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Restaurants offer new incentives to get workers during labor shortage

A survey from the Colorado Restaurant Association found 9 of 10 restaurants changed business practices or increased wages to hire and retain more staff.

As the labor market remains tight, Colorado restaurants are getting creative.

A new survey from the Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA) found industry-wide trends as employers struggle to hire workers or keep the ones they already have on staff.

The CRA survey, compiled from July 8 through Aug. 9, found:

  • 9 out of 10 restaurants have changed business practices or wage rates to increase hiring and retention.
  • 1 out of 4 restaurants are offering retention or hiring bonuses.
  • More than 23% of restaurants have added benefits to their compensation packages like paid time off (38%), medical insurance (31%), dental insurance (22%) and vision insurance (18%).
  • Other benefits offered include retirement plans, educational assistance, and health and wellness programs.

Nicole Matteson owns Nocturne Jazz and Supper Club in Denver’s River North neighborhood, where even before the pandemic, her full-time employees were offered benefits like health insurance.

Now she said she’s adding more incentives.

“We’re now giving 2% of our food revenue back to our culinary team,” she said. “So they feel like they’re bought into those extra busy nights, or the nights where maybe we didn’t have enough staff on and maybe just 2 people got their butts kicked back there.

"And they get the opportunity to share in some of that revenue and be rewarded for that hard work," Matteson said. "And a really different change for us to get them from a not-so-great paying job to an opportunity to share in the success of the restaurant.”

RELATED: Survey: Most Colorado restaurants are struggling to hire workers

Matteson said owning a restaurant throughout the pandemic has been a lesson in adaptability. In navigating staff shortages, she said the trick was finding a balance – what could they offer now but also sustain long term?

“It was a hard thing to figure out, and goes back to the adaptability of taking a look at your books, over not just the last few months but last few years," she said. "What would it had meant if we did this in 2018 or 2019? And finding the sweet spot where we were able to reward people consistently but also be able to be around 5, 6 even 10 years from now, and still paying those people."

“What the entire pandemic has done is forced restaurants to really look at the way they do business,” said Sonia Riggs, CRA president and CEO.

“They’ve changed some of their wage models," Riggs said. "We’ve seen restaurants start to add benefits, give additional time off, support the mental health of employees. They’re really just trying to be as creative as possible in attracting and retaining good people.”

Matteson said her culinary team is fully staffed now, but she still has a few open positions on her service team. The toughest part of the pandemic, in terms of staffing, was back in the spring, while trying to increase capacity again as the city allowed but not having enough staff to open their doors that quickly, she said.

RELATED: Need a job? Nearly every restaurant in Colorado is hiring right now

She was quick to credit her team for their support and hard work throughout the pandemic.

“Kudos to my team for toughing it out with us this whole time, and really pulling out their best efforts, best energy, being there for each other,” she said.

“Even when we were short, they still pulled it together and did the extra work, worked the extra days," she said. "Sometimes that meant an extra-long week and overtime hours, but they’re still here and still having a great time serving people.”

The summer CRA survey also analyzed other COVID-19-related economic impacts to the restaurant industry, including new debt burdens.

RELATED: The struggle to hire staff as bars and restaurants add hours and capacity at the same time

RELATED: Tens of thousands of Coloradans about to lose pandemic unemployment benefits


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