How hospitality businesses can attract and retain top talent

In the post-pandemic world, staff recruitment and retention have become severe long-term challenges for hospitality businesses of all sizes. World Coffee Portal explores what is behind the exodus of skilled staff, how operators can attune hiring strategies to attract top talent – and foster positive work environments to persuade them to stay 

Illustration by Mike Stonelake

The whir of the grinder, the whoosh of the steamer, the clink of cups and the hubbub of conversation – there is nothing quite like the frenetic energy of a café, bar or restaurant in full swing. Baristas, bartenders, chefs, waiters and support staff – it takes an army of skilled people to deliver the hospitality experiences we cherish and even the most meticulously devised proposition can only ever be as good as the team executing it.  

Yet, people are the centre of ongoing crisis for hospitality businesses around the world. For operators navigating the post-pandemic landscape, finding and retaining staff has never been more critical. 

Across Europe, data from hospitality membership organisation Hotrec shows up to a fifth of the EU’s 11 million-strong hospitality workforce is missing based on 2019 levels, including 250,000 unfilled positions in Italy, 200,000 in France and 55,000 in Greece.  

The UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows there were 132,000 unfilled hospitality roles between February and April 2023, a figure that has remained stubbornly high following the exodus of EU workers after Brexit. 

“Candidates are looking for jobs that a more than just transactional” 
Brooke Gray, Director of People, Equator Coffees 

The US leisure and hospitality sectors are short 500,000 employees based on 2020 levels according to the US government’s Bureau of Labor. Japan has a 300,000 shortfall of hospitality and tourism staff based on pre-pandemic levels and South Korea recently relaxed temporary foreign visa rules to bolster its service industry workforce. 

The reasons for staff leaving hospitality jobs are complex. However, high workloads, poor work-life balance, low pay and lack of career progression are all perceptions – and often realities – businesses must work to address. 

How did we get here? 

The pandemic undoubtedly led many to re-evaluate their careers, particularly those hospitality workers bearing the brunt of venue closures and redundancies. However, even seasoned professionals in the highest echelons of the industry are not immune to the high pressures of hospitality. 

“I have known for a while that I must make time for a better work-life balance so I can spend more time with my family and on my other business ventures,” said legendary chef Michel Roux Jr announcing the closure of two-Michelin star London restaurant Le Gavroche in August 2023 after 32 years at the helm of the business. 

A recent survey of 800 US foodservice workers further highlighted the challenges facing hospitality staff: 90% had worked double or extra shifts in 2022, with 75% doing so because of staff shortages. Fifty-six percent indicated they felt burnt out by their job and 27% said they did not anticipate working in the services industry within a year. 

Creating positive and fun working environments leads to positive learning and performance outcomes |Photo credit: Delightin Dee

“The post-pandemic era has been a profound period of introspection and individuals are deeply reassessing their career paths. Candidates are looking for jobs that are more than just transactional, align with their values and are mission driven,” says Brooke Gray, Director of People at Equator Coffees

Founded in 1995, Equator employs around 200 staff across its specialty coffee roastery and ten coffee shops in California. Gray notes that retail roles, particularly baristas, have always had higher than average turnover rates due to the transient nature of younger staff and seasonal fluctuations.  

“Historically, we’ve known that hospitality is notorious for high turnover rates, there’s often the perception that coffee-related jobs are temporary or transitional,” she says. However, recruitment has become far tougher post-pandemic, with many workers turning away from the industry due to pervasive perceptions around gruelling shifts, high pressure and low pay. 

Equator has long offered a competitive benefits and remuneration package alongside access to training and skills. However, the business goes much further to foster a positive and supportive work environment, and that starts with finding candidates who align with its values and mission. 

As a certified B Corporation with a commitment to strong coffee sourcing relationships, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, Equator strives to recruit staff who want to grow with the business’ ‘Good Coffee, Kind People, Better Planet’ ethos. “I'm a big believer in telling your story as a business and finding people that resonate with your mission,” says Gray.  

By attracting engaged and motivated candidates from the outset, Equator has been able to build a strong pipeline of talent, particularly store managers, who Gray describes as the “backbone” of Equator’s retail operations. 

