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May 22, 2016
by James

How to Hire Good Retail and Restaurant Employees

Posted in Hiring For Small Business - Hire Great Restaurant and Retail Employees



When I turned 15, I got my first job in a restaurant.   It was at a fast food chain called Rax which, if I recall correctly, was like a cross between Wendy’s and Arby’s.

Even though I was just a kid, I remember a lot of lessons from that first gig that I carry with me to this day.   The biggest lesson being — hire slow…fire fast!

In this article, I’m going to focus on the “hire slow” part because — let’s face it — the “fire fast” strategy is what you typically see in a restaurant environment and it’s not very productive.

Typically it happens like this — someone quits (or gets fired) and the Manager reaches for a stack of applications that have been laying around for a few weeks, calls a couple of them, interviews the candidates for 15 minutes and asks “When can you start?”.

Sound familiar?

During my brief tenure at Rax I watched some great hires come in but mostly bad ones.    I very clearly saw the impact between the hiring decisions that were made, the morale of the team, the productivity in the kitchen and the number of Tums the Managers would take in order to deal with a bad hire.

I don’t think this early experience pushed me toward a career in hiring and interviewing, but it certainly taught me the value of hiring the right people!


When you’re in the service industry, it’s critical that you have the right people on your team because one bad hire can cost you a fortune in lost customers, periodic theft and even law suits.

It’s widely agreed upon in a corporate setting that the cost of a bad hire can be 2 to 3 times the cost of that person’s annual pay or more. After you figure in the recruiting costs, training expenses, productivity losses, damage to your team’s morale, lost opportunities and unemployment claims…the costs add up quickly.

When you apply this line of thinking to the service industry, the calculation gets really easy because you can see the link between your strongest people and the amount of money they bring in on a shift versus your weaker staff members.

For example, I remember when I was the General Manager of restaurant that also had a separate bar.   I was having a problem with slow sales on the morning bar shift.  It was not uncommon for the bartender on this shift to only pull in around $150 for a period of 5 hours between 11am – 4pm.   So, one day, I decided to replace that person with one of my better bartenders and the numbers immediately jumped to $1,800 for the same shift.     For us non-math majors — that’s an 1,100% increase!

Consider also the retail sales person who greets incoming customers with the question “Can I tell you about what’s new in our store?”   versus the person hiding in the corner checking her cell phone while ignoring everyone who comes in.

For proof of the dollar value of making a great hire in the retail industry, take a look at this post I wrote about a real experience I had recently.


So how do you hire these superstars?    Well, it’s not easy, but I have a strong belief that you need to have a hiring system that creates predictably good hiring results again and again.   This is the key to “hiring slow”.

Below are some key ways that you can develop your own hiring system that will help you choose winners for your restaurant or retail establishment and minimize the high costs associated with bad employees.


As I moved on from Rax and worked at several other large and small restaurants and retail establishments over the course of the next 10 years while I put myself through college, I noticed a pattern.  Most of these places don’t have a consistent hiring process.   And, even when they did, the Managers didn’t always follow it.

At HireBar, we call our hiring system the “Hiring Blueprint” because it represents the framework for how you build a great team.    Below are some components of a good blueprint that will help you build a better process.

1.  Create a realistic job advertisement

2.  Create a meaningful application process

3. Create Life-like interviews

4.  Conduct Pre-hire reference checks (Always!)

5.  Develop a great onboarding plan

Let’s take a look at each component in more depth.


One way to ensure that you hire the right people is to make sure that you’re attracting the right types of people with your advertising.   To use the bar example again, let’s say you’re trying to hire a bartender for your weekend shift and you need a real game changer to jump start your weekend shifts.   Notice the difference between the copy from each of these job titles and descriptions:

Bartender Wanted.  Weekend shifts.  5pm – 2am.  2 years of experience is a must!  Apply online at or stop in and talk to the Manager.

Versus the following…

Energetic & entertaining Bartender wanted for high volume – high earning weekend shifts at a busy nightclub!  Must have a large repertoire.   Schedule your audition today.  1-800-blue-bar.

Do you think that these two ads will pull in a different type of candidate?   So do I.   An accurately written advertisement does two things:

1.  Sets the tone for the interview and the job.

2.  Allows candidates to self-select out based on how you position it.

Make sure you’re considering your audience and your culture as you write your ad copy.


One of the things that always bothered me as a Manager is that when prospective employees dropped off an application at a time that I was busy or not in the building, I’d always ask “what were they like?”.   This would be followed by a shrug of the shoulders or a vague, unhelpful statement.

