Autonomy, Asking For Help and Saying Thank You: Millennials In The Restaurant Industry

Gabrielle F. Mathers
Image Source: Restaurant Secrets Inc.

Generational divides are inevitable and with the increasing ‘wokeness’ of the millennial generation (born 1981-1996) permeating practices and perspectives, it becomes of greater importance to bridge traditional mentalities with progressive new directions in the F&B industry. Katrina Kufer discovers the challenges and needs of engaging emerging generations of young professionals in a work environment that is in a state of flux as it adapts to a generation that necessitates empathy, independence and mentorship as guides.  

When considering the larger challenges that are faced by restaurants in terms of a younger staff body, keeping the dynamic, open-minded and sensitive generation motivated and equipped is key. F&B concepts are often introduced as quickly as they disappear due to faults in business strategy, service standards or brand identity. This is a reality which is mirrored by the shorter-fused passion of the millennial generation, who, in a world of instant self-gratification, sometimes sees their passion die before it is fueled. It is an observation presented by Gabrielle F. Mathers, founder and CEO of UAE-based Restaurant Secrets Inc. and Cornerstone 61 consultancy. 

Part of a successful approach is to ensure that young team members embrace traditional service culture and operational processes under leadership that emphasizes empathy peppered with contemporaneity to appeal to, rather than deter, millennial proclivities towards putting their mental health and working on their own terms as a priority. Understanding incites motivation, motivation begets passion, and passion leads to success. 

The goal is to promote dignity and ownership over the restaurant by the entirety of its staff. For the most part, individuals thrive on ownership over their accomplishments and in turn, recognition of this by others. It is a straight-forward and even self-evident approach, but it is easy to take longstanding notions within the industry schemata for granted. Fresh entries often require patient mentorship rather than a deep dive into the industry to successfully build skillsets and confidence. It is further complexified by the double-edged sword of a generation deeply in tune with their own internal natures, which while helpful in navigating social exchanges and promoting an open and friendly work culture, can prove an obstacle in their ability to persevere through rigid and notoriously harsh professional restaurant environments. Studies have shown that more stoic approaches see this generation opting out, with 62% turning down a job offer based on poor first impressions. 

“Guests feel the energy of an effective team and choose to spend their time and money in an environment where people who make the place make them feel happy and special. Only a happy, synergistic, operationally effective team can deliver that.”

Another layer to overcome is millennials’ desire for a strong work-life balance, with 61% preferring remote work and 50% actively avoiding one of the biggest stressors: long hours, which leads to feelings of being overwhelmed, overworked, and anxiety. The post-COVID work environment has undergone radical shifts in favor of this, and while the restaurant industry naturally plays into a flexible shift-schedule culture, 49% of millennials prefer to work 35-40 hours per week at a maximum, with up to 28% declining a position if the paid time off benefits were, on average, less than two weeks, with three or more being ideal (source: 2020 Millenial Job Seeker Report). The overarching message is that younger generations want increased autonomy, to which the restaurant industry may still be playing catch-up. 

But engaging future generations ensures sustainability for the restaurant industry – the millennial workforce constitutes nearly half of all employees – and therefore embracing evolving mindsets is critical. It benefits not only the survival of outlets, but provides a supportive environment for fresh ideas, reinvented approaches, and more humanistic practices. Millennials want independence, good work-life balance, and a chance to competitively and rapidly grow professionally and financially, all within a positive environment. Is it easier said than done?

Gabrielle Mather
Gabrielle Mather, RSI Founder & CEO. (Image Source: Restaurant Secrets Inc.)

The key findings from a 2019 study by found that the ideal work environment keeps employees active, able to engage with a diverse group of people and flex their creativity and ideas. It ought to be a business promoting ethics, appreciation of diversity, and holding a positive community reputation – which when it comes to millennials, who often use the internet and social media to job hunt, is important given word-of-mouth is a high determiner of whether job applications are submitted. But what does this mean, concretely, for restaurants? Mathers outlines the following tips:

1. Promote passion with purpose

“Be a hands-on leader, share a vision your people can adopt. Be passionate every day about what you do and why. Commit to giving your people a healthy company culture so that a positive DNA runs through the work family that spends more time with you than with their own.”

2. Provide a variety of on-going trainings

“Millennials love learning new things, multi-tasking and exploring. With an attention span that is active and seeking new stimulation, keep trainings interesting and varied. F&B owners make the mistake of sticking to just F&B-related trainings. I suggest mixing these up with life skills, some inspiring short Ted Talks kind of topics.” 

3. Be clear about expectations 

“Expecting young millennials to be constantly pro-active and initiate tasks that have not been explained and trained, is fighting a losing battle.”

4. Reward exceptionally for exceptional performances and attitudes

“Remember that people commit to a task for the pay cheque and their passion to a cause. Your team typically works 10 hours to feed their families. They will only work to be remarkable all of those 10 hours with joy and passion if they feel appreciated and find dignity in what they do.”

5. Restaurant success is a result of teamwork and synergy

“The ‘connected yet most disconnected’ generation thrives on teamwork. An excellent brand is stewarded by its proud and caring owners. That’s our responsibility as entrepreneurs and owners. Stewardship mentality leads to a sense of responsibility and accountability, and that in turns creates the ‘buddy’ culture. I have seen teams stay in a tiring job because they just love going to work and enjoy the time they spend together as a team.” 

The takeaway is that personal human development – in addition to F&B skills – needs to become a foundational pillar of the industry in order to entice the maximum potential out of an emerging workforce. Necessitating a motivational nudge in the form of healthy work attitudes, competitive benefits, a nurturing, teaching-focused and reward-based environment suggests that positive reinforcement, one-on-one mentorship and sharing of success stories from in and outside of the industry goes a long way. Millennials may make up the brunt of the F&B industry, but it is the job of restaurant managers and owners to keep them there. A poignant final observation by Mathers sums this up: “Guests feel the energy of an effective team and choose to spend their time and money in an environment where people who make the place make them feel happy and special. Only a happy, synergistic, operationally effective team can deliver that.”

Restaurant Secrets Logo

About The Editor

Katrina – arts, culture and lifestyle writer and editor (BFA Fine Arts, Parsons the New School for Design; MA Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art) – has lived in 16 countries and written for a multitude of prestigious publications in the MENA region. Based in Dubai, Kufer is interested in observing new environments and exploring cross and inter-cultural connections.