The Top Challenges Facing Bars: Labor Shortage

Be sure to read the other installments in our series on inflation and supply chain challenges.
By Ashley Bray

Welcome to our new series, The Top Challenges Facing Bars. Over the last two years, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering effects, the bar industry has become familiar with a number of roadblocks and the words that come with them like, “pivot” and “unprecedented.” And the hits keep coming as the industry now faces a bout of new challenges: inflation, supply chain issues, and the labor shortage.

As part of our new series, Bar Business recently spoke with James J. King, the founder & CEO of Titan Hospitality Group, about these issues and how the bars and restaurants in his management group have weathered the storm.

titan hospitality group

“In a lot of people’s minds, the restaurant industry has recovered from COVID and the shutdowns, mandates, and restrictions are over,” says King. “But we really feel like we’re in this weird second wave of COVID that is just as difficult to navigate in and work through as the first phases were—just in completely different ways.”

Each week, we’ll dive into one of the three issues mentioned above and take a look at the problem as well as possible solutions. This week, we cover the labor shortage.

The Problem

Titan Hospitality Group is no stranger to the worker shortage plaguing the hospitality industry, and King says staffing is probably his number-one challenge at the moment.

“We’re probably at about 85 percent of where we would like to be from a staffing perspective. From what I see, from publications and reading, I think the industry average nationally right now is closer to 60 percent. So we feel confident; we work really hard on our company culture, retaining employees, and things of that nature. But it’s still a challenge, certainly as we were heading into the holiday season.”

And it’s not just hiring employees that can be an issue—it’s retaining them. This can be especially difficult when each day presents new, unexpected challenges.

King gives the example of supply chain issues (which we will cover in an upcoming article in this series), and having to settle for something like a larger-than-usual napkin size. “While that doesn’t sound like a big deal to a consumer, when you have a certain size napkin that fits when you roll your silverware in it, and now it’s a completely different sized napkin, now you’ve sent another operational headache down the chain to management—trying to figure out how to set the table,” says King. “But it’s more stress, it’s more time, it’s more attention and focus that comes away from taking care of your guests, and it gets put on operations.”

The Solutions

King has worked to combat the labor challenge from a number of angles.

When it comes to employee retention, King has focused on stabilizing and normalizing operations. “How do we take stress off of our management teams? We already have staffing issues, and if we don’t want to burn people out and lose more people, we’ve got to try to find creative ways to make their day a little bit easier,” he says. “And that’s a challenge because there’s so many variables that happen over the course of a day that are unexpected that they just have to multitask, juggle, be nimble, and work around them.”

labor shortage titan hospitality group
Smashing Grapes in Gambrills, MD

On the hiring side, King says a key decision at the start of the pandemic set them up for success. “I think the number-one difference maker for us was we made a conscious decision when the pandemic struck and we had forced closures, to pay all of our salaried managers regardless of having no income. It was a tough financial decision to make at the time, but we felt it was the right thing to do, and it fit with the culture that we try to foster within our company,” says King. “In hindsight, it was one of the best things we ever did because when we were able to reopen, these people were ready to run through a wall for us. They were very appreciative of what we had done for them. And I didn’t have to retrain people—that institutional knowledge was there from day one, so they knew how to get us open.”

King says since they didn’t have to train new people, Titan Hospitality Group’s brands were up and running within 48 hours of being able to reopen.

The situation was much different for hourly employees, however, as many left the industry for jobs in more lucrative markets with companies like Amazon and DoorDash. Titan Hospitality Group was able to retain a few veteran hourly employees thanks to their company culture and the family-like feeling among employees.

For those positions that needed to be filled, Titan Hospitality Group had to lower its hiring standards. “Instead of only hiring a bartender that had at least two or three years experience, we would hire someone with zero experience and train them,” says King, who notes that as a result, training had to increase. “We had to take a deep dive into our training policies and procedures, how we train a new employee, the time it takes to train a new employee, the level of patience we need to have with that employee, and the speed in which we put them into action.”

The typical training period of seven days was increased to two to three weeks. “All of this has been in an effort to protect the brand,” says King. “While a lot of restaurants just want to get the money back, open the doors, get as many people as they can in there, and take advantage of whatever revenue they can, we decided that’s not the right strategy for us.

“We want to be here for 20 years. We want our brand name to be strong and we don’t want to damage it. And so if we have to leave some revenue on the table because we just can’t fit that many people in on the specific night because we don’t have the staff, then let’s slow the door down and let’s close some sections, and let’s make sure that everyone that does sit down has a great experience,” continues King. “And that will generate more income for us over the long term than just trying to take advantage of the short-term high demand of restaurants with low staffing.”