The great restaurant challenge! No, this is not a competition. Yes, I am aware there are many challenges facing the industry at the moment but the one that is looming largest is the sudden disappearance of middle management.
Cast your mind back fifteen to twenty years and the industry was filled with ambitious young waiters looking to forge a career in the industry with a view to one day owning their own little eatery, built from the ground up.
Fast forward to today and all you hear all day is “I can’t find management staff, help!”
So what has changed?
So what has shifted so dramatically in the past fifteen years to bring on this ever growing labour crisis?
Firstly, “barrier to entry”.
The cost of opening a restaurant has skyrocketed over the past ten years. Labour costs are almost prohibitive and landlords are asking high rentals and even higher deposits and guarantees. The chances of a young waiter ever seeing his name above the door have diminished to the point that it is almost unheard of.
Secondly, “outpaced salaries”.
There are certainly easier ways to make a living than bumping into tables, taking abuse from customers and owners alike (alas it still happens plenty), getting home every day after midnight only to be up at the crack of dawn to open the store again, low wages, hard to achieve incentives and limited prospects.
Thirdly, “lack of career path”.
With almost no formal qualification and nothing to walk away with besides experience, it is increasingly difficult to convince young job seekers that this is the path they should follow.
And finally, “preconceptions”.
Once a domain dominated by white males, the industry is slowly but surely transforming itself. Perhaps at times a little too slowly but the signs are there and they are a welcome sight. The notion that only a man would do this job may have been lead in part by the fact that only a man would WANT to do this job.
The cause of the crisis is simple to identify; the solution is a little more difficult.
Is there a solution?
Addressing the barrier to entry will require some lateral thinking – from crowd funding to alternative venues, smaller restaurants and inventive menus.
No startup is going to be able to compete with the tens of millions of rands being spent on large restaurants in blue chip locations but there is an exciting world out there and you can make you mark.
Those pesky salaries, damn do we really have to pay THAT much?
Time and skill are a commodity and are actually traded as such. The more time and skill you want from someone the more you will need to pay.
Firstly, you are competing with the money that can be earned by a good waiter in a good restaurant (and rumour has it that can be plenty).
Then you need to compete with the cell phone and fashion stores in the malls always looking for smiling enthusiastic staff to drive their expansion.
Finally, you need to compete with other restaurants that are always on the lookout for good staff.
When putting the package together, take the hours, travel and opportunity into consideration and pay a little more. You will always receive much more. Please remember staff become accustomed to their salary very quickly. Beyond that it is your support and recognition that will keep them motivated and striving to improve.
The lack of a clear career path backed up with recognized qualifications remains a huge stumbling block to obtaining and retaining top staff. This is not a new challenge; it is being highlighted in a time when staff career paths are becoming increasingly important. I believe this is a challenge for the industry, and possibly to be led by the Restaurant Association of South Africa, but it will require buy in from restaurants, suppliers, government and other stakeholders.
For individual restaurant owners, take the time and make the effort to mentor your staff, offer them books and articles to read, send them on training and courses and help them grow. Your business will reap the benefits for years to come.
The final challenge of preconception is slowly being broken down and forward thinking restaurant owners and groups will pave the way.
I am a strong believer in equal opportunity (not equal outcome as that lies in the hands of the individual) and welcome the changes I see not only in the restaurant industry but in the country as a whole.
So a challenge it is, but every challenge creates new opportunities for those who are prepared to find them. Go out there and find the solution!
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