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Restaurants in Arkansas Fight to Keep Good Workers

4 min read

Finding and keeping good restaurant workers in the current tight labor market is a big problem in Arkansas as well as nationwide.

Job vacancies in the hospitality industry, of which restaurants are a part, are at a record high in the United States, according to Hudson Riehl, senior VP of research of the National Restaurant Association.

Restaurateurs in the state are feeling the pinch. “It has been a big struggle,” Ryan Hamra said of finding capable workers. “This is one of the toughest times in the workforce that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in this business a long time.” Hamra is owner of two Potbelly Sandwich Shops in Little Rock and vice president of the Arkansas Restaurant Association.

Restaurant owners are using the time-honored employee recruitment and retention strategies of higher wages and better benefits. Restaurant wage growth this year is running at 4.7 percent compared with about a 3.3 percent rate in the overall private sector, Riehl said.

That particularly goes for northwest Arkansas, which Rob Nelson, owner of Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie in Bentonville and president of the state Restaurant Association, described as being in the midst of a hospitality “boom.”

When he hires, Nelson said, he’s not looking for just a dishwasher; he’s looking for someone capable of being cross-trained as a prep cook or kitchen porter. His restaurant starts off employees at about $11 an hour, $1.75 per-hour higher than the state’s current minimum wage of $9.25.

Hamra raised wages and that has been somewhat successful, he said, though it’s still a struggle to keep workers, and “I don’t see it getting better anytime soon.” One advantage to his restaurants, Hamra noted, is that they offer employees a friendly work environment and flexible hours that can accommodate family life.

Gena Gregory is director of human resources and general counsel of Yellow Rocket Concepts, the Little Rock restaurant group behind the Big Orange, Local Lime, Zaza and Heights Taco & Tamale restaurants and Lost Forty Brewing. Among the nine restaurants and the brewery, Yellow Rocket now employs between 650 and 675 workers. Gregory agrees that finding workers has been more difficult, particularly in the past year.

One of her goals when she hired on at Yellow Rocket three years ago was to improve employee retention, she said, noting the restaurant industry’s traditionally and notoriously high turnover rate. (Riehl, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, said the turnover rate in the hospitality industry was about 73 percent.) To improve retention, Yellow Rocket took several steps, one of the first being the creation of a “generous paid time off policy,” Gregory said.

“And we started doing a lot of workplace training of managers, so they felt invested in the company, that they had long-term options for internal promotion and for future training,” she said. The company’s leaders sought to communicate to employees that “we want you to succeed and get as far as you possibly can with our company,” Gregory said.

Yellow Rocket seeks to make its employees feel that working at its restaurants is more than just a job, that it’s a career in which they can learn useful skills and advance, either within the company or elsewhere.

“The other thing I think that helps — and in talking to our employees, I hear this a lot — is that they feel good about what we’re doing, the product we serve,” Gregory said. Restaurant employees tend to be young, often in their 20s and 30s, and “they’re not just interested in a paycheck. They want something more,” she said. Paying people fairly is important, Gregory said, “but they also want to believe in what they’re doing.”

Industry veteran Mark Abernathy, owner of Little Rock’s Loca Luna and Red Door restaurants, says that though the labor market is tighter, finding and keeping good employees hasn’t been a big problem for him. “It’s certainly tougher now than it was four years ago,” he said. Where it used to take a week or so to find a replacement for a departed worker, now it might take two or three weeks.

However, his restaurants don’t experience a lot of turnover, Abernathy said. “We stick to the basics,” he said. “We treat people well and they make good money here. That’s the bottom line.”

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