September 25th is National Foodservice Workers Day! Hooray for us! It’s the day to tip our hats, and maybe add a little extra tip, to all the servers, cooks, dishwashers, stewards, hosts, bartenders, baristas, chefs, bakers, lunch ladies, hash-slingers, food runners, sommeliers, maître d’s and the managers who herd all these cats in the uniquely special environment of the food world. Food workers serve customers in fine dining restaurants, private clubs, fast food establishments, grocery stores, cruise ships, cafeterias, bars, hospitals and hotels. They greet and seat customers, take orders, prepare food, provide table service, mix and serve drinks, wash dishes, sweep, mop, haul trash, tidy restrooms and prepare establishments each day for business. Food workers often arrive at this vocation from vast and varied backgrounds, yet soon find themselves members of a big, extended, sometimes fractious family dedicated to “the business” with all of the stress, physical demands, long hours, discerning customers and unpredictability the work involves.
Over 25% of the US workforce has at one time worked in food service
Of the overall U.S. workforce, 10% is dedicated to food service
-National Restaurant Association
How does a collection of sometimes misfit, dysfunctional, incompatible beings somehow pull together all the details necessary for a service day after day, on holidays, nights and weekends when the rest of the world is blissfully going about life? Many of us simply love the work, for some it may be the means to an end and still others have the industry handed down from generations in family food businesses. Regardless, food businesses need to run efficiently, with a sense of order and purpose and getting it right consistently is a pretty tall order that can’t be accomplished without the work of human hands.
Given the stresses and demands of the business: long hours, high pressure, traditionally low pay, it’s not hard to recognize that the hospitality industry experiences high employee turnover rates, a whopping 73%, according to The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Program [JOLTS]. The report indicated that in 2017, the average tenure of a restaurant employee was only one month and 26 days. The “revolving door syndrome” costs the food business thousands each year in recruitment and re-training. A study done by the prestigious Center for Hospitality Research (CHR) at Cornell University found staff turnover could be as high as $5,864 per employee.
Certainly, the industry offers so many rewards and many of us who earn our living in everything food and hospitality could imagine doing nothing else. Yet there are challenges in the business with work-life balance, ceaseless high expectations and notorious “tough” culture found in some segments of food service. From the toniest hot spot to the humblest joint, those who fulfill the mostly unglamorous day to day tasks in the food business: prep cooks, line cooks and entry-level servers are often living on margins as thin as a typical P&L sheet. Almost one-third of all food workers experience food insecurity (near hunger) according to a Food Chain Workers Alliance report. About 80 percent of these workers seldom receive promotions or health benefits, and four out of five don’t have paid sick days. For those with advanced professional training in cooking, service and management, staying in the game year after year with the sometimes unrelenting pace can take a toll on personal health and relationships. Yet each day, they suit up and soldier on in service to the world of the hungry and thirsty public.
So on September 25th, should you find yourself in a food service establishment, take a minute to be kind to those in the business. Give a little hello with a smile, ask the staff person how they are doing and maybe pay attention when a server is describing the day’s specials.
And if you happen to be a decision-maker managing and mentoring staff, consider and implement steps that leaders can take that positively impact your team, not just once a year, but daily efforts that demonstrate commitment and appreciation to employees:
Establish meaningful reward systems that encourage teamwork
Recognize milestones: work anniversaries, birthdays, professional accomplishments
Discuss shared goals and provide ongoing training and professional development to accomplish them
Feed your staff nutritious and thoughtfully prepared family meals
And the most important gesture, say THANK YOU. Often. You may just slow the spin on that revolving door.
Chef Mary Howley is the culinary consultant to the RCS Hospitality Group and a former Executive Chef of her own catering company, several country clubs, and fine dining restaurants. She studied throughout Europe and honed her skills on the East Coast working with a myriad of culinary styles. She had the honor to serve as research and development chef for Food Unlimited, and held the position of Pastry Chef in two James Beard Dinner Events.