Strategies for Surviving the Restaurant Industry Staff Shortage

From top fine-dining establishments to roadside diners, restaurants across the U.S. are experiencing significant and costly staffing shortages. Affecting both the front and back of the house, management is struggling to fill open positions and retain good employees. As a result, many restaurants are operating at a limited capacity, with reduced hours, and in many cases, closing doors altogether. The plummet in the industry-wide employment rate ranges from 25 percent down for bars/taverns and mobile eateries, to a staggering 58 percent decrease for full-service restaurants. Overall, the restaurant workforce remains around one million jobs below pre-pandemic employment levels (as of August 2021).

Factors Driving the Restaurant Labor Shortage

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 is the predominant factor behind this staggering nationwide labor shortage for restaurants. During the pandemic, restrictions, restaurant and bar shutdowns, and capacity limits, as well as social distancing protocols and widespread fear kept many consumers out of restaurants. In fact, one in ten restaurants closed permanently during the height of the pandemic. These conditions forced widespread lay-offs and furloughs, which the restaurant industry has not been able to turn around now that restrictions have subsided and consumers are coming back.

Where Did All the Workers Go?

The pandemic and ongoing Delta variant concerns are certainly the main reasons for the employment glut, but other factors are influencing this seeming disappearance of workers.

  •  Career Changes: Many restaurant workers during the pandemic were forced to re-invent themselves. They found other jobs, in other industries; went back to school or learned new skills; started new careers, or launched new businesses of their own. The federal pandemic unemployment assistance allowed some individuals the ability to consider new paths or a change of pace.
  •  Lingering Fears: Some employees have ongoing health concerns with contracting COVID-19 and its surging variants that are keeping them from returning to food services settings. Workers have also cited frustrations at changing safety regulations and stringent protocols including mask-wearing, as reasons for moving on.
  •  Employee Turnover: In response to pandemic-related closures and restrictions, many restaurants were forced to cut costs including their employee compensation. Employee burnout and turnover, due to the typical long hours, low pay, and rigorous work often associated with the industry, has also accelerated.

Although COVID-19 cases are falling and restrictions are easing in some areas, these staffing issues are not expected to go away any time soon

Strategies for Surviving the Shortage

Staffing shortages can have a wide-ranging, significant impact on the successful operation of a restaurant, including limiting service capacity and hours of operation, frustrating customers with long wait times and substandard service, reducing menu options and food quality, and overall, sinking profits. Restaurant owners and managers need a fresh perspective and recipe for success during this unprecedented time.

  • Improve Incentives, Compensation, and Benefits: The scarcity of workers for an abundance of job openings is forcing restaurant operators to be creative and offer a variety of compensation packages, including increased hourly wages, immediate pay and signing bonuses, and offering raises after an initial period of time. Increased vacation time, free college tuition, promotion and growth opportunities, and mentorships are other ways to help encourage employees to stick around.
  • Make Retention a Priority: Restaurant owners and managers balance a lot on their plates every day to keep their business thriving, from juggling finances, marketing, and day-to-day operations. Prioritizing employee retention is often not at the top of their list. In today’s difficult environment, keeping employees happy, rewarded, and committed has to be a focus for keeping the doors open. Some strategies include increasing training, implementing bonus or incentive programs, enhancing communication and opportunities for employees to voice concerns, as well as sharing the company vision, goals, and news with employees so they feel part of the team.
  • Step up the Recruitment Game: Many restaurants will choose to advertise menu items, special offers, or new features to help them stand out, but do not take the same approach to their employee recruitment. There are several options for getting the attention of prospective employees, including advertising in local publications, online employment websites (for example Indeed, Google, and Jora), as well on social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Offering referral bonuses from current employees is another way to find new reliable recruits.
  • Prioritize Workers’ Health and Safety: Emphasizing the health and safety of employees and implementing protocols and precautions will keep staff safe and protected, and attract new candidates. The first and most important step for restaurants is adopting proactive and thorough cleaning and sanitation processes, during and after restaurant hours, and to both the back of the house and the front of the house public spaces. For effective and convenient cleaning and disinfection, restaurants can use multi-surface sanitizing wipes that remove 99.999% of the most common foodborne pathogens from their surfaces. Find more information on food safety and effective and efficient cleaning solutions at the Sani Professional resource center.
  • Invest in Technology: Even though technology can’t replace the warmth and personality of the human touch, there has been an influx of automation and new technology that can help streamline and improve restaurant operations. While this tech trend predates the pandemic, it has accelerated during this time given the worker shortage and demand for contactless transactions and safer, socially distant dining options. For example, point-of-sale (POS) technology includes touch screen devices that allow customers to order and pay for food without direct employee interaction. Many restaurants are also using QR codes — barcodes that mobile phones can process — at tables, offering customers access to menus without any human contact. Display screens in kitchens, mobile food apps, and automated drive-throughs are other examples of emerging technologies changing the way food establishments work.

As the food and beverage industry continues to face widespread workforce shortages, restaurant owners and operators need to proactively embrace strategies like incentives and retention campaigns, consumer-facing technology, and emphasizing safety and cleanliness to attract and retain the best employees.


  • “Restaurants within 1 million jobs of pre-pandemic peak”, National Restaurant Association August 2021
  • “Datassential: 10% of all U.S. restaurants have closed permanently since the pandemic began” PRN Newswire 2021
  • “This Should Be a Boom Time for Restaurants. But Owners—and the Few Workers Remaining—Are Struggling” Time 2021
  • “The Magnitude and Distribution of Job Losses Early in the Pandemic” NBER 2020
  • “Employment recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic” BLS 2020