“A great barista or store manager really comes to fruition after several months in the job” 
Jonathan Crookall, Global Chief People Officer, Costa Coffee 

“A skilled and passionate store manager can create a positive and welcoming environment that keeps customers coming back and fosters a loyal customer base. Finding those people is hard,” she says. 

This logic holds true for even the largest coffee operators. Jonathan Crookall is Global Chief People Officer at Costa Coffee and oversees the UK-based coffee chain’s human resources programme for 22,000 employees across 3,900 stores worldwide. 

“We work hard to run campaigns that draw people into Costa Coffee by being clear about what our proposition is and the values we stand for. That way we can pick the right people when they’re attracted to us,” says Crookall. 

“You can tell the quality of a Costa Coffee store manager when you walk through the door. Is the store clean and well presented? Is there a buzz in the store and do team members smile and engage with customers? All of that comes from choosing the right leader and getting them to pick the right team,” he adds. 

In today’s highly challenging recruitment market, hospitality operators could be forgiven for relaxing their selection criteria. However, Crookall maintains that getting the right people into the business from day one is the best long-term approach. 

“We have typical levels of turnover like the rest of the industry, but we encourage people who want to stay. The real challenge is that a great barista or store manager really comes to fruition after several months in the job, sometimes even a year – the job has got much more skill complexity than many would think. That’s why it’s worthwhile being selective and helping the right people grow into the business,” he says. 

Costa Coffee supports employee growth by creating clear pathways for career development, including more than 30 apprenticeship programmes and a graduate scheme covering front-of-house roles as well as corporate positions, such as marketing and finance. 

A prominent example is Costa’s Master of Coffee, Gennaro Pelliccia, who worked his way up from a barista to leading of Costa Coffee’s entire coffee programme – and whose tongue was famously insured for a tasty £10m ($12.7m). 

Does hospitality have a brand problem?  

Taking a long-term approach to hiring is a smart strategy for hospitality businesses, especially when factoring the high costs of recruitment and training. However, with a diminishing pool of top-quality talent available, this approach can run into problems, especially for smaller businesses with fewer resources at their disposal. 

In the UK, recruitment challenges have been exacerbated by the depletion of European labour after Brexit. EU citizens previously made up around a quarter of the 3.2 million workers in Britain’s hospitality industry, with the Caterer’s Hospitality Hiring Insider report calculating a net loss of 92,800 EU hospitality staff in 2020 alone. 

According to industry advocacy organisation UKHospitality, staff shortages cost UK businesses £21bn ($26.7bn) in lost revenue in 2022 and led to 45% of operators reducing opening hours or closing at least one day a week. 

Stepping up to the plate, one campaign has made its mission to reinvigorate the UK’s hospitality talent base from the ground up. Hospitality Rising is spearheaded by brand and marketing expert Mark McCulloch, who has held senior roles at prominent brands including Pret A Manger, YO! Sushi and Barclaycard and is currently CEO of boutique marketing agency Supersonic Inc. 

After finding that just one in ten under-30s would recommend working in the services industry, Hospitality Rising actively sought to address poor perceptions around pay, conditions and career development. 

“I’m a brand guy and this was a brand problem,” says McCulloch. “One of the campaign’s key goals has been to amplify the benefits of working in hospitality, talk about careers, highlight diversity and showcase success stories. The money can be competitive, with even back-of-house jobs paying £30,000 ($38,000) a year with tronc and tips.” 

To date, Hospitality Rising has posted more than 65,000 jobs, received over 135,000 job applications, gained a whopping 67.5 million digital impressions and raised over £900,000 to help hospitality businesses build more effective recruitment campaigns. 

Its flagship ‘Rise Fast, Work Young’ campaign has generated widespread visibility via high-profile advertising campaigns and collaborations with TikTok influencers, reaching 5.5 million – an impressive 50% of the UK’s 16 to 30-year-olds. 

Despite success winning the hearts and minds of young people, McCulloch observes that too few hospitality businesses are willing to train inexperienced staff and urges a rethink on outdated recruitment strategies. Streamlining application processes with fewer interview stages and quicker online applications could also boost hospitality’s profile among younger workers increasingly accustomed to seamless digital interactions. 

“Hospitality Rising is about getting young people to switch their career plans to get a job in hospitality. They’ll probably have no experience, but then it’s our job to train them – You’ve got to ask yourself every morning: ‘Do I have the generosity to teach?’,” he says. 

