10 Ways to Reduce Turnover and Retain the Workers You Need
“We’ve had moments where we’ve had massive turnover all at once and it’s totally disruptive.”
– Erin Patinkin
Co-owner of Ovenly
We spoke to 100+ NYC Small Businesses. Read on for the result.
1. Focus on retaining valuable workers as much as on finding new talent
Many successful businesses said they would rather hire someone with no food service experience but a positive attitude and readiness to work hard.
• Indiana Catering (Hell’s Kitchen) looks for hires who “love service” above applicants with only experience.
• Bogota Latin Bistro (Parks Slope) calls it “values driven” hiring.
• Moishe’s Bake Shop (East Village) calls it hiring for “good character.”
• Salsa Caterers and Special Events (East Tremont) owner Daniel Garcia says, “I always tell someone new, you can spill coffee on someone… but because you’re awesome in service it’s going to wash away the mistake you might make. I’d rather take somebody who has the heart and the values than the skill set.”
2. Hire people who know and have another tie to your business
Many businesses find that their workers are more likely to stay with them if they are connected to each other and to the neighborhood. A few hired loyal customers. Many hire through employee referrals.
• Corner Social (Harlem) recently hired a regular customer as its general manager.
• Veniero’s Pastry’s (Lower East Side) owner Robert Zerilli says he could create a worker family tree with all of the relatives the bakery has employed over the years. This has included many workers who have stayed with him for decades.
• Salsa Caterers and Special Events (East Tremont) has hired several children of employees who are now adults and affectionately calls them “little salsaritos.”
• Dufour Pastry Kitchens (Hunt’s Point) hires from surrounding neighborhoods by working through local agencies and organizations.
3. Hire older workers
Older workers stay in jobs longer than younger workers. In 2014, the median tenure of workers ages 55-64 in all industries was 10.4 years, more than three times the 3.0 years for workers ages 25-34 years (US Bureau of Labor Statistics).
“It is better to hire older people because you know they’re going to be there,” says Michael O’Neal, owner of the Boat Basin Café (Upper West Side), which has about 20 workers over age 50, including servers and kitchen staff who handle up to 1,000 customers a day.
“The younger we are the more we are in a job just for ourselves. The older workers tend to understand that we’re in it for something greater than ourselves. Then one becomes connected to the mission of the business and it becomes a bigger job. The value of that can’t be brought to dollars and cents,” said David Turk of Indiana Catering (Hell’s Kitchen).
“There is something to be said about youth and looks, but it’s really not youth and looks. It’s energy,” said Jeremy Merrin of Havana Central. “We have older servers who do really well here because they have great character and make it a good experience, and young people who don’t have the personality to win over guests.”
Silver Palace, a high volume dim sum restaurant in Upper Manhattan, has numerous employees from its opening in the 1970’s and seeks older workers for openings because they integrate better into the team environment.
How do I attract older workers to hire?
There are 700,000 workers over 50 in NYC, and many more are looking for work.
• Use age-friendly language like “mature workers welcome” on job listings.
• Although the Age Discrimination Employment Act generally affirms age-neutrality in areas of employment, the statute permits favoring older employees. Simply put, an employer can target job ads to retirees without violating ADEA.
• Ask current workers for recommendations As Nico Russo of Gargiulo’s Restaurant says: “Every time you get a new person they have a friend who needs a job.”
• Recruit from sites with worker profiles like LinkedIn.com and Harri.com. Even though Harri.com skews much younger, today, it has 1, 000 job seekers in NYC over age 50.
• Recognize experience in a field with transferable skills, like retail (customer service) or a superintendent of a building (management and maintenance).
• Do not assume a position is below a person’s salary expectations or qualifications unless a person says so.
4. Offer benefits to set yourself apart
Most small food service businesses cannot afford to pay health insurance or retirement plans, so those that do set themselves apart from competitors. Several said that they began by offering one type of benefit and then increased benefits as they grew or became more successful.
• Ben’s Best Kosher Delicatessen (Rego Park) offers profit sharing and vests workers through a defined pension fund. They have several workers who have been there for 20+ years.
• Gargiulo’s (Coney Island), Make My Cake (Harlem) and Veniero’s Bakery (Lower East Side) pay for at least a portion of health insurance.
• Dozens of restaurants, including Katz’s Delicatessen (Lower East Side), hire union workers who have full benefits.
5. Offer flexibility and other perks
• Settepani Restaurant (Harlem) is one of many restaurants that offer servers time off for acting and music gigs. Owner Leah Abraham says that allowing people to nurture their other interests, retains workers longer in an industry known as a back-up for those with other interests.
