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Whether it’s an oceanfront restaurant on the Jersey Shore or an Italian ice stand in Ohio, the same rule applies when it comes to hiring help for the summer: Staff more people than you think you need.
That’s at the root of the best and worst experiences with summer help for Darrell Wordelmann, who is the general manager of Rooney’s Oceanfront Restaurant in Long Branch, New Jersey, and Alison Hunter, who is the manager of Rita’s Italian Ice in Gahanna, Ohio.
On the Jersey Shore, crowded beaches and a packed boardwalk mean business will be good. And the crowds have been getting larger every year since the recession: 2016 marked the seventh straight year of tourism growth, accounting for $44.1 billion in revenue for the state.
That makes it all the more surprising that Wordelmann had his worst experience ever hiring summer help last year.
“I honestly don’t know,” he says when asked why it was so difficult.
But Wordelmann, who has been in the industry for about three decades, guessed that it could have been precisely because the economy had improved so much—a couple of larger restaurants opened nearby and people who used to work in service have more employment options now.
“Uber and Lyft drivers seem to have restaurant experience when I ask,” he says. “It’s all around though, not just Rooney’s. People were asking.”
His experience last summer taught him an important lesson: Never hire exactly the amount of people you need. This year, he started looking for help in the middle of March and paid to advertise the jobs on Facebook, which, he says, brought in droves of applicants.
“We need 55 servers and got to 56, 57,” he says of last year. “By the middle of June, I realized I had no upper hand on them. They knew they had control. What was I supposed to do? Fire them and not be able to staff our restaurant, which hurts us?”
He had to deal with servers who would not tuck in their shirts, who talked on their phones, and even talked back. He says that “made it the worst summer ever for me and our team. The hardest part was it hurt the ones who cared and were following the rules. They were getting annoyed. Even though we had slim pickings with no applications, I should’ve figured something out. Can’t get rid of anyone if you can’t replace them.”
The economy also played a role in what he says was his best experience hiring summer help. When the housing market crashed in 2008 and the unemployment rate was high, the applications poured in.
“I sat there, at times, and felt so bad for people,” he says. “Big-time jobs for years and now gone. It was great for the restaurant in getting a full staff, and I was able to pick through to the people who used to work in the industry. I always feel the best worker is someone who has to pay their mortgage.”
In general, though, Wordelmann says that hiring people for the summer is extremely hard in the restaurant industry. That’s why people have to take a “prior-knowledge quiz” when they fill out an application at Rooney’s. But a lack of experience can be a plus in some situations, he says, because those applicants want to learn and it’s easier to train them. He also isn’t interested in applicants who’ve worked five jobs in five years.
“People come in and expect good food and good service,” he says. “We know we have the atmosphere with the ocean, so we have to go from 20 to 65 servers. Bartenders, hostesses, barbacks, bussers, runners are another 50 to 60 hires. But when you have to pick out the face of the restaurant and someone who will represent you for a customer to come back, it’s tough.”
Wordelmann breaks down the restaurant’s season like a baseball manager. He says April and May are like spring training, with rookies making up about half of his servers.
“We will get hit with some bad-service complaints just because they’re so new and need the experience,” he says.
June is “game time. New servers still are learning the system of the volume we do and putting it all together.”
July is like a mid-season. “Our training program kicks in to prepare for the summer,” he says, “and the volume is on full-tilt. And by the end of July and August, the staff understands and knows the routine. Arms are warmed up.”
But mid-August rolls around and, he says, “Boom. Over.” He loses a third of his staff in the next two weeks even though the restaurant has the same volume through September.
“Right when the machine is well-oiled and running smooth, it’s time to pack it in,” he says. “We’ll get some to come back on weekends but, in general, it’s the hardest part. Right when we peak, it’s over—do the same again next year. Twenty-two years of doing it, you think you get used to it, but we don’t. It’s the same conversation every year.”
But Wordelmann knows he’s fortunate to have an amazing management staff and chefs.
“We have a great team in place,” he says, “and our workers are family to us.”
For Hunter, at Rita’s Italian Ice, there’s a bit of a family atmosphere, too. She says their best experience each season is having former employees return from school.
“Typically, we rehire past employees who had moved on to college and are back for summer break,” she says. “Because the students are college-aged, they serve more as leaders and mentors to the high school students that we hire at the beginning of our season.”
Rita’s opens in March, and Hunter is often able to build a staff with people who have a few years of experience.
“Because most of our employees are high schoolers and young adults, we tend to over-hire,” Hunter says. “It’s hard for high schoolers to prioritize working over social events—a date, a friend’s birthday party, dinner with fellow band members, and they often go on spontaneous vacations without more than a week’s notice. So we over-hire to compensate.”
Even with many returning employees, she still has to find and train new hands, which can be a challenge. For Rita’s, which has been open for 11 years, employees must have a sense of urgency.
“Many of the new employees have never had a position in a workplace,” Hunter says. “Sometimes their manual dexterity is a little shaky—making custard cones—and it’s hard for them to prioritize tasks that need to be completed. Many people who interview for these positions are really great and conversational, but it’s hard to tell how they will actually perform. They could have a great personality but not do well at the tasks at hand. Working at Rita’s is easy and simple, but working at Rita’s involves hands-on work and being able to closely follow instructions.”
One thing Hunter learned not to do again is keeping employees who don’t perform well in the hopes that they will improve.
“If they don’t do well, they shouldn’t stay because it doesn’t benefit you or the customers when the employee doesn’t have the interest to be there,” she says. “Sometimes people are pushed by their parents to get a job when they don’t have the ‘want’ themselves.”