Hospitality Rising’s forward-thinking approach could prove effective in markets outside of the UK and demonstrates the power of addressing the root cause of labour shortages through collective industry action to win hearts and minds at a grass roots level. 

Being a barista, bartender or waiter can provide younger workers with valuable lifelong confidence and problem-solving skills |
Photo credit: mavo via Shutterstock 

Casting a wide net  

Faced with myriad challenges around recruitment and retention, are hospitality businesses making the most of the talent pool available with a diversity-minded approach to hiring? Camilla Morgan is Head of Sales & Partnerships UK at Victoria Arduino and leads Simonelli Group’s Youth Academy – a programme promoting training, skills and career opportunities for talented baristas aged 18-30. 

Having worked in the coffee industry for over 13 years, Morgan is candid about the lack of female representation she has encountered over her career. While progress has been made, Morgan says much more work is needed to improve female and minority representation in all-too-often male dominated workplaces, particularly at the senior level. She argues many recruitment processes are failing to cast a wide net when it comes to applicant diversity. 

“If you as an employer are serious about widening the demographic representation in your business, you also need to reflect on how you are presenting yourself, how you word your job application and the places where you advertise. There is no longer an excuse to say you picked from the best candidates who applied, or to advertise a salary as ‘competitive’. As well as hiring diversely you also need to consider inclusion. You can have a diverse workforce, however if the leadership team is still all male and white, you’re lowering the chances that your workforce will actually be heard, and change implemented by a leadership team that does not accurately represent them or their interests, nor see their problems or perspectives. Therein lies the challenge for true diversity and inclusion,” says Morgan. 

Youth Academy has an annual intake of six candidates via a blind application process. Baristas who demonstrate passion, enthusiasm and outstanding knowledge are then offered free Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) Foundation Courses – Green Coffee, Roasting, Sensory Skills, Brewing and Barista Skills to a professional level – a package worth around £6,000 ($7,505) that would often be out of reach for a typical young barista earning minimum wage. 

Without support across training tuition and building vital networking skills, Morgan believes many of the programme’s talented aspiring coffee professionals, some of whom have gone to attain senior roles at major branded coffee chains and event organisations, would not have pursued a career in coffee. 

“So much of our career success is based on how we view ourselves and self-belief isn’t something that is taught. We have all felt at some point that we are not qualified or knowledgeable enough for our job role or even good enough to take the next step in our career. What the Youth Academy programme has given students reaches far beyond their learning opportunity – confidence to believe in yourself and find the courage to explore opportunities outside your comfort zone – that is where true success of the programme lies,” she says. 

Have you got what it takes?  

Faced with training a new generation of eager yet potentially inexperienced younger workers, the need for hospitality businesses to implement effective training programmes has never been greater. 

Ben Helt is Director of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Authorized Trainer Program and oversees a network of 1,800 trainers around the world. The SCA generated more than 76,000 certificates to around 40,000 learners in 2022, making it one of the world’s foremost resources for coffee skills and learning. 

To ensure staff training is as effective as possible, Helt recommends an assessment-based approach. This enables learners to apply learned skills while revealing gaps in knowledge and where improvement is needed. 

“A lot of training in retail environments focuses on process, but good training is outcomes-based. The number one thing I recommend to people who are training in smaller organisations is to develop assessments, whether practical demonstrations or simply answering questions,” he says. 

“When you start with those outcomes in an assessment, you can design training and learning experiences that are efficient and don’t waste time. It also gives learners the chance to demonstrate what they’ve learned and feel good about it.” 

“Craft and hospitality must work hand-in-hand” 
Ben Helt, Director, Authorized Trainer Program, SCA  

It takes skill and hard work to ensure beverages are prepared consistently and on time, but the value of hospitality roles is also heavily weighted on generating positive customer interactions and repeat trade for businesses. 

“Your ability to conduct precision brewing, steam milk to exact standards and devise new beverages is not always going to translate into people wanting to visit your store or pay more for a product. Craft and hospitality must work hand-in-hand,” says Helt. 

These enigmatic qualities are essential to any high-quality hospitality experience and are much harder, or even impossible, to train compared to practical skills. 

