Restaurant labor costs are likely the greatest expense in today’s food & beverage operation and have always been an area of focus for restaurant operators. With rising wages to attract employees, minimum wage increases, staffing shortages that increase overtime pay and retention/training cost, food & beverage labor costs have become an even greater focus.

Labor shortages are nothing new, and with low entry-level wages, physically demanding work, dealing with customers, weekends, holidays, and varied schedules, it has always been a challenge to attract people to the industry. For those of us that love the business, it was a small price to pay for doing something we truly enjoyed. We accepted our schedule changing at the last minute, shifts getting cut, being signed out by our supervisors 30 minutes before we were finished cleaning, and being called in on a moment’s notice. Rarely was anyone happy about these practices, but that is how the industry worked, and it is what managers did to control labor costs.

    Labor Control on the Backs of the Employee

    With the practice of controlling labor on the fly, there was less and less effort put into forecasting and scheduling. It was as if the schedule was just copied week over week, and the only changes were the addition of shifts to cover higher than normal business, and if it wasn’t busy, they could just send people home. This placed the burden of cost control on the employees instead of the managers.

    We know that employees will most likely work weekends and holidays, accept unattractive entry-level, and do demanding work, as those are some of the realities that people can understand and accept. What is not a reality and will not be accepted is controlling labor costs at the expense of our employees. Consider the person juggling two or more jobs, a family, and personal commitments. Sending them home three hours in may not seem like a big deal, but what if they paid for 10 hours of childcare? If it isn’t a big deal, then surely the company could afford to pay them.

    Now, we have a few options. Look back at the good old days and wonder what went wrong or blame whichever generation we think is the problem (don’t forget at one time our generations were the problem). Maybe generations are blamed because it makes it seem like the challenges are beyond our control and that the very people we are trying to attract are the problem.

    The Change Starts with Us

    There are factors that are beyond our daily control, and there is no quick fix, but we can take action to improve scheduling practices that will increase retention and control payroll costs. The basis for this improvement lies in productivity measurements. Now, you may think that a productivity measurement is a calculation based on past events. It is, but when combined with a well-thought-out forecast it is the best way to schedule.

    The measurement covers per hour and is a straightforward calculation of the number of covers (customers) divided by the number of hours worked over the same period. As a starting point, you can look back over a period and do the calculation. The problem is the result doesn’t necessarily mean you were productive, but it is a starting point.

    The other option is to start tracking your covers per hour daily and noting times when the staff were over and underworked. This will give you a much clearer understanding of what reasonable productivity measurements are.

    Want to increase your operation’s productivity? For a FREE Productivity Tracking Tool, send an email to

    Turning the Measurement into a Scheduling Tool

    When using past data, you will find productivity measurements that include work that is completed before the restaurant opens and after it closes. Before we can begin using covers/hour as a scheduling tool, you need to determine the working covers per hour.

    Here is an example of the math:

    Last week’s numbers

    Covers                  1000
    Server Hours          100
    Covers/Hour      10

    Let’s say it takes two servers one hour to open and one hour to close each day. Over the course of 7 days, that is 28 hours. These are fixed hours because you need them no matter what. The working covers per hour are 1000 / 72 = 13.89, which would mean each server can serve 13.89 covers per hour every hour.

    Now you have two important pieces of information – a productivity measurement that can be used to measure the results over a longer period (including fixed hours) as well as a working measurement to use for scheduling.

    Every position within the operation will have a different productivity and working measurement. Knowing these numbers and applying them to projected daily and hourly covers will produce the most consistent schedule.

    It Won’t be Perfect, but it Will be Better

    You will not have the perfect schedule because your forecast will never be 100%, but you can continue to work to increase the accuracy. You will also never be able to control the unknown that impacts your business. Your forecast may be close to perfect, but a storm that cuts your reservations in half or a large group that you didn’t expect could show up. What then?

    Tell your team that you are working hard to make scheduling better for them, let them know the plan, and include them. They will be much more understanding when things outside of your control happen. They may even call when the storm hits and offer to not come in. It will even make the extra work of the large group less stressful.

    There is no question that developing productivity standards, working measurements, forecasts, and schedules is hard in the beginning. It is also hard dealing with upset employees and guests, turnover, training, overtime, and labor costs. Choose your hard.

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