Skip navigation
NRA_Show_2023_Floor.jpeg Photo courtesy of Ron Ruggless
The 2023 National Restaurant Association show floor.

Labor takes center stage at the National Restaurant Association Show

Several attendees talked about the importance of culture to improve employee retention, citing the pandemic as a catalyst on how the industry approaches its workforce.

Several themes emerged at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, many of which weren’t all that surprising – for example, robots, invisible technology and plant-based offerings. But the recurring theme that tied much of this together was labor. Most conversations with exhibitors and operators and general attendees came back to labor in some way, shape or form.

Perhaps that also shouldn’t be surprising. The industry has been through the ringer on labor throughout the past few years, experiencing an all-time-high quit rate, union organizing, recruitment challenges and then some. The environment has compromised operating hours and has left big chunks of money on the table for many establishments. The hospitality industry’s churn rate is double the national average at 5.4%, while 79% of operators are still struggling to hire. That said, mindsets seem to be changing.

“The pandemic created a spark in the hospitality industry that made us realize how important it is to invest in your culture. When you do that, turnover plummets. Employees have a lot of power right now. They’re not going to put up with a crappy workplace environment,” said Anthony Lambatos, founder of Mibe (Make it Better Everyday).

His company was started in 2020 to help hospitality industry leaders achieve “heart-led leadership and a strong company culture” through business coaching, workshops and more. The objective is to create a place where workers want to be and stay.

“Culture is not equal to perks and benefits. Workers now want to be doing jobs where they feel they have a purpose and add value and with people they love, trust and respect, and that’s where our training is focused,” Lambatos said. “Our philosophy is if you serve your people, they’ll better serve your customers.”

Indeed, if there is a sub-theme to pull from the giant labor theme, it’s training. This is what the National Restaurant Association’s ServSuccess is focused on to improve employee retention. The program was launched in 2019 to ensure restaurant professionals have clear career paths by offering certification, online training and assessments.

“There is no bigger challenge in our industry than retention,” Rebecca Berry, senior sales manager, career and workforce with the association, said during a session. She cited training as the biggest opportunity to solve for this issue, noting that 87% of millennials say training is critical to their job, while 93% of employees state they would stay at a company longer if their careers were invested in.

“Disengaged employees cost employers $8,000 a year. It costs $1,800 to train a new employee,” Berry said. “We need to fill that gap. There is a labor and revenue challenge, and it also impacts guest satisfaction that you can’t get back. Training is the biggest asset when it comes to recruitment. When you offer training and education and a career path, you become an employer of choice.”

Training, Berry said, also creates standards that previously haven’t existed in the industry, which then creates more consistency for customers.

“If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we need to be teaching our employees to be their best. That’s why we’re hearing about career pathing more in this industry,” Berry said. “The opportunity for career growth should be top of mind.”


Of course, the labor conversation didn’t end with training and development and culture. Technology is a huge piece of this puzzle as well, with vendors showcasing server robots running food to tables; app companies calling themselves the “Uber of labor,” allowing operators to find employees last-minute to fill vacant shifts; automated French fry, burger, sushi stations and so much more. These companies insist their technology is a supplement to existing labor, easing the time and cost pressures of mundane, sometimes dangerous, tasks for employees so they can add more guest-facing value. It’s yet to be seen if any of this tech really does serve as a human replacement, but for now, we’ll opine that the industry is in the midst of a labor revolution, as evidenced by the National Restaurant Association Show floor.

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]  

TAGS: Technology
Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.