After one of the most trying periods for the catering industry in recent history, corporate events, weddings, and private parties are finally picking back up again. With a labor shortage, though, many caterers and event businesses haven’t been able to keep up, forcing them to turn down opportunities and leave revenue on the table.
To help businesses during this time, Instawork CEO and Co-founder Sumir Meghani led a panel on strategic staffing at this year’s Catersource conference, joined by Bill Hansen, CEO of Bill Hansen Luxury Catering and Event Production, and Warren Dietel, Owner and President of Puff 'n Stuff Catering. Together, they talked about the current state of the labor market, staffing strategies, and how employees can help you rebuild in the wake of COVID-19. Read on for a few top takeaways, and be sure to check out the full video for more.
Where to recruit today’s hospitality talent
Finding the right people for the job has never been easy, but current labor trends are making staffing even more challenging. With millions of service workers quitting their jobs, it’s no wonder why experts say we’re in the middle of a Great Resignation. In a recent Florida Atlantic University survey of hospitality workers, more than a third of respondents said they planned to find work outside the industry in the next year.
But that doesn’t mean that workers are nowhere to be found — it just means you might need to shake up your recruiting strategy.
Hansen and Dietel have both made Instawork a core part of their staffing strategy as they rebuild their businesses. Beyond that, Hansen said he’s doubled down on handing out business cards to workers at hotels, premium supermarkets, and even to high school students.
Dietel says his company will recruit at schools also, although they’ll go after a different audience: teachers. This year, they’re planning to hand out desserts and flyers to teachers’ lounges, highlighting their flexible schedule for teachers who may want to pick up some shifts in their spare time.
“Teachers are some of our best employees,” he said. “These people are reliable, they're responsible, and they're going to show up and work.”
In addition to seeking out potential employees, Hansen is also trying to bring them in.
“We're going to hold a mega job fair in late August, early September,” he explained — right in the middle of their slow season before things begin to pick back up in October. “We're going to hold one for commissary, one for the back of the house, and one for the front of the house. And we’re really going to market it.”
Remember, though, that finding employees is just one-half of the equation — they also have to want to work for you. All of the panelists agreed that offering competitive pay is critical to appealing to workers, perhaps now more than ever.
“Ultimately, people are paying for rich, amazing experiences," Meghani said. "There's a price to pay for that… but we're going to want to pay that, because [catering is] fundamentally a people and experiences business.”
Dietel said that Puff 'n Stuff has “made a conscious decision as a company to pay [employees] more money today.”
But pay isn’t the only way to get people excited about working for you. Culture plays a big role too, Hansen said.
He advised focusing on your company culture, making work a place where people feel welcome and appreciated, and showing interest in their lives. Even small things, like making sure your workers take a meal break during long shifts, can make a big difference.
“If you make it a great place to work for your current people, then they're going to go out and bring in other people,” he said.
Adapting to higher costs
Between increased labor and food costs, many catering and events companies find themselves with no choice but to increase prices. The challenge is, how can you do this without losing business?
Being transparent about the reality of food and labor costs can help customers understand where you’re coming from, Dietel said.
“You can have a real conversation with them and say, ‘I need your help. We need to figure this out together,’” Dietel advised.
Hansen aims to find a balance by honoring prices for events that have already been quoted and booked, but increasing prices for ones in the future. In the meantime, he’s also recouping money through upselling.
“We try to maintain a 20% margin on upsell,” Hansen explained. If “somebody signs a contract for $10,000, we expect that to probably turn into $12,000 as they get closer and want to add charger plates or upgrade from bistro steak to filet.”
He has also focused on keeping fixed costs low by doing things like hiring temp labor, switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, and renting the company’s new truck instead of buying it.
“The lower you can keep your fixed costs, the more you can increase your variable costs — that's a recipe for profitability.”
- Bill Hansen, CEO of Bill Hansen Luxury Catering and Event Production
Dietel agreed, sharing that his company tries to keep fixed costs in the 30% range. In addition to that, his company has incorporated yield management — the practice of adjusting prices based on demand — into their business model.
“When you look at some of your peak days, take your pricing up… we're also looking at maybe flipping the model and taking pricing down in non-peak times,” Dietel shared. “Go in with your highest price and then offer a discount, especially in December and October when the corporate business starts coming back. [You might say] ‘Okay, our regular rate’s $50 an hour' — or whatever it may be — 'but if you have it on any other night than a Saturday, that rate drops down to $40.'”
Training your next team of all-stars
In the wake of the Great Resignation, a lot of companies have unfortunately lost their MVPs, and they’re feeling the squeeze as a result. But more than likely, you won’t be able to replace them just by hiring new folks — you’ll have to invest in your people.
“Probably the single best differentiator for everyone here is to go find the young, hungry talent and mold them.”
- Sumir Meghani, CEO and Co-founder of Instawork
To bolster his crew’s skills and provide them with some work in the middle of last year’s slow summer, Hansen brought in some team members to create training videos on everything from how to serve to how to roll a table, how to set up a bar, and anything else they might need to know.
“We've immortalized that into a series of videos that our staff uses for training,” Hansen said. “It's a simple thing they can do online — they take a test on one and go to the next.”
Keep in mind, Dietel said, that employees often want their current workplaces to help them grow their career.
“I want to be known as kind of a stepping stone for people,” he said. “I want people to look at us as a place to come in and learn.”
Keeping workers around for the long haul
When it comes down to it, talented people are often the most valuable asset a company has — so retention needs to be a key part of any staffing strategy. The best way to do that? Listen, don’t assume, Hansen said.
He planned on offering health insurance, for example, but received feedback that his team was more interested in perks like bonuses.
“I look at myself as the bottom of a pyramid. Then I've got my executive leadership team, I’ve got my supervisors, and I've got my line workers,” he explained. “I give them the tools they need to do the job and create an environment where they will become more and more engaged.”
And this investment pays off in a big way. One of Dietel’s best employees was with his company for 15 years, he said. She worked her way up from an intern to leader of the service team, and is now running global hospitality for a multinational aviation company.
When she gave notice, Dietel said, “it was one of the coolest moments.”
“She came into the office with tears in her eyes, and it was joyful,” Dietel shared. “That was a truly invested employee. She bled Puff 'n Stuff.”
Those are exactly the kinds of employees that can help you rebuild your business — and with a little thought into hiring, training, and retaining, you might just be able to find them yourself.