Behind The Bar: Making Front of House Top of Mind

Finding, keeping, and developing great hospitality staff has never been tougher. There are no quick-and-easy answers, but here are some practical measures for attracting and empowering a strong team—so they can better deliver the experiences that keep customers coming back.

Greg Engert Nov 9, 2023 - 7 min read

Behind The Bar: Making Front of House Top of Mind Primary Image

A lighter moment with the team at Lúpulo Craft Beer House in Santa Cruz, California. Photo: Jamie Bogner.

The pandemic may be over, but COVID is not—at this point, we’ve come to expect periodic surges. We expect the scrambling shift coverage that finds us struggling to keep beer flowing from the brewhouse to the bar and beyond. You’d think each callout would be a reminder of how difficult it was to run a business during peak COVID—but in reality, it just underscores how trying it has continued to be.

Those early days caused an exodus that has left the brewing, bar, and restaurant industry short on staff to this day, particularly the kind of experienced and energized, long-term employees around which all our businesses had long been built. Today, more than a million more hospitality jobs remain open than before the pandemic.

All the while, competition has remained fierce, and not just for attracting capable employees. Our guests have an ever-expanding array of options for their dollars, even as economic factors have caused more than a few to pull back on spending. Those who continue to spend more freely can be a bit less forgiving when staffing issues lead to poor service or unsatisfactory products. It often feels as if guests supported us during the hard times with the expectation that the pandemic would come to an abrupt end, and then we’d pay them back with a level of service that’s become seemingly impossible to offer.

Over the past few years, we’ve watched staffing struggles lead to subpar service across our company. We’ve waited for the return of near-mythic industry veterans to deliver us from this predicament. They haven’t arrived, and—while our situation has remained murky—our goals have become increasingly clear: to attract, develop and maintain the kind of people who can build a team laser-focused on hospitality. We know that when a staff remains dedicated to hospitality, they create the kinds of consistent experiences that can turn even the most jaded newcomers into rabid superfans.


Perks and Fostering Camaraderie

Offering lucrative financial incentives, in the form of higher wages and bonuses, is the most obvious and all-too-often unworkable strategy to attract and keep valuable employees. With slim margins made even slimmer by the ever-increasing costs of goods, utilities, rent, and—of course—labor, our businesses have had to get more and more resourceful in their recruiting techniques.

Some possibilities here: Tie additional earnings to profit-sharing rather than perfunctory bonuses that will go unpaid without a degree of profitability. If matching a 401(k) is impossible, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to start one for your staff. Encouraging and supporting sound retirement planning will benefit your employees, as will helping them develop a broader financial acuity by hosting seminars on home buying, general investing, and even saving for college.

The focus on financial success can be matched by efforts to promote the health of our staff. Forming run clubs and subsidizing community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs)—offering regular access to fresh produce—can help contribute to the physical well-being of our employees, while organized yoga classes, group meditation, and volunteer outings can prove beneficial to social and mental health. These kinds of perks and activities help build trust among the team and camaraderie that transcends the workplace.

The hospitality business has always been tough, but some individuals continue to gravitate toward the work. Despite long, physically taxing hours; extended periods of high stress; and difficult customers, that fellowship among staff is fulfilling. We try to further encourage the team aspect of the job with company picnics, retreats, and parties, as well as field trips to neighboring breweries, bars, and restaurants—to visit those who inspire us. We look to experience the kind of service to which we aspire. We hope to be influenced and motivated beyond beer or even food, with trips to wineries that involve tasting, yes, but also help with the harvest, cuppings with our favorite coffee roasters, or visits to art museums.

Training Matters

Underscoring all of this is the opportunity for continuing education, something refreshingly available to—and exceedingly beneficial for—our employees. Host some in-house tastings with experts. Stock your shelves with books on all manner of food and beverage. Provide stipends, study-group spaces, and materials for food and beverage professionals looking to grow. That can be in the Cicerone program, of course, but it could also branch out into something like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) or other certifications. These educational opportunities will round out and expand the work in a way that helps to keep the job fresh and energizing.

Expansive educational programs and extracurricular activities will help build a strong working environment, but positive daily interactions are imperative for achieving high levels of hospitality. Staff want to learn and improve, and developing daily training programs, with ample testing and sales contests, will ensure their growth. Each day should begin with an informative pre-shift session, ideally after sharing some family meal, and end with a recap, preferably accompanied by shift beers. Offer your staff frequent one-on-one performance reviews with clear sets of goals, so that growth is offered and achievable. Mentor your team. Deliver praise and criticism in balance and with intention, being sure to recognize exceptional work in group settings and opportunities for improvement more directly. Say thank you, over and over again.

Elevating Our Teams

It’s important we remain excited to train, manage, and work alongside our teammates. By engaging with them daily, while continually offering opportunity, we can attract passionate employees of various knowledge and skill levels, each primed for development and ready for retention.

Build a crew that can consistently impress and impact your guests. They’ll form a solid core group to help recruit and then reinforce the dedication to hospitality. Make them feel special, and they’ll make the guests feel special.

Greg Engert is beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose bars and restaurants include ChurchKey, Rustico, and the Bluejacket brewery, among others.