-22. Implementing technology like handheld order systems, QR code menus, data-driven scheduling software, and kitchen display systems (KDS) improve the efficiency of food business operations, giving them the ability to provide an exceptional customer experience without hiring more staff. A report from Food Business News shows that 58% of restaurant operators expect to use technology and automation to fill gaps in their team driven by the labor shortage. 

Consumer preferences do still need to be kept in mind when deciding which food tech to implement. While online ordering and similar tech solutions are great for convenience, a recent study shows 75% of consumers still value human interaction as part of their customer experience. This is why, when you’re considering what types of technology to integrate, it’s often best to focus on products that will streamline the human aspects of the process, rather than replacing them. 

As emerging technologies like AI and robots become more widespread, the options for food industry automation will continue to expand. Finding a balance between tech tools and human staff will deliver the best results for your business in the long-term. 

Increased emphasis on employee retention

Hiring and training new staff is expensive, and a high turnover rate can impact more than just your bottom line. Frequent turnover can negatively impact the workplace culture, too, and lead to more mistakes or slower service that can drive away customers. 

The average turnover rate in restaurants has increased over the past 10 years. Data from the order platform Toast shows the industry-wide turnover rate in 2022 was 83.4%, a significant increase from the 62.4% recorded in 2013. While this is likely still influenced to some extent by pandemic-related lockdowns and closures in 2020 and 2021, it is still a concerning statistic for food business operators. What’s more, Toast’s survey data indicates that 30% of current workers plan to leave the industry within the next two years. 

Knowing why food business employees leave the industry is the first step to combating the turnover problem. The most common motivations include low pay, a lack of recognition for their work, a lack of long-term career growth, and difficulties with management or coworkers. The long hours, need to work evenings and weekends, and a lack of scheduling flexibility are also driving factors in the industry’s turnover rate. Learning which of these issues is the most pressing for your team, and implementing policies and changes to address these concerns, can help companies maintain their staff more effectively so that they won’t need to hire as often.


Upskilling and internal hiring

One approach to boosting employee retention is to invest in the future and careers of staff members. Upskilling and promotions are an example of initiatives that allow companies to do this, while at the same time filling critical roles or adding skills their team needs but that are difficult to find in the job market. 

Finding the time and money to implement upskilling programs can be a challenge for companies struggling to keep up with inflation and ongoing staff shortages. It is worth the investment, however, especially for those employers who want to attract more Gen Z and Millennial talent. Career growth is a primary concern for job seekers in these demographics,and can make the difference in whether they decide to join your team or take their talents elsewhere. 

It’s also important to remember that these initiatives don’t need to be costly or time-consuming. A mentorship program is a relatively low-cost way for employers to provide leadership skill building to employees eager to advance their career within your organization. Simply clarifying the pathways for advancement can go a long way toward showing both existing team members and new applicants that you’re willing to invest in their futures.

Solving the problem of food service hiring

Hiring in food service has always presented unique challenges. The industry’s reputation for high turnover and low wages can make it difficult to attract high-quality workers, and that is especially true today, when employers and employees both are feeling the pinch of inflation and rising costs. Staying abreast of the industry’s hiring trends can help employers meet and overcome these challenges and maintain the impressive growth the industry has seen over the past two years.

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.

If you’re interested in working with Bristol Associates, click here if you’re an employer or here if you’re a candidate.

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter here

Get The Newsletter

Receive Exclusive Career Opportunities, Hiring Best Practices, and More Straight to Your Inbox