Food & Beverage: The New Times of Hospitality Staffing Challenges

by Craig Pendleton

Higher labor costs, supply costs, and staffing shortages show no signs of easing. These challenges for hospitality operators appear to be here to stay.

In the past several years, hospitality employers have been hit with having to reduce staff due to COVID-19 lockdowns; changing attitudes of employees about the work/life balance; an increase in new viable employment options for existing and potential staff outside of the hospitality industry; and not being able to find enough staff members to operate all of the casino outlets, forcing operators to reduce the hours and days that their outlets are open.

Labor challenges are further compounded by some of the best staff members having recently retired (or are close to retiring); younger workers following the money and other employment options that do not require physical presence at a place of business and allow maximum flexibility in schedule; as well as many prospective employees having found other ways to make more money than they can earn in a standard workplace position.

Additional staffing roadblocks to hiring include background checks before staff member badges can be issued and drug testing requirements. Long periods of time to get a casino employee badge may cause excellent candidates to take positions with other employers while waiting for approval and processing.

Strict appearance and attendance policies are often more stringent at casinos than with other types of businesses. Many casino positions require significant interaction with guests/customers/coworkers at a higher standard than other jobs require. In addition, staff members are often required to work nights, weekends, and holiday shifts when the casino is the busiest. Other staff members may be required to work graveyard shifts.

The physical distance from affordable or available housing for staff members may be forcing workers to commute long distances to work. Once the cost of gasoline is calculated and factored in as an additional cost of employment, in relation to the compensation range of salaries offered for positions, the net salary may not be high enough to attract many commuting candidates. Local housing, if available, may be so restricted or costly that it does not make sense for lower-level compensated staff to apply for positions.

With the pandemic forever changing the way workers think about work, employers need to reimagine how to recruit, manage, and retain staff at all levels.

Immediate Steps to Take

Hold on to good existing employees. Do what is necessary to retain valuable existing employees. Understand the local labor marketplace. Casinos are not just competing against other casinos, hotels, and restaurants for staff, they are competing against anyone offering flexible work. Many companies are setting the market standard for potential employees. Developing a deep understanding of the compensation, lifestyle flexibility, and benefits that other – potentially competitive – organizations are offering workers will help provide perspective of other opportunities that are available to targeted staff members.

Strategies to Successfully Hire More Staff Members

Emphasize benefits that the casino is currently offering that some other employers may not be offering. Casino benefits may include – health insurance, 401K, EOP, stability of employer, long-term career development path and training, growth opportunities within the organization and business, an employer with transparent use of profits to support the tribe versus anonymous stockholders.

Pay more than competitors for the same positions that require staff members with similar skills and aptitude. Pay to get the best. Making it too easy to get hired and paying too little will not yield excellent long-term staff members. Paying more will create a return on investment versus the costly process of repeatedly recruiting, hiring, training, rapidly turning over staff, and repeating this cycle. Remember to increase existing staff rates to match or exceed the new hire rate.

Provide flexibility in scheduling to accommodate an improved work-life balance. There are many mobile based scheduling programs that assist supervision in scheduling staff while incorporating schedule requests and last-minute shift swaps. The staff can remotely communicate with each other to arrange a swap and send this to supervision for approval.

Consider adding premium pay for those who work weekends, holidays and graveyard shifts. This system is in effect overseas where the more flexible in schedule a staff member makes themselves the more that receive in pay. Consider incentives or premium pay for staff members who agree to come in on their day off and cover a call out shift. Some operators have found success with scheduled on-call shifts.

Improve training and internal growth opportunities with a documented clear path for development and growth. Show examples of current staff members who have graduated and matriculated. Personal stories connect and success stories sell.

Offer benefits that other employers don’t. Consider fuel discounts for staff members, housing assistance for the hardest to fill and key positions, and childcare cost assistance. Offer bonuses for recruitment, retention, and referrals.

Define/redefine company culture to align with the employees the casino wishes to attract. Increase employee recognition programs. Launch initiatives aimed at making employees feel valued and appreciated. This can include recognition programs such as employee of the month, quarter and year. Winners should not only be recognized and receive a certificate, but winning should be accompanied by real financial reward benefits.

Conduct group employee events for staff members and their families. Engaged families connected with the casino and other staff members, along with their families, create a sense of ownership and engagement.

Identify staff positions and departments within the casino that seem to have success in finding additional staff. Offer existing staff members within these departments bonuses for transferring to other departments that have difficulty finding staff. This not only cross-trains and builds resumes, but also increases the value of staff members while utilizing employees who already have employee badges and a history of successful casino employment. Consider enrolling casino supervision in development programs that require time working in each department and “float” the assignments of those in the program to fit staffing needs. Seek opportunities to create internship programs with local colleges.

Go way outside the box and offer benefits that other employers are unable to offer. An example could be “a monthly dinner on us.” Staff members could take home a prepared meal for their family on a day that they select each month. The goal should be to offer benefits that cause others to say, “Wow! Who does that for their employees?” The cost of these types of creative benefits is small when compared with the cost of operating with insufficient staff as well as paying overtime required simply to run operations.

Ascertain Existing Resources and the Current Operational Capabilities of Departments

Step One: Determine the current number of staff members in each position.

Given the existing number of staff, determine how many and what types of outlets the department is capable of operating. While seeking to attract new staff members, it is critical to determine how many staff members are really needed. The target should not be to return to the number of staff members which the casino had in each department pre-COVID. In most cases these amounts were bloated. In the case of food and beverage, this amenity was often directed towards feeding large numbers of customers with the hope that they would gamble or spend money at other profitable casino facilities. Many provided little economic benefit from a business perspective for the casino. Those diners often cost the casino money while competing for the same resources of more valuable casino player/customers such as parking spaces, gaming positions and restaurant seats.

Step Two: Determine who the casino should be feeding from a business perspective.

Decide who you will concentrate on feeding based upon business models for profitability in the support of gaming, resort/lodging guests, and liquor-based food and beverage outlets that actually make excellent profits. Concentrate on feeding valued players and customers who deliver the highest levels of gaming and profits. Support lodging and resort activities as an amenity. Utilize VIP focus groups and surveys to ask players what they want in the way of food and beverage offerings during their visits. Often the responses they provide during these sessions are unexpected. Many who frequent the casino on multiple visits each week may be bored with the food and beverage menus and would prefer to simply gamble and take food home for themselves and others in their family to utilize their comps. When surveying these same high-value players, the typical consensus is a preference for more match/free play as a form of reward over food and beverage comp value. It may be more cost effective to offer more match/free play than to try and operate more types of food and beverage outlets at a loss. Often higher tier players would periodically like fine dining experiences as a reward for their gaming activity. This need may be infrequent and can be fulfilled with private VIP functions or via priority reservations at a smaller fine dining casino restaurant.

Operating casinos the same way they were before COVID will not work these days. Creativity is required to find, hire, and retain staff members. Other adjustments must be made to reinvent operational practices to make up for the lower levels of available staff members. From a business financial perspective this is not a losing proposition, simply a better and more business-based way to operate.

Craig Pendleton is President of National Foodservice Consulting, Inc. He has consulted for the past 29 years as a tribal casino specialist. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or visit