Ketchup and worker shortages trouble franchise restaurants

Franchise restaurants have learned to Pivot with a capital P over the past 14 months. They’ve added drive-through lanes and patios, digital and disposable menus, and facemasks for staff. Restaurants have punched up their capabilities for online ordering and delivery, created curbside pickup, and spaced out indoor dining for social distancing. 

But two shortages, one new and one continuing, give independent and franchise restaurant owners a major case of heartburn right now: ketchup packets and workers.

The ketchup issue may sound funny and minor to non-restaurateurs, but it’s a major pain. Customers expect condiments to accompany their meals, and ketchup is a key player on everything from morning hash-brown potatoes and egg sandwiches to French fries, burgers, dogs, onion rings, chicken fingers, fried fish and more.

Demand has outstripped the normal supply, leading to a 13 percent increase in the cost of ketchup packets since January 2020, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. That’s partly because people have gravitated toward takeout and delivery meals during the pandemic. But even now that dining in picking up steam, restaurants have shifted to provide disposable packets, as opposed to bottles on tables, as recommended by health and medical experts in order to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus. 

Heinz, the nation’s largest producer of ketchup packets, recently announced that it has bumped up production by 25%, said Steve Cornell of Kraft Heinz. That will bring the company’s output to 12 billion packets per year. And to reduce the need for packets used by customers who dine inside restaurants, Heinz began offering a touchless dispenser late last year.

The worker shortage poses a longer-lasting problem. It arises from a wide range of causes, many of them related to low pay and limited benefits generally offered at restaurants. For instance:

  • People fear that they will be infected with Covid-19 while they’re at work. 
  • With schools closed, workers need access to day care that, if available, may cost as much as their earnings. Many day-care centers closed during lockdowns. 
  • Unemployment benefits have been generous enough that workers have opted not to return to restaurant jobs, at least not yet.
  • The long, hard hours associated with restaurant work have pushed laborers to pursue more desirable positions. 
  • There are more restaurants in densely populated areas where housing tends to be more expensive. Workers may live farther away in cheaper housing. Their commute is difficult because they may not own a vehicle, don’t want to take mass transit if it is even available because of Covid-19 fears, and there’s a shortage of Uber and Lyft drivers.
  • Heightened immigration enforcement has decreased the pool of undocumented workers.

Some of the above issues should resolve when federal benefits expire and the nation reaches herd immunity through a combination of vaccinations and recovery from the virus. In the meantime, what can a restaurant franchisee do to mitigate the worker shortage? Online research turns up some creative possibilities for restaurant owners to try in order to improve hiring as well as employee retention:

  • Work with local employment agencies; attend job fairs; network with schools.
  • Recruit recent high school graduates by tempting them with a rewarding, clearly defined career path.
  • Franchisees can network with one another and consult their franchisor to come up with best practices for hiring and retention in the current job market. 
  • Advertise key recurring needs even when there’s no immediate opening. This keeps the pipeline flowing by hiring ahead of desperation or having the worker on file ready to go when a need becomes urgent.
  • Pay employees a bonus if they recruit someone who sticks around.
  • Improve the work environment. Ease administrative tasks (perhaps with additional software tools) and create a fun work culture.
  • Offer flexible hours.
  • Show employees that you appreciate them. Praise them in front of their co-workers and offer incentives to excel. Involve them in decision-making and brainstorming. 
  • If you can afford it, move some part-timers into full-time positions with benefits.
  • Trim the hours that you are open to ease employees’ burdens.
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Mary Vinnedge is an award-winning writer who has served as editor in chief, managing editor and senior editor at national and regional publications, including SUCCESS and Design NJ magazines. A seasoned journalist, Mary covers the latest franchising news in her role as staff writer for FranchiseWire.
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