Food & Drink | Restaurant Do's and Don'ts

Finding and keeping restaurant and bar staff in Japan can be its own full-time job

by Jeremy Wilgus

Contributing Writer

As you’ve explored locations for your new venture and researched other restaurants and bars, have you noticed the one thing that all of these establishments have in common? In Tokyo at least, nearly every place has a help-wanted sign in the window.

Staffing your shop is going to be one of your biggest headaches. The good news is that you’ve already got the cheapest, most trustworthy employee: yourself. With any luck, you’ve got a partner or two as hardworking and trustworthy as you are.

You’re ready and excited about the prospect of 14-hour days, at least six days a week, right? No breaks, no vacations? Remember, you have to pay rent every day, even if you’re closed, so it’s crucial to keep the shop open as much as you can.

If you’re sick or injured, you’ll either need to work through it or close temporarily, neither of which are good options. In the early days, it’s crucial that you’re there, hands on, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and finding ways to make things as efficient as you can.

In the long run, though, you won’t be able to keep up that schedule, and even if you’re a great cook or bartender, the fact is you’re also the owner, and the time you spend working in the kitchen or behind the bar means time away from doing your real job. Planning, accounting, ordering, meeting with suppliers, working on advertisements — these all take significant time, and you can only do so much. You need to have staff that can do the day-to-day work, allowing you to focus on the long-term mission of building your place into something that will last.

To begin with, you’ll probably have to hire part-time workers, at least until you know exactly what you need from your staff. You’ll want a solid group of workers you can rely on for two or three shifts a week. For most bars and restaurants, that means Japanese college students or foreign students of legally employable age. With both groups, you’ll likely have to spend considerable time training them, and often, almost as soon as they become useful, they’ll need to reduce their hours so they can start looking for a “real” job. You’re never really done hiring part-timers because of the high rate of turnover.

Industry-wide there is a full-on crisis when it comes to finding staff. In the past year, national chains have had to pull back from 24-hour operations due to staff shortages. For the most part, wages are flat across the industry because most restaurants can’t afford to pay high wages for part-time help. Just like when trying to find a space for your restaurant, you’ll be in direct competition with national chains and larger restaurants. Recently, an owner of a small chain of restaurants told me he’d spent ¥150,000 on a three-month advertisement in a popular jobs magazine yet failed to get a single applicant.

Restaurant and bar work isn’t easy. It ticks all of the “three K’s” that most young people don’t want from a job: It’s kitanai, kiken and kitsui — dirty, dangerous and demanding. You’ll be asking your employees to work hours that keep them from friends and family. When you factor in noncompetitive pay, finding staff becomes its own constant full-time job, in addition to everything else you’re responsible for.

You will end up letting go of some staff, as not every situation fits every person. Some of those you come to rely on will move on because they’ve got their own dreams to pursue. Over time, though, if you work hard at creating a positive, welcoming environment, some of your part-timers may decide to stay.

Nearly every bar or restaurant I’ve worked at had at least a couple of overburdened full-time employees who had proven themselves reliable over time. They are your rock, the people you need to keep your shop running, who can handle the day-to-day operations for you while you take care of the business of ownership. It’s crucial, though, that you recognize and show your appreciation for the work they’re doing to help you build your restaurant.

These core workers are the key to helping you keep your shop open. They are incredibly valuable, yet they will, at some point, also want to pursue their own passions. When the time comes for them to move on, you’ll need other bodies ready to step in and take over.

Even if you think you’re fully staffed, the constant turnover in the industry means you’ll never really be finished with the cycle of searching for, hiring and training new employees.

This is the fourth installment of a six-part series that will appear on the first Sunday of every month through March 2018.