How to Manage Your Restaurant With a Smaller Staff

// By Kristin Fenchak // , Jun 17, 2020

Topics: Restaurant Management

Given the strict capacity limitations during COVID-19, it's not feasible to reopen your restaurant or bar with a full staff.


Whether some of your employees choose not to return, or you're forced to let some of your employees go, it's time to overhaul the way you staff your business, and prepare for the uncertain road ahead. 


While this is a devastating realization to come to, your business has to make a profit, and so do your employees. If you're overstaffed, nobody wins; you'll eat into your profits with high labor costs, and your staff will be clamoring for tips, with not enough to go around.


How do you create a business model that is beneficial for everyone? We'll give you some ideas to get started.


Restaurant Staffing Solutions 


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Cross-Train Your Employees


Cross-training is the most valuable thing you can do for both you and your employees. You'll be able to have less people on the clock, you'll have ample coverage when employees call in sick, and your staff will get tasks done more efficiently.


The reality is that many consumers are still opting to stay home, so your staff is likely going to have some down time on their hands. Rather than standing idle while service is slow, encourage your employees to use this extra time wisely. This is where cross-training comes in handy. 


Consolidate Job Roles


Take note of the positions you currently have in your establishment: are there server assistants, hosts, cashiers, barbacks? Ask yourself where you can consolidate these roles and train your staff members accordingly. 


Maybe your servers don't know the first thing about how to make drinks, but ideally, they should know just as much as your bartenders. The more a server knows about making and executing cocktails, the more knowledgeable they appear to your guests.


There's nothing worse than asking a server a question about an item on the menu, and their response is "I'm not sure...let me ask someone." If you cross-train your employees properly, you can fill in these knowledge gaps across your entire staff. 


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Training a server behind the bar not only makes them smarter, but it gives them freedom and flexibility. When time allows, they can take initiative and make their own drinks, or jump in to help a bartender that's swamped with tickets. You now have an employee that is elastic with their job, depending on the needs of your bar or restaurant. 


You don't necessarily have to train everyone on your staff for multiple jobs. As long as employees are picking up the slack where it's needed, and acting as team players, your restaurant will become a more harmonious and efficient environment. With effective cross-training, you can expect to see:


  • Better communication among employees
  • Improved customer service
  • More knowledgeable staff
  • Lower payroll costs
  • More lucrative tips for employees
  • Reliable coverage when someone is sick


Don't Hire (Unless You Have to)


Depending on how many of your employees plan on returning to work, you may have considered adding a few new hires to fill in the gaps. Be sure not to hire new employees unless it's absolutely necessary. 


The extra costs in payroll aren't going to benefit you, and you run the risk of employee turnover, which is incredibly costly for restaurants. Employee turnover in the service industry hovers around 70-75%, and you're going to eat those costs. 


You're much better off re-training and educating the reliable staff members you already have, rather than taking a gamble on a new hire. It doesn't cost you anything, and it strengthens your existing staff.


Schedule Accordingly for Peak Business Hours


If you don't know what your busiest and slowest hours of the day look like, operating with a smaller staff can quickly implode. You need to have a game plan in place to make sure your skeleton crew can adequately keep up with service needs. 


Management needs to closely monitor and track the fluctuations in business throughout the day—you can easily gather this data by looking into your POS system, and see approximate times when sales begin to spike and dip down.


Without prior planning, you might end up with too many hands on deck during slow hours, or you may be understaffed for a big lunch rush. Staffing the right amount of people at the right time is key. 


Prioritize Employee Health and Wellness


We don't need to be the ones to tell you that things have drastically changed.


With everything going on, you need to keep your staff safe, happy, and motivated. Keep in mind, your employees are putting themselves at risk by coming to work. No one is going to feel comfortable returning to a workplace that minimizes their health and well-being, so following safety and sanitation protocols (and taking them seriously) will make your workers feel more at ease when they clock in.


If an employee expresses that they are feeling unwell, send them home immediately. It is not worth jeopardizing the safety of your entire staff and your guests to have more coverage. If everyone pulls together, you can get by with one less person. 


You can minimize the risk of your staff contracting COVID-19 by staggering shift times. Have servers arrive in 30 minute increments, so you're less likely to have employees congregating and interacting in common areas. Your employees should always practice social distancing around one another, and unless they are serving a guest, employees should not be in direct contact.


It's also encouraged to do regular temperature checks on your staff. If you can, screen your employees before they clock in for the day. Recognizing symptoms and acting swiftly when they arise will prevent COVID-19 from spreading throughout the workplace. 


Consider a Tip Pooled Environment


With your staff now taking on a multitude of roles, distributing tips at the end of the day can get murky. Who should be compensated for what, and how much? You've blurred the lines between job roles, and now you're not sure how to compensate your employees.


For the sake of fairness, it may be in your best interest to implement a tip pooling system. This will further instill a sense of camaraderie, and motivate your employees to work together.


Keep in mind, managers and any salaried staff cannot participate in a tip pool. To come up with a fair percentage, make sure you take into account the hourly wages of your employees. For example, you would not tip out a host or barback the same amount as you would a server or bartender. Your serving staff is making the least amount in hourly wages, and they are doing the most interaction with guests, so they will naturally see a higher percentage from the tip pool.

There are pros and cons to a tip pooling model, so it's important to think about best practices before putting it into action. 


Pros of a Tip Pooled Environment



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While a little healthy competition for tips never hurt anyone, you can actually benefit by doing away with this practice altogether.


When a server passes a table that isn't in their section and they ask for a refill on drinks, the server is more likely to heed their request right away if they're working for tips from everyone, and not just the people in their immediate care.


In a tip pooled environment, your staff is more likely to treat every person that walks through the door equally, and regard every request with a sense of urgency and tact.


Some positive aspects of tip pooling:


  • Staff looks at the bigger picture, rather than just their own responsibilities
  • Employees are more inclined to pitch in and help one another 
  • Service improves and guests are treated equally
  • Employees take home more consistent paychecks
  • Servers won't fight over more lucrative tables and sections


Cons of a Tip Pooled Environment


There is no space in a tip pool for lazy, unmotivated workers. Those that don't carry their weight can cause resentment among your high performing staff members and lead to then burning out, or worse, pushing them to quit altogether. 


Be careful about who you keep onboard, as one weak link can cause a headache for you and your staff. If your employees are sharing tips, then they need to be sharing the labor as equally as possible. 


Some negative aspects of tip pooling:


  • It can allow for unmotivated workers to fly under the radar
  • Employees may try to pocket tips to increase their paychecks
  • Hard working staff may grow to resent those that aren't pulling their own weight
  • High performers may burn out and quit


Tip pooling can be hugely beneficial, but make sure you're taking these pros and cons into account. Your primary focus should be keeping your staff happy, and if you allow employees to take advantage of this model, morale is going to suffer. Be diligent about keeping your staff in check.


Set Attainable Goals


There's only so much your employees can handle at one time. While cross-training and consolidating their roles is beneficial for your profits and for their paycheck, they still need to be able to take a breather now and then.


Management and ownership need to step in more than ever before. Now is the time to lead by example—get on the floor and make some drinks, or expedite some food on the line.


Good luck, and stay safe!

Key points to remember:

  • Cross-training gives your staff more flexibility
  • Cross-training fills in knowledge gaps
  • Avoid making new hires if possible
  • Know your busiest and slowest hours of service
  • Consider implementing a tip pool


Kristin Fenchak

About the author, Kristin Fenchak

Kristin has been working in bars and restaurants since her teens, and now she's using her industry smarts as Backbar's marketing intern.

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