The restaurant universe is reeling with widespread labor problems, and a recent blunder from Applebee's underscores why people are quitting these jobs faster than in any other industry. It also offers a hint of why so many in the industry fail at efforts to build their employee brand.
This week, an email from an Applebee's franchise executive went viral for gloating about rising gas prices, which -- the exec explains at length -- will push its lowest-paid employees deeper into financial straits. He observes that since both stimulus and COVID-19 employment benefits have ended and that most of its base talent pool "live paycheck to paycheck," rising gas prices will enable the chain to snag workers for lower wages.
A kind word about the suffering in Ukraine, a crisis responsible for the rise in gas prices? A compassionate observation that maybe that kind of paycheck-to-paycheck life is difficult? Nope. Just glee that high gas prices "benefit us," he writes in the email posted on Reddit. "It will force people back into the workforce."
He continued that these circumstances put mom-and-pop stores under pressure, leaving more people for Applebee's to poach. "The labor market is about to turn in our favor."
The email shocked six managers in a Lawrence, Kansas Applebee's into quitting, forcing it to close temporarily, according to reports in the Lawrence Journal-World.
A spokesperson for AFC Brands, which operates 121 Applebee's and Taco Bell franchises, told the local paper that the executive has no authority to speak for the company and that the email did not reflect its "policies or our culture."
But since Reddit posted the email as part of a chain, it was hard not to notice the hearty agreement other executives gave the missive.
The franchisee group is separate from Applebee's, owned by Dine Brands. "This is the opinion of an individual, not Applebee’s," says Kevin Carroll, the company's chief operations officer at Applebee’s, in a statement sent to QSR Land.* "The individual has been terminated by the franchisee who owns and operates the restaurants in this market. Our team members are the lifeblood of our restaurants, and our franchisees are always looking to reward and incentivize team members, new and current, to remain within the Applebee’s family.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the industry continues to have the highest quit rate. For example, one million people left their restaurant and hospitality jobs in November -- roughly double the national average.
But even as large chains work hard to burnish their brands as desirable employers, worker sentiment continues to sour. That includes stepped-up efforts from Starbucks employees to unionize, for example, and work stoppages at chains like McDonald's. Statewide walkouts in California have drawn thousands of fast-food workers.
All that makes hiring much harder. In its latest analysis, the National Restaurant Association reports that while the restaurant and foodservice industry added back 1.7 million jobs last year, seven out of ten operators say they don't have enough employees to support customer demand.
And 75% say they intend to devote more resources to their efforts.
Maybe, instead of framing the issue solely as a labor shortage, restaurant companies should look at what might be a bigger problem: deeply embedded corporate contempt for the hourly workers that keep these businesses going.
*This story has been updated to include a comment from Applebee's.