3 Optimistic Realities That Can Encourage the Savvy Operator

Every business owner knows about the severity of today’s labor issues and, likely, would agree it’s reaching a “crisis” threshold—especially in foodservice, where a perfect storm is brewing.

In the midst of more restaurants opening, consumer demands for menu options and convenience increasing, and all kinds of market forces driving up supply costs, it’s hard to see a glimmer on the horizon.

Like Panera Bread’s CEO, Blaine Hurst, recently summarized in a rather blunt commentary on the matter in a Business Insider interview, “I don't see this problem getting easier. I don't see somehow there’s an extra 50 million foodservice workers that are gonna drop into the country and disperse . . . the way we need.”

Pep talk anyone?

Solutions to problems of this magnitude are never easy. But they can be found in places like these three optimistic realities that more savvy foodservice operators can use to fuel their fire.

New Foodservice Technologies Are Emerging Every Day

Software developers, equipment manufacturers and other tech-oriented enterprises are fully aware of your labor struggle and see it as a tremendous market for growth. So, they’re acutely incentivized to step up their game.

And they are, such that the challenge for foodservice operators really lies in capturing the full scope of technology options.

Robotics, for example, are in their relative infancy. But they are coming on fast, already beginning to fill labor gaps at chains like CaliBurger and Dunkin’ Donuts.

And the growth of labor-saving advancements in food equipment continues to grow exponentially—as can be witnessed, again, at this week’s NAFEM show.

Meanwhile, software systems that simplify or even transform administrative and other grindstone tasks, from scheduling to inventory to compliance, are proliferating like mad.

The key is to focus on technologies that can solve for the mundane and actually improve operational consistency that is a hallmark of effective foodservice branding. Consumers expect consistency. But the underestimated value add of technology and automation is that it allows operators to concentrate what human labor they do have on that other consumer expectation—service and the customer experience.

Competition Compels Foodservice Innovation

One of the difficult ironies of the growing labor crisis is that, in the face of a shortage, compounded by so many other margin-squeezing pressures, the number of new restaurants has been rising in recent years—only finally edging off in 2018, but not enough to put the supply-and-demand in proper balance.

When a market has this many options, differentiation becomes more critical than ever—which forces foodservice operators to ratchet up their creativity. Out of that comes menu innovations that can optimize seasonality and reduce food costs, streamline kitchen operations and, best of all, yield truly unique signature items that can be priced as such.

But the innovation happens on the labor side too, where operations are getting equally creative with their recruitment and retention tactics.

Some are changing the way they bill to share the tip wealth among back-of-the-house staff. Others are offering benefits like college tuition reimbursement. And Starbucks recently made the news for introducing “a new family care benefit (that provides) workers with ten subsidized backup care days for children or adults.” (CNN, Oct. 2018.)

Survivors Are Battle Tested for Greatness

Yeah, this third “silver lining” has a tough-love bent to it, but it’s a stone-cold truth that wiser foodservice operators will acknowledge and, more importantly, embrace.

It’s intrinsic to the American economy and, most recently, it played out for many businesses in the aftermath of 2008, including those in the foodservice industry, as restaurants were looking for silver linings back then, too. Some of the most notable companies that grew in the recession and stand very well today include McDonalds and the aforementioned Panera Bread.

As operators find ways to trim fat and innovate, they get more resilient and their business gets sharper.

With efficiencies in energy or operational evolution (such as off-premises dining) or with more attractive benefits or workplace culture, when an operation has established methods that reduce a dependency on labor—while enhancing the quality of the labor it does have, again, as a means to add value to the dining experience—they’re poised to  expand the bottom line in ways, otherwise, never imagined.