Afuri’s Director of Culinary Operations tells us why the labor shortage is seemingly false, and employers need to start listening to the needs of workers.
In 2016, the Japanese Franchise Afuri Izakaya thoughtfully opened its first location outside Japan in Portland, Oregon. The location was not chosen lightly and came down to Portland’s water quality. The molecular structure is similar to water sourced from Mt. Afuri in Japan, and when creating the best ramen possible, every detail counts, including the water used to create the broth. Afuri now has three restaurants in Portland, and their team applies the same thoughtfulness and care in their employment model as they do with their ramen. Details like offering work-life balance and attainable health benefits are foundational for a healthy work environment and ultimately a more sustainable business.
“Work-life balance is important and often gets neglected.” Grant Macdonald, Director of Culinary Operations, told us while explaining Afuri’s employment model. “We can’t always be sprinting. It’s a long-distance run, and we need energy in the tank. A three-day weekend is important to replenish.”
At Afuri Izakaya, finding a good balance between life and work is critical in their employment values. Afuri implemented a four-day workweek across the board. From hourly workers on the floor of their restaurants to management — everyone is guaranteed three days off a week. They’ve also set a cap on hours for salaried employees to avoid overworking management. “It’s common to see management teams work up to 60-70 hour weeks to cover gaps in staffing — we set a cap where we won’t do that,” Macdonald said. “We want managers to sit right at 40-45 hours a workweek because Management needs balance too.”
While balance is a critical value to Afuri’s employment model, they recognize how vital offering health benefits is to their staff’s well-being. Obtaining a work-life balance shouldn’t compromise an employee’s qualifications for those benefits, especially in light of the pandemic.
“Many restaurants don’t offer medical benefits, and I think that has to stop forever,” Macdonald expressed. “We noticed during the pandemic this was important and was a game-breaker. If a restaurant didn’t have health benefits, it wasn’t going to cut it.” During the pandemic, Afuri reduced the hours an employee needs to work to qualify for health benefits to 20 hours per week. Since then, they have risen to 25 hours but plan to keep the bar low so that employees never have to sacrifice their lives outside work to maintain benefits.
In addition, Afuri created some online training courses and hopes to implement more educational material to further their staff’s career development. “We have put in a lot of effort to promote from within, and provide training for people and make sure we have the bandwidth to train properly,” Macdonald said. “We moved our training to an online portal. We create videos to demonstrate what we do that’s not pressured but is available for staff that want to learn.” Macdonald further explained that they want to promote careers in the industry, rather than the notion that restaurant work is just a job — providing opportunities for career development is a critical step in doing that.
“Evidence shows that the idea that there is a labor shortage is false. What we are actually seeing seems more like a failure of imagination. As an industry we need to understand that the old models need to be redesigned to meet a new reality,” Macdonald spoke on the current state of the industry. For the restaurant industry to continue to draw in quality workers, owners need to be more perceptive to the needs of their workers and develop opportunities for the betterment of their staff. “We have a full staff right now. We have some turnover because it’s normal, but generally speaking, we don’t have abnormal turnover, and we have a full team. I think that’s a big indicator that things are set up in a good way.”
The industry is changing, and restaurants like Afuri and others are at the forefront of that change. There is a lot of work to be done to make a career in the restaurant industry genuinely sustainable. Still, there are businesses out there listening to the needs of the industry and taking action to implement critical changes to help improve their employee’s livelihood and show that a career in the hospitality industry isn’t just possible but attractive.