With an acute need to find qualified staff for their restaurants, the food service industry has turned to an often-overlooked pool of talent: teenagers. It is a perfect match as fast-food chains and independent restaurants find a motivated moldable student to add to their front and back of the house teams.
From the student’s perspective, some of them are saving up for college, others contributing to their family’s expenses, and still more are just working towards a the holy grail of their own car. But regardless of their motivation, every teenager who works in a restaurant gets a job on their resume and skills under their belt, both of which can expand their future
An interesting perspective comes from Sean Pesner. The 16 year old Long Island native recently completed his third summer in the industry. Pesner’s father helped him secure his first industry job at a bagel shop last summer. He turned that skill set into a waitstaff position this summer at a high-end Nassau County steakhouse.
“For me I knew that the [additional] money was my priority. So while I took whatever I could get in the first summer of working, I knew that I could then find the most money moving forward. I really lucked out during the pandemic, as the restaurant couldn’t get their regular team to come back,” he said.
There are a number of factors that have led to the change in the role of teenagers within the restaurant and foodservice industry. There were of course Pandemic generated issues that subsidized workers to stay home from their restaurant jobs. Even prior to that the rise in state minimum wages across the country has meant that restaurateurs are looking for more skilled workers who require less training, to account for their higher paycheck. That made ‘flipping burgers’ once again attractive to teenagers to maximize their after-school earnings.
The move of teenagers out of and then back into the crosshairs for the restaurant operator is a fascinating case study. The number of available fast-food jobs has doubled since 2010, but there now seem to be more available jobs than there are interested candidates. This has led to an industry-wide labor shortage and increased competition among restaurants trying to hire great people. Teenagers found themselves pushed out of the fast-food marketplace pre-Covid by elderly workers. People are living longer and running out of retirement savings. Elderly workers also come with decades of experience and service skills.
Pesner also brings an interesting perspective on what it takes for a restaurant to succeed. “I believe that the most important thing in a restaurant other than food is the people. The personality that the waiters, hostesses, and managers bring to the restaurant to give it that personality the ability to build those relationships with customers that are crucial. A great waiter needs to think like and actor: it’s all about “putting on a show”, engage with your customers, through conversations that enables them to get to know each other. “The real lesson isn’t how many plates you can carry, it really about how many conversations, you can have with customers throughout your shift. That maximizes tip and creates a happy customer that keeps coming back.”.
At the same time, Teens were increasingly being pushed towards other types of opportunities — like internships or volunteering — to help them with college admissions and scholarships. In many states with the extension of the school year, had made proper training impossible.
Many restaurateurs have also found that adding teens to their team has enabled them to get a pulse on a market of both future employees and customers. Today’s teenagers are also hyper-aware of everything from social issues to social media. They care about inclusion, and they push company culture to a better place. Their input can help keep brands hip and current — if they see a Facebook ad that looks like it was made in 2012, they’ll definitely let you know.
As Pesner got ready to return to school he shared his thoughts on restaurant success. “I got to see that there is a lot more to running a restaurant than meets the eye. Even when you have a solid customer base, there is no guarantee that there will always be customers every day. You always have to be evolving, changing employees, menus, and attitudes to adapt to the restaurant business.”
He also highlights the management of labor as a key element to success:
“I understand that small businesses have limited funds to be able to increase their employee paychecks. I think that restaurateurs should hire as many people as they can and have a very organized schedule that goes out weekly. If one employee cannot make the day they are assigned there will be many other employees to fill their spot. The right software to manage that labor force enables the owner to create the best scheduling scenario for everybody. For instance, a student can be kept on the team during the school year and assigned shift on the weekends and during vacation periods. Without that technology, you are going to lose that kid and probably many of the adults on the staff.”
Hiring teenagers to work in your restaurant is a win-win-win: While they gain transferable skills that can advance their careers, they’re also providing your senior staff with mentorship opportunities and allowing you to develop a pool of staff to tap during busy seasons. They’re easy to train, eager to learn, and will keep your company young and current, helping you build a culture that’s inclusive for all.