Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Staff Turnover Is a Bar Owner’s Nightmare. Solve for It with This Handy Advice.

Image: Lauren Rebbeck

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual restaurant and bar employee turnover rate is 73%. Not only does turnover directly impact a bar’s bottom line—it costs approximately $5,000 to recruit and train a single hourly worker—it also impacts the customer experience.

As Joshua Tilden, the co-owner of The Laurel Room and Pacific Standard Time in Chicago, explains, a bar’s livelihood depends on its ability to build regular customers and maintain a consistent staff: “It really affects the guest’s experience if they go to their favorite bar or restaurant and their usual person isn’t there.”

From hiring strategies to extensive training and perks and pay, this is how Tilden and other bar owners are building effective and successful employee retention programs.

1. Hire Personality, Not Skills

Just because someone has encyclopedic knowledge of beer or can make a great cocktail, it doesn’t mean they’ll be the best fit for your team. “Someone could be the most talented person in the room, but if they don’t care about other people or want to serve others, it’s pointless in the service industry,” says Justin Lavenue, the co-owner and operator of The Roosevelt Room in Austin. “The only thing that matters to us is a willingness to learn and take care of others, and we can train for the rest.”

Tilden also recommends personality-based hiring, which he says is “overlooked” in hospitality. “We have created a space where people can come to work and be happy and enjoy it, because that ultimately trickles down to our guests and their experience,” he says.

2. Invest in Training and Development

At The Roosevelt Room, bartenders train for up to a year and must pass five different exams to graduate from barbacking to working behind the stick. In addition to biweekly staff trainings and one-on-one mentoring, the bar covers USBG fees, Bar 5-Day tuition and other certifications for its staff, all of whom have been with the bar for at least a year.

The bar only hires entry-level positions and promotes from within—a philosophy also embraced by Pouring with Heart (formerly 213 Hospitality) in Los Angeles, which has an 88% employee retention rate. With plans to expand to 2,030 jobs by the year 2030, the company also offers career advancement opportunities like management training and financial incentives like equity shares to retain staff. “We really want employees to build a career with us, to be invested in the company and benefit from its grown,” says Cedd Moses, the CEO of Pouring with Hearts.

3. Don’t Neglect Perks and Pay

“We’re fortunate that we have a busy taproom, but we understand that it’s rough on employees if there’s a slow day and they depend solely on tips for pay,” says Samantha Lee, the co-owner of Hopewell Brewing Co. in Chicago. The brewery pays hourly staff $13 per hour, with the goal of paying $15 per hour by 2020—well above Chicago’s $6.40 mandatory tipped minimum—and believes its competitive wages are crucial to staff retention, as there has been little turnover since it opened its doors more than three years ago.

Tilden offers scheduling flexibility, while Moses provides health insurance to all staff who clock more than 30 hours a week and works with Healthy Hospo and other partners to provide staff with booze-free activities like fitness classes and mental health awareness as added incentives.

4. Be Transparent

For Tilden, being transparent with employees is also the key to building loyalty and trust. Pacific Standard Time bar manager Scott Stroemer has quarterly meetings with the bar team and shares the restaurant’s financials with them “line by line, dollars and cents,” which Tilden says “helps establish lines of trust between our owners and our staff.”

5. Cultivate Community

Lee’s staff has weekly family meals and regular learning excursions to other breweries and distilleries, while Lavenue takes every new employee out to lunch and tries to be mindful of the staff’s personal lives.

“Whether someone’s going through a breakup or death in the family and needs some time off or is having financial struggles and wants to pick up some extra shifts, we try to look out for our people,” says Lee. “If you know your owners and managers are interested in you as a person, you’ll be much happier in your job, which trickles down to the customer experience. Ultimately, we’re a family, and families take care of each other.”

And while inking yourself with company values such as “stay weird” and “we are friends and family,” like Cedd and dozens of his staff have, isn’t a company requirement, it definitely contributes to employee loyalty and community.

Tattoos aside, Cedd agrees with Lavenue that it’s all about treating your people like family: “It keeps them happy, and they become much more loyal and take better care of your customers, which makes your business not only more fun but more successful.”