“When we go into a coffee shop, we all want to have that connection with the person who’s serving us. We’re looking for that warmth and personality that connects with customers. If team members haven't got coffee skills on day one, we can help with training,” says Costa Coffee’s Jonathan Crookall. 

“Flexibility, adaptability, agility, are all good qualities too. It can be really hard work and there’s a lot to learn,” he adds. 

Equator Coffees’ Gray agrees character and personality are essential store staff qualities. “We hire for kindness and teach coffee,” she says. “Technical skills are considered alongside a candidate’s passion for making a positive impact through coffee. Behavioural and situational interview questions help identify individuals who share Equator’s commitment to hospitality, sustainability, and creating thoughtful, memorable customer experiences.” 

Hospitality jobs are never going to be the typical nine-to-five and often require working irregular hours and long shifts | Photo credit: CA Creative

Greater job role formalisation could also better equip aspiring coffee and hospitality professionals to set learning and development goals while enabling businesses to create clearer signposting to career progression. 

“We have one word for ‘barista’ but there are some baristas who focus on maintaining a great space and customer interaction while there are others whose role involves a significant level of craft, such as designing signature beverages,” says Helt. 

This dynamic highlights the limitations of professional coffee skills certificates, which are valued differently around the world and between businesses. As Helt explains, across Asia and Europe SCA certificates are essential for gaining employment in a range of professional coffee roles, such as roasters, quality control and at the director level. However, in the US professional certificates aren’t as essential for hiring and are often used as a pathway to professional development for those already in the role. 

For this reason, Helt is keen to stress the difference between ‘certificates’ and ‘certifications’. “When somebody finishes our coffee technicians programme, they are not an SCA certified technician – that comes with very specific expectations, particularly when it comes to safety,” says Helt, adding that one of the SCA’s long-term goals is to create a set of professional standards for the coffee industry. 

“Once we get a set of professional standards, informed by scientific process and with industry involvement, those would inform the content of our certificate programmes to create a true certification programme.” 

What a way to make a living  

Hospitality jobs are never going to be the typical nine-to-five and often require working irregular hours and long shifts. They also require a strong sense of emotional intelligence and the ability to work under physical and mental pressure. However, for those who enjoy a varied working week, interacting with customers and the chance to make a positive difference, the hospitality industry presents a wealth of opportunity for personal and professional development. 

“If you’re a people person, sociable and want to make people happy, there couldn’t be a more perfect job,” says McCulloch. 

While sought-after work benefits like remote working are impractical for customer-facing retail roles, flexible schedules and the ability to choose hours can make a huge contribution to achieving a healthy work-life balance. “Our teams have a lot of freedom and flexibility to fit work around their domestic or their family needs,” says Costa Coffee’s Crookall. 

“If you’re sociable and want to make people happy there couldn’t be a more perfect job” 
Mark McCulloch, Founder, Hospitality Rising 

Being a barista, bartender or waiter provides younger workers with valuable experience when stepping into the world of work and can provide lifelong confidence and problem-solving skills. But the journey doesn’t have to end there, so long as there are clear paths to career progression – whether stepping up to a store or area manager role, heading departments and even business ownership. To attract and retain staff, businesses should embrace and promote these opportunities alongside offering competitive salaries, training and flexibility. 

Serving customers requires a great deal of empathy and patience from staff, particularly in fast-paced and high-pressure hospitality venues where time is money and expectations are high. But empathy should go both ways, and business leaders can foster positive and fun work environments by recognising that hospitality roles are often incredibly hard work and building strong team support networks. 

The hospitality skills crisis is a fundamental challenge for businesses, but it also presents an existential threat to the notion of accessible hospitality itself. As costs continue to rise and staff shortages push more venues to the brink, there is the very real danger that many consumers will be priced out of a restaurant meal or even their morning coffee. 

Everyone who values eating and drinking out-of-home can make a positive difference to service staff by being kind, patient and showing a little gratuity for those who go above and beyond. Hospitality is that most human of qualities, let’s make sure it’s one we can all continue to enjoy by championing its people. 

This article was first published in Issue 16 of 5THWAVE magazine.

Subscribe to 5THWAVE to receive each edition in print and digitally or sign up to our newsletter and be the first to read the latest articles and updates on World Coffee Portal research.

Related News & Insight

Registered in England. Company No. 8736608
© 2024 World Coffee Portal Ltd.