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Pizza Puzzler

Where are all the employees anyway?

| by S.A. Whitehead
Where are all the employees anyway?

Graphic: Willie Lawless, Networld Media Group.

For pizza restaurateurs, it's well-established that "H-I-R-E" might now be the biggest "four-letter word" of them all. Like the restaurant industry in general, hiring at pizza concepts is a constant, and constantly vexing, problem, particularly with pizza's heavy reliance on delivery. 

At Davanni's Minnetonka, Minnesota store, employee Juan Holmes works with one of the brand's famous Cuban pizzas. (Photo provided)

But for smaller, family-owned chains like the regional Minnesota Davanni's Pizza brand, that might hold doubly true. They are, after all, competing head-to-head with much larger brands and their congruently much larger HR and marketing budgets, to seek and find workers by any means possible. 

It's fitting then, that the first story in the every-other-month Pizza Marketplace series, Pizza Puzzlers, would focus on this very resource-intense and ubiquitous problem of getting not just warm bodies, but brand-worthy, customer-friendly bodies in stores and out delivering. 

"Industry experts said the labor crunch would continue for at least another two years. Davanni's is feeling it 'big time' at our shops."

The puzzler

Here's how Davanni's put the problem in its Puzzler for this month. 

Davanni's biggest puzzler right now is hiring ... (at both the) management and hourly level. In fact, Davanni's Marketing Director Jacqui Crocker recently attended an event where industry experts said the labor crunch would continue for at least another two years. 

Davanni's is feeling it "big time" at our shops, (so) hiring and keeping new folks would be our puzzler. Once they've been on for a bit we tend to retain employees, but the initial hire and folks jumping ship early on (after we've invested in some training and orientation) seems to be a large issue right now. 

The puzzle-solvers

As heads nod all around in agreement with Davanni's description of this common pizza problem, a trio of hiring and retention experts chimed in with possible approaches to better address this issue. They include: 

  • The recruiting and hiring platform company, HigherMe and its CEO Derek Williamson.  
  • The restaurant scheduling software concern, 7Shifts and its CEO Jordan Boesch.
  • Workforce engagement platform, ShiftPixy co-founder and CEO Scott Absher.     

Pizza Puzzler answer ... er, answers

What we found in the answers that each of these three leaders offered was that a single overarching solution won't do for this behemoth of a problem. Rather, the solution lies instead in many smaller interlocking answers that allow brands to find and finesse the best-fitting employees for their brands, since that comfortable fit ensures a long, and equally comfortable stay. 

More exact screening = more exact fit = more time with brand

We begin with the response from HigherMe CEO Derek Williamson who especially keyed in on the need for brands to screen applicants accurately so that they don't even begin to interview those whose background indicates they will be nothing more than passing ships in a pizza brand's life.  

"Finding and hiring the best employees who will stay with your business starts even before you post a job, and starts with your brand."

-Derek Williamson, HigherMe CEO

As Williamson put it, with an unemployment rate at or around 3.5%, the employee-candidates are indeed in the driver's seat in this market. But he cautioned, it's important for brands to refrain from the knee-jerk reaction of the hurry-up hire.  

HigherMe CEO Derek Williamson. (Photo provided)

"Finding and hiring the best employees who will stay with your business starts even before you post a job, and starts with your brand," he said in an interview with this website. "When looking for work, applicants aren't just applying for a job, they want to work somewhere that has a strong and positive company culture, and aligns with their values. 

"When posting an open job, make sure your careers page highlights what makes your business unique, how you're involved in your community, and your company values in addition to compensation, benefits, work hours, and requirements for the role."

Once the applications start coming in, Williamson said applicant tracking systems are invaluable in helping brands truly "knuckle down" on the kinds of candidate experience and characteristics that ensure a healthy tenure on the team. 

"When hiring, reviewing a candidate's past work experience is only one piece of the puzzle, and sharing your company's brand and story will help attract the applicants you need," Williamson said. "During the application process, make sure to ask questions that will help screen candidates to find ones who are truly invested in your business. Asking how far they live from the restaurant, shift availability, how they work in a team, how they handle stressful situations, and their customer service experience are crucial to identifying and hiring the talent that will stick with your business. 

"It might seem like an overwhelming task to review such lengthy applications, but using software like an applicant tracking system (ATS) not only makes it easier to create applications with multiple screening questions, but it also makes identifying top candidates faster. A good applicant tracking system can automatically rank and score candidates for you, so even before reviewing an application, you can see which candidate will be a good fit for your business."