• Benchmarc, parent company of Manhattan restaurants Landmarc and Ditch Plains allows workers to take off the month for Ramadan annually.
• Katz’s Delicatessen (Lower East Side) keeps the jobs of immigrants who return to home countries for three or four months a year.
Many food service businesses retain and pay valued workers on a case-by-case basis during extended medical and family emergencies. Workers spoke of employers who lent them money for extraordinary expenses, those who allowed kids to come with them to work and those who sponsored immigration visas.
6. Pay competitive wages
Food service businesses with high retention say increasing hourly wages by even a few dollars helps keep valuable employees.
• “You have to pay better than your peer group. If your peer group is paying $14 to $15 [an hour], you have to pay $15 to $17. It’s worth it,” said Jeremy Merrin, owner of Havana Central (Times Square), who also gives workers bonuses.
• Corner Social (Harlem) keeps staff small enough to ensure everyone has enough hours to make a living and only need one job.
• “We try not to have too many people, and the right composition of people, so everyone has a fair chance of making decent money,” says owner Ivo Philbert. “Most folks make a pretty good penny due to volume.
7. Create paths to advancement
Retention is high when staff can see a future in a better position, with good models at:
• Mumbles Restaurant (Gramercy Park) where the chef started as a dishwasher.
• Dufour Pastry Kitchens (Hunt’s Point), where production line workers have moved to the office.
• Bergen Bagels (Fort Greene), where the manager moved up from handling deliveries.
And when they are enticed by small promotions along the way, with good models at:
• Havana Central (Times Square) created intermediate positions – four levels of hostess with new titles and small raises –leading to better retention.
• Benchmarc similarly promotes line cooks they want to retain to “kitchen managers.” They get small raises, take administrative work off the hands of the executive chef, and still work as line cooks.
• Bartleby and Sage (Long Island City) has retained kitchen staff for 7+ years by creating a ladder to climb: “We promote constantly,” says Event Catering Coordinator Greta Poretsky.
8. Prevent others from stealing valued workers by offering competitive pay and benefits
Many small manufacturers use union workers and provide full benefits. Others have found offering full benefits to be too costly, but have found that offering competitive pay and at least some benefits helps to retain employees.
International Asbestos Removal (Flushing) offers a 401K plan and health insurance to their non-union staff.
Architectural Grille (Gowanus) offers a full benefits package.
Ovenly (Greenpoint), a retail and wholesale bakery, pays for 50% of workers’ health insurance and reimburses for relevant trainings. “We are constantly asking our employees, how do you want to grow? What is the experience you want to gain from this,” says coowner Agatha Kulaga.
9. Develop worker-centered scheduling
Green Kitchen (Upper East Side) has a set schedule for its 24/7 restaurant that only changes twice a year, giving all workers predictability and more senior workers better shifts (e.g., two consecutive days off).
• Peter Pan Donut and Pastry Shop (Greenpoint) has reduced turnover since trusting workers to swap shifts without asking permission. “I tell them I don’t care who works as long as someone showsup,” says owner Donna Siafakas.
10. Retain valuable workers who might otherwise retire
Small restaurants and other food service businesses consistently describe older workers as more reliable, as having a stronger work ethic and better communications skills. Older workers are also praised as a calming force in group dynamics and as holders of the restaurant’s history.
• “Consistency is incredibly valuable financially,” says Greta Poretsky of Bartleby and Sage (Long Island City).
Restaurants describe making small adaptations to physical tasks as a way to to keep valuable older workers (e.g., giving them tables near the kitchen or their own busser), but they also told stories such as that of an 89-year-old woman who initiated lugging a bag of concrete up from the basement and an older worker at first reticent to try a new point of sale system who quickly became faster than everyone else.
• “She was the fiercest most meticulous waitress we ever had,” says Andreas Matischak, manager of Heidelberg (Upper East Side) of a 70-year-old who recently retired, one of the busy restaurant’s several older workers. “Each table was set perfectly… You didn’t have to tell her to do anything. She worked her whole life in the industry.”
Amy's Breads (Long Island City)
“(Our older bakers) have seen the company grow from a small company and a young company to where we are today. It gives me a sense of confidence and pleasure to have this sense of continuity.” This history has kept its bread bakers for many years (some more than 20).
“We all know each other and trust each other very much. That combination gives the company a lot of stability.” --Amy Scherber, Owner