So, instead of just allowing someone to hand in their application to someone at the front counter, start training everyone in your business to ask two questions when an applicant drops off a resume:

1.   So what lead you to apply here?

Candidates will say a variety of things.  Some will say “I need a job”.  Some will say “I live down the street”.   And some will say, “I’ve always wanted to work here!”

Which one would you want to talk to first???

2.  Did anyone refer you?  

You want to focus on candidates who are referred by your best employees or best customers.

When you have a process for your counter staff to get involved in the hiring process, not only do they feel more engaged, but you get the added benefit of collecting some intelligence on your applicants before you even talk to them.

One way to systematize this is to put a section on the back of your written application or have an area on the front that says “Internal Use Only”.   In this area, leave room for the following fields:

Received By:

Referred By:

Applied Because:

Other Notes:

Simply adding these fields and involving your team in the feedback cycle early can help set you up for hiring success.


A Career Path Interview is a vital part of any hiring blueprint for any job.   It doesn’t matter if you’re hiring a CEO or a part-time janitor, you should use one.

The characteristics of a career path interview are quite simple.   The interviewer starts 5-7 years or more in the past and asks the candidate to answer the same few questions about each job they’ve had during this time period.

Sample questions include:

1.  What was your job title?  What were you responsible for?

2.  What was your biggest accomplishment while you were there?

3.  What was your bosses name?   When we call them for a reference, what are they going to tell me about your relationship with them?

4.  Why did you join this company?  Why did you leave?  Were you terminated?

5.  Did you ever receive any awards?   Any raises?

There are a few more questions you can ask, but these are some of the key ones.   The most important thing here is to go through each and every job and ask the same handful of questions.   After a while, you’ll notice patterns of behavior — some of the good, some of them bad.

Use this interview as one of the first parts of your process and don’t move anyone on to the next step unless they pass with flying colors.


I’ve always been a big fan the hiring process for professional athletes, musicians, dancers and other performance artists.   They actually have to audition for their jobs to prove that they can do the work!

In the retail or restaurant industry, so much of an employee’s success is based on their ability to come into the job with a certain set of characteristics and skills that allow them to contribute immediately.  What better way to gauge their abilities then to design an interview process that replicates the type of work that they’ll need to do.   In the HR space, we call this a “simulation” activity.

For example, if you’re hiring a Retail Associate whom needs to put together outfits that make a customer look good and feel good while staying within their budget — why not design a simulation where they need to treat you (the Manager) like a customer?

Or if you’re hiring a Cook for a restaurant, why not ask them to come in before a shift and bang out a couple dishes so you can observe how they move around the kitchen?    Check to see if they can execute the right taste, timing and temperature of a properly cooked meal.  Heck, bring them in for a real shift and pay them cash for a couple hours worth of work if you really want to see them perform.

I think you get the point.  You don’t need to be terribly creative in how you design a simulation, you just need to mirror the real job duties as closely as possible.


No one ever gives true references, right?    Wrong!

Everyone always thinks thinks that they shouldn’t do pre-hire reference checks because previous employers usually clam up when it comes to giving true feedback.   If you still believe this, then you haven’t done a reference check lately.

Sure, occasionally you’ll get a reluctant former boss but if you approach the situation with the following statement, you’ll improve your chances greatly:

“So & So I’m interviewing a former employee of yours and before I go any further in the process with this person, I wondered if you would share with me some basic information about the time that they spent with you.  Is that okay?  (Who is it?)  It’s So &So and can you verify that they worked for you for approximately 3 months in 2016 as a prep cook? (Yeah that sounds right).  Okay and is this person eligible for re-hire per your employment policies?  (Yes, they are).   Okay well, just out of curiosity, as her manager, how would you suggest that we get the best out of So & So if we were to hire her?”

Now just sit back and listen.  Both to what the person says and what they don’t say.    You’ll get all the information you need, without actually having to ask them any of the questions that they don’t want to answer like….”Would you hire them again?”.   Or “Did they get along with other employees?”.  Etc.


It’s not enough to have a great hiring process.   Even the most self-sufficient new hires need some structure when they come on board.  You don’t have to get too crazy with this, but sit down and develop at least a 2 week training, shadowing and testing process whereby you..

1.  Tell them what to do.

2.  Show them what to do.

3.  Let them do it.

4.  Test that they can do it.

When you do this in a meaningful way, your employees get up to speed faster and they tend to stay longer too!


So you’ve conducted a thorough interview, you’ve checked their references and you’ve put them through at least a 2 week monitoring period.   If it’s not working out, don’t wait.   Cut the cord while you’re still in the probationary period.    You’ll save yourself hours of headaches in the process.

HireBar - Blog Author Profile - James Colino

3 thoughts on “How to Hire Good Retail and Restaurant Employees”

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