How to Handle Employee Downtime

Every restaurant experiences employee downtime at one time or another. Sometimes it's pretty predictable and you're staffed accordingly — after all, not too many people want a steak dinner at 3:00 p.m. Other times, it's more unexpected, and you could be fully staffed but only fill three tables. So what can you do to make sure you're not losing money? Here are some tips.

Sending Employees Home Early

In some states, like California, you have to partially compensate employees for a minimum number of hours if they come in. Each state has different laws, so make sure you've done your research before you start sending employees home. If your employees have worked enough to cover the minimum hours law for your state, or you don't have such a law, you can consider sending employees home when business is slow. Here are a few questions to answer when you're in this situation:

  • Are you sure it's not going to pick up? Is business dead because there's a big football game in town? You don't want to send everyone home at 7:00 p.m., only to have the game end at 8:00 p.m. and then be completely overwhelmed. While it may not be a perfect predictor, it's good to be aware of what's going on in your community.
  • Do you have things that need to be done? If you're usually busy, some employee downtime can be a great thing. Get out your to-do list (see below) and have employees pitch in.
  • Does anyone want to go home? If you decide business isn't likely to pick up, ask for volunteers. Some employees may prefer to leave early than to have more hours on their paychecks, and this will help keep everyone happy.
  • Is every station covered? When business is slow and you decide to send employees home, make sure that every station is covered. For instance, if you need to send three people home, make sure you don't let all three cooks leave.
  • What happened in the past? The last time this happened, how did your revenue look for the rest of the night? This will help you determine if, and how many, people should go home.

The To-Do List

One smart thing for managers to do is to maintain a list of tasks that need to be done. These may be day-to-day tasks or things you've been putting off that need to get done. Here are some suggestions to add to your list:

  • Thorough cleaning. You should be cleaning regularly, but if an employee has downtime, have them go above and beyond the usual routine. For instance, they could mop hard-to-reach areas or dust picture frames and ledges.
  • Stocking. When employees have free time, make sure they have everything ready for the next rush. Food should be stocked and utensils should be wrapped and ready to go.
  • Food prep. What can be done now that won't go to waste? Be careful that you don't overdo food prep and then have to throw out unused food.
  • Scheduled maintenance. Lots of maintenance needs to be done regularly. Know the regulations and manufacturers' recommendations for your equipment, and make time for necessary upkeep or repairs when business is slow.
  • Cross-train. If you want flexibility, try training employees on new tasks during downtime.

Getting Employees On Board

Sometimes employees think that when business is slow they can stand around and chat. They may even balk at being asked to do more work — especially if it's not directly related to their primary job. However, in order for them to have a job, your business needs to be profitable and that means using downtime wisely.

The most important thing is for managers to be visible during downtime. If you assign your front-end staff to clean under the tables while you sit in the back and chat with the cooks, resentment from employees may grow. Instead, a manager should be the first person to grab a bucket of warm water and get to work. After all, if your employees see you working hard, they will be more likely to do so.

If you choose to cross-train employees during downtime, explain how this will make them more valuable and how it could result in pay increases down the line. Similarly, stocking food may be boring now, but it will make the rush later on less stressful.

Planning ahead is the key to effectively making the most of employee downtime. Start with these tips and get prepared, so you'll avoid losing money when it happens.