The Great Restaurant Labor Shortage…Will Be Over Shortly

The service to customer-expectation cycle has been spiraling down for decades. When service goes down, customer expectations go down with it…then service-offered achieves a new low and is met again with a new lower bar to clear.  Each generation blames the next for their sloth, self-loathing, and stunted ambition. I was born in the mid-sixties and grew up in the 70s and 80s but I’m pretty sure the parents of 1950s greasers and 1960s hipsters would join hands and say their kids didn’t work as hard, or were as ambitious, as them.  Fast forward to today, and our country has just finished raising those brilliant-but-awful, self-centered Millennials. Gen-X – the latch key kids with their reduced ambitions and distrust of authority – are now raising Gen-Z. But something different is happening with Gen Z as they enter the workforce and we’re seeing it very clearly in restaurants. Restaurants, perhaps as much or more than any other industry, are not having an easy time replacing their workforce after the COVID interruption. The young workforce that restaurants rely on left but didn’t come back. Despite strong demand for jobs and increasing wages (raw economics), Gen Z is saying “meh, I’ll pass”. But why?

I’ve always felt it was silly to generalize whole groups of people just because they were born in a certain time, but there are some things that just can’t be argued. The impact of a life exposed to – and reliance on – connectivity to the world through the internet is perhaps the greatest unifying attribute this group has. This group of young adults is connected in a way that no generation before them ever was. We said, “go outside and play with your friends!…and get off that PlayStation!”…but they were playing outside…by being connected to people they knew, and didn’t know, from and in places they knew and didn’t know. They learned early how to behave, not because the local minister or Andy Griffith showed them how but because they witnessed the swift justice metered out by social media for social infractions. Social media is self-regulating, punishing bad actors and over-punishers alike. Cancel culture is nothing new but if we can say that Millennials exploited and abused it to serve themselves and hold others to an unattainable ideal, Gen-Z is tempering its use and holding the punishment up to many different ideals through multiple feedback loops. If Gen-X was sour on the idea of marrying a company (as we saw our fathers get laid off from IBM and True Temper after committing their souls and wardrobes to them), and Millennials proclaimed they were going to invent new ways of doing things because they didn’t respect anything done before them, Gen-Z nimbly gathers data and opinions on any range of topics form any number of sources and assembles them to navigate their world. They can see problems in advance and have already witnessed or role-played the solution – either directly or through others in games or Snap Chat or on TikTok. They just don’t make the mistakes their predecessors made or continue to make.

For restaurants, this is particularly troublesome because Gen-Z has calculated the value of working in them and decided that it isn’t worth it. As they get older, we hope they will do much more than negotiate the obstacles and landmines laid by everyone before them and begin to use their finely tuned radar to create a better place. For now, however, they’ve got their hands full not being anybody else’s sucker.  And restaurants – well all they can do is throw money, benefits, and flexible schedules at this new work group and hope to survive. This costs money and only the strong restaurants with superior net income (i.e. – efficiency …or more likely outsized sales) can make these adjustments. Meanwhile, Millennials and Gen-X are cooking up slick, specialized concepts in small boxes like Federal Donut or Schmear It Bagels that serve a constricted menu requiring minimal staff in the hopes of dummying down the cost structure while generating enough volume to make the math work. Those places rely on commissary food production and cashier tipping to offset in-store complexity and cost so they can be run with one or two employees working all day at full capacity. It’s the wrong direction. The right direction seems to be a hybrid of QR Code service and high-touch food running perfected by Barteca Restaurant Group. But Scoville Chicken struggles to train their customers to use the touch screen to place their order, squandering the opportunity to win over those crucial early adopters. There is no easy answer and there is a lot of pressure on restaurants to figure it out.

As Gen-Z gets older I have no doubt that they will find a balanced way to run the restaurants of the future and I think we can look forward to reduced exploitation and greater public regard for this wonderful career. Until then, we’re stuck with what has served us well in the past: increase sales or cut costs…be efficient without surrendering quality (of service or food) …which means either taking less profit or tightening systems…or both. I’m not a fan of saying “never” on any topic but I do believe restaurants will never go away and people will always seek to dine out.  Gen Z gets hungry too. But when the solution comes, I won’t surprised if it’s the interconnected, cautious, and wise young Gen-Z collective who hatches it.

Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting

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