Put the perks to work

At 7Shifts, CEO Jordan Boesch also underlined the importance of securing that "right fit" in the candidates you bring in and hopefully hire. Panicked hiring, he said, is likely only to get your brand a temporary and perhaps somewhat damaging fix to what is shaping up to be a permanent pizza restaurant problem for the foreseeable future. 

"A key way to think about this is that, when it comes to having great people in your business, it is 90% hiring and 10% training, not the other way around."

-Jordan Boesch, 7Shifts CEO

7Shifts CEO Jordan Boesch. (Photo provided)

"Instead, take a page from (restaurateur) Danny Meyer's playbook and hire based on your core values," Boesch said in an interview. "As (Meyer) puts it, 'Culture is the sum of values and behaviors you celebrate, minus all the behaviors you put up with.'

"As a business owner you know your business and are finely tuned at testing for these behaviors. When you find those that fit your core values, they are much more likely to be long-term team players who stay engaged and actively want to be part of the business. A key way to think about this is that, when it comes to having great people in your business, it is 90% hiring and 10% training, not the other way around."

From the point of the hire though, both Boesch and Williamson stressed the necessity of both identifying and even possibly supplementing compensatory and other benefits your brand offers. It's simply too tight a labor market not to consider this step, not to mention the long-term value this yields in employee-brand engagement. 

After all, as Boesch said McKinsey research found that employees that are barely engaged with their brands are four times more likely to leave than those who are at the more positive end of the engagement spectrum. 

"While there is no great secret to engaging your staff, the most important thing to do is keep close to them so you can determine what they need to be successful," Boesch said. "This includes providing clear opportunities for advancement ... cross-training and continued education, and consistent check-ins on their satisfaction, so they understand they are a valued part of the business, rather than an operational component."

Show some flexibility

As is often the case with vexing problems, sometimes the answer are right under your nose. For instance, ShiftPixy CEO Scott Absher said many restaurateurs these days are grasping at all kinds of incentives to attract and retain staff. 

For instance, some brands are using everything from early pay and higher education cash, to team raffles for high-end vacations and other prizes. Still, Absher believes that for pizza restaurateurs, the offer of flexible scheduling can be among the biggest draws for great workers who need job that can work with their other life demands. Believe it or not, that is possible even for pizza employees.  

"While restaurant operators might think it's nearly impossible to offer their workforce the hours they want, technology should be leveraged to help make this a reality."

-Scott Absher, ShiftPixy CEO

"In a recent survey, 76% of employees reported seeking jobs with more flexibility to maintain a healthy work-life balance," Absher said. "Particularly for part-time workers who are often juggling multiple jobs or completing their education,

ShiftPixy CEO Scott Absher. (Photo provide

flexible work schedules can be a huge draw.

"While restaurant operators might think it's nearly impossible to offer their workforce the hours they want, technology should be leveraged to help make this a reality. Restaurants that use a workforce management app can often allow employees to pick up and drop shifts to accommodate other life needs." 

Absher said the average restaurant employee tenure at any one brand now is set at a dismal period of under two months. The costs and consternation involved in rehiring, retraining and all the associated problems those issues create are nothing short of terrifying when you consider the average cost every time that happens is now about $2,000 per incident/worker.  

"There is a reason why many restaurants today tap third-party delivery services for their delivery needs," he said. "For example, they allow operators to reduce labor costs (because) the couriers don't require training or orientation and the platforms allow businesses to meet consumer demand in our tight labor market. 

"These systems are convenient and effective because they are powered by an employee-sharing business model. But, because the services enlist independent contractors versus direct employees, there are liability and brand issues that come with them. 

"Instead, operators should tap services on the market that hire employees away from the restaurants themselves, and then lease them back to those businesses — a best-of-both-worlds scenario. With the help of a tech-driven app, workers are welcome to pick up shifts when and where they desire."

In the final analysis regarding solutions to this squeaky-tight labor market, these industry experts offer food ... or maybe we should say pizza for thought. Everything is on the table, beginning with a ultra-exact job description that reaches out and grabs candidates with the closest brand fit, to the uncovering and accentuating of all possible perks and employment benefits, including those you may be overlooking. 

As every pizza operator knows, great employees are out there, these three experts' ideas will just help brands find and keep them for what will hopefully be a long, long time.  

Send in a Pizza Puzzler "puzzler" from your brand: 

Does your brand have an operational puzzle for which you'd like to get some great expert solutions? Pizza Marketplace would be delighted to feature your brand in an upcoming edition of this series. Just send your "stumper" to Editor Shelly Whitehead at and we'll be in touch. 

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Delivery, Leadership, Operations Management, Staffing & Training, Systems / Technology, Trends / Statistics

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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