Fare Share: Central Ohio restaurants in dire need of employees

John Barker
Guest Columnist

To restaurants, people are everything.

From delighted guests to back-of-house employees, the owners, the delivery drivers, to the greater community, people are the lifeblood of what makes a restaurant alive, vibrant and thriving.

John Barker is president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.

Without people, restaurants are hollow, empty shells of what could be, and many still are closed from the pandemic.

And right now, Ohio’s restaurants need a transfusion.

Although the trajectory of our industry certainly is heading in the right direction and we’re thankful for the excellent pace of the vaccination rollout in our state, our industry is dealing with pressure surrounding the lack of available employees. This is a major issue as consumer confidence and guest traffic increase.

According to the latest data from Morning Consult, a global-data intelligence company, 55% of Americans feel comfortable dining out at a restaurant – a jump of more than 10 percentage points since mid-March. It’s a dramatic sentiment change experienced by all measured age categories. March is the best month since last summer although still significantly lower volumes than pre-pandemic.

Even with this good news, every operator the Ohio Restaurant Association talks with is struggling to hire and fill open positions in every area, from entry level, servers and cooks to management.

Why is this? Operators tell us these are some of the reasons: Employees have shifted to different industry sectors; employees are reluctant to return to work due to COVID-19; and employees are less willing to return to work while expanded unemployment benefits are extended and federal stimulus funds are available.

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What are operators doing to encourage people to work in the industry?

Restaurant owners, the vast majority of whom started their careers in entry-level food-service positions, are implementing many initiatives to retain their employees and attract new ones:

Retention: effective use of comprehensive internal rewards and recognition, focusing on culture, career paths and upward movement, tuition reimbursement, paid time off and holidays. Many also are encouraging employees to get the COVID-19 vaccination with PTO and incentives 

Hiring: use of job boards, hiring bonuses, incentives for current employees to recommend candidates, workforce development programs, etc.

Through a joint partnership with the National Restaurant Association, the ORA is focused on strategies and actions that could have a positive macro impact on available workforce, such as these:

• Continued successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines

• Rebuilding consumer confidence in restaurants (i.e., Ohio Restaurant Promise) and additional campaigns in planning

• Job boards and workforce development programs

• Thoughtful and effective immigration reform

There’s still a long road ahead. And as a result of these varying factors and trends, the industry turnaround will continue through 2022 and perhaps into 2023. The pace and duration of the turnaround are dependent on the level of rebounding sales, plus financial support from federal, state and local governments, as well as successful management of the pandemic.

Last but certainly not least, we need, well, new blood. We need people to work in our industry, and we need them quickly, as time is running out.

Just like how one blood donation through the Red Cross can save up to three precious lives, people who are able and willing to work in the industry will save the local restaurants we all love.

John Barker is president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.