June 29, 2016

Forget Competitions: 4 Real Ways to Motivate Your Servers


“Introduce some friendly competition to the job in order to motivate your restaurant employees to work harder.”

How many times have you heard this piece of advice uttered?

“Tell your servers that whoever sells the most food and drinks at the end of the week will be getting a bonus.”

Is this really the best way to motivate them?

No, it’s not. Think about it, is pitting your employees against one another in “friendly competition” the best route to take? How can competition be all that friendly when we’re talking about someone’s livelihood?

Why Competitions Don’t Work

When it comes to contests, many people tend to forget what one of the most important factors is when it comes to running a contest the right way – a level playing field. Running a contest to see which one of your servers brings you the most money over the course of a given period of time is the equivalent to organizing a marathon and giving half the runners a 15-mile head start.

As anyone who has worked as a server knows, the playing field is definitely not level. Your sales don’t depend solely on your ability and your willingness to get customers to buy food and drinks. The success you have depends a lot on what shifts you are working, what time of the day it is, what section of the restaurant you are working in, and much more.

Taking all of these aspects into consideration, running a contest might provide a little bit of friendly (or not-so) competition for a handful of top servers, who always end up making the most money, contest or not.

In the end, these contests are neglecting to make an effort to provide motivation for the servers who need it most.

Bottom line: Can the contests and focus on real, proven strategies that are going to motivate your restaurant staff from top to bottom. Here are a few.


Show Respect

Here’s the thing about being a server – it isn’t really a very glamorous job, let’s face it. Servers are usually the last people in line to get compliments in the restaurant industry, whether from customers or managers.

That’s why a smile and a kind word is usually worth a lot more when it comes to motivating a server than giving them a $50 bonus at the end of the month for selling more specials than the rest of the servers.

Motivation is not something that you can force, it’s something that you need to enable. You need to create an atmosphere in which motivation will be able to succeed. Showing your servers respect is the first step in achieving this.

It has been proven time and time again that money is not the greatest motivator when it comes to keeping employees happy. Your goal is to make your servers feel wanted and appreciated. Praise them for a job well done, let them know that they are important to your restaurant, and empathized with them.

Make sure that your servers know that you realize what a tough job they have and show them that you are aware of all of the hard work that they are putting in. While there are many different methods you can employ to show respect towards your serving staff, you should at least now know that dangling prizes in front of their faces isn’t one of them.

Once you make the effort to establish a relationship with your servers and you show them that you care about their level of job satisfaction, they will inevitably start opening up to you as well. This can then lead to managers gaining a greater level of understanding of why their employees are unmotivated if that is the case. This is the first step towards influencing real change and implementing real efforts that are going to lead to real results.

Provide Independence

To get the most out of your servers, you need to empower them to succeed on their own. Servers desire independence. They don’t want you to hold their hands, they want to prove that they are able to do their jobs without unnecessary supervision. They want you to trust them.

The best way to build trust is to give them independence, not just in their daily tasks but in the entire process – from scheduling shifts to working them. When it comes to scheduling and working shifts, including your servers in the process in a great idea for two reasons: you are showing that you trust and respect them by involving them in the process and you’re also making your job that much easier.

It’s a good idea to ask your servers about their work availability. Ask them if they prefer certain work hours to others and let them tell you if they have any preferences for days off. Managing hourly employees, which is usually the case in restaurants, requires a lot of strong communication.

Most of your employees probably have school, family issues or even a second job to think about. Asking them to define their availability will help you to schedule them better and increase their satisfaction at the same time. By including your staff members in the process, it becomes clear to them that you truly do care about them and that you care enough to ask for their input when it comes to scheduling.

You can also take that cooperative scheduling angle a bit further by enabling them to request shift trades and coordinate shift swaps among themselves. As mentioned earlier, taking these types of steps saves you time and effort and it gives servers the sense of independence they crave at the workplace.


Get Them to Buy In

As a restaurant owner and manager, it’s important to try to get your staff to buy into your vision. Running a restaurant obviously means a lot to you, and you probably have a lot of great reasons behind wanting to start a restaurant and serving food to people.

Don’t keep these things to yourself. Educate your employees and let them know about it. Nothing increases motivation quite like working with a purpose. It’s your job to explain to your employees why you are proud of your restaurant and why they too should take pride in what they do.

What is your restaurant’s mission? Is it to provide high quality food at an affordable price? Is it to use all organic food products? Do you want to make healthy food that’s equality delicious as it is good for you? Whatever your goals are, share them with your team in an effort to help them understand why this restaurant is so important to you.

Lead by example and set the bar high for your employees. Get involved in the community, donate money to charity when you can, be an inspiration. Studies show that nothing increases employee engagement more than strong senior leadership. If you are engaging the hearts and minds of your employees, you can be sure that they will be motivated to give you their best day in and day out, because they are buying into your vision and are convinced that what they are doing is making a difference and is truly important work.

Encourage Development

Nothing cripples the morale of your servers faster than stagnation and a lack of progress. All employees want to improve themselves and develop their skills. That’s why providing employee development opportunities is incredibly important when it comes to motivating your staff.

Encouraging your servers to learn new things and continue to improve shows them that you have a stake in their careers and the strides that they are taking. When an employee feels that they have room to learn new things within your restaurant and become a better server along the way, he or she is going to cherish the chances you have provided and work with greater motivation.

It’s really a win-win situation. Who doesn’t want better-trained staff? Invest in their learning, bring in mentors to show them the ropes, provide courses, introduce them to new technology. Get a POS system, if you don’t use one already, and teach them how to use it.

The more skills they have, the better they will serve your customers. The more you encourage them to grow, the more loyalty they will show to you. Investing in your employees is a rare “sure thing” in business – an investment that will almost always pay off in the long run.


Many restaurant owners and employers in general fail to see just how important motivation is to running a successful operation. Sure, motivated workers will make you more money. But what about all of the money they will save you?

Employee retention is a huge issue in restaurants. We’ve all seen the studies and we all know how much it costs to replace an employee. Having motivated workers means having more dedicated workers. Motivated employees are engaged employees. Engaged employees are loyal employees. And loyal employees are employees who see a greater upside in staying with you than starting from scratch somewhere else, even if the pay better at that other restaurant.