Chris Ebbeler discusses the importance of brand employment messaging as the restaurant industry navigates a post-pandemic world.
Navigating Uncharted Waters: The Unprecedented Challenges of Post-Pandemic Workforce Rebuilding
Rebuilding Your Employment Brand
A few years back, I vividly remember Joni Doolin from the stage at The Global Best Practices Conference, inspiring me and so many with her closing keynote address. The theme of her keynote? DISRUPTION. In classic Joni fashion, she was far ahead of her time. Little could any of us have known (at least those of us who aren’t epidemiologists) that the world would come face to face with an existential threat the likes of which our generation had never seen. Disruption indeed. I won’t even try to pontificate on what this time will mean to us a decade from now, but suffice it to say, we are changed immeasurably.
Yet, here I sit with some glimmers of hope. The Centers for Disease Control broke news about relaxing our all-too-familiar relationships with masks and social distancing. My favorite artists are talking about touring again. Sports venues are welcoming back non-cardboard fans. And if you need more reasons to be hopeful, KFC is bringing back the “Finger Lickin’ Good” tagline after a year on pause. All of us now get the remarkably daunting challenge of trying to remember how to talk to other humans face to face.
If only it were that easy. As the flywheel of the economy began to slowly turn again, the natural assumption was that unemployment would tick downward, and opportunities would start to surface for those looking to get back into the workforce. That hasn’t happened. Quite the contrary, every restaurant or hospitality brand that I’ve talked to says the same thing: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before.” The number of open requisitions is daunting. Now hiring banners are getting dug out of the outdoor shed—buried under flyers from three years ago. Every operator from San Jose to Asbury Park is scrambling to find who’s in charge of talent acquisition. And suddenly, out of the dark recesses of a bygone era, comes the whispered and anxious question…Do we still have an employment brand?
The Post-Pandemic Challenge
Redefining Talent Marketing in a Transforming Industry
For several of my cherished years in the restaurant industry, I was fortunate to have been given the luxury of building the talent marketing strategy for Chili’s Grill & Bar. I was honored to help tell the story of thousands of ChiliHeads, who lived their purpose and helped make #ChilisLove a real, tangible thing. I never strayed from paying attention and remaining curious about talent marketing, even after moving into brand marketing and social media. Some remarkable companies did the hard work connecting their brand experience to their employee experience. But the strategies that worked then simply won’t work now. We have to own up to a very hard truth about the team members who helped define this industry. They may not come back.
Why? Well, the primary theory at the moment focuses on restaurant and hospitality workers making more money by staying home and claiming unemployment versus getting back to bartending serving, or working the to-go station. While the hypothesis sounds good in conversation, I’d argue a more troubling issue is at hand. The restaurant industry is facing a P.R. challenge, in which the devastating cutbacks rightfully imposed to stay afloat are massively intertwined with a narrative about corporate America in which senior leadership got richer and essential workers got nothing. Last week, over 80,000 tweets using the phrase “We are closed” started trending on Twitter, showing drive-thru and front-door signs asking guests to be patient with slow or bungled service. CEOs have expressed concern over the need to close early due to staffing challenges.
I encourage you to look at what the masses have to say. Social media can rightfully be labeled toxic, but it’s important to not turn a blind eye to the beliefs of our teams and our guests. Mind you, the narrative was already present before the pandemic, but a series of social crises mixed into a deeply divided society layered on top of tragic and profound loss, foreclosure fears, and food shortages all conspired together to bring about a sea change of opinion and deep-seated frustration directed at this industry. In fairness, it’s not just restaurants. The institutions so many have relied on feeling frail and outdated. The systems we grew to trust don’t seem so predictable anymore. And who has become the most vocal critic of any institution? The same people in your applicant pool fifteen months ago.
Embracing a New Reality
Understanding the Disrupted Talent Pool
I’m blessed to be a Dad to Sean (18) and Sydney (21), and there’s nothing I enjoy more than listening to how they see the world. Regrettably for them, they have a young at heart (read: does NOT act his age) father who has willingly vaulted himself deep into the wormhole that is TikTok. It brings me a great deal of joy and a healthy percentage of Golden Retriever puppies, chefs who found stardom from home, and thousands of remarkably clever content creators who make tiny masterpieces in 60 seconds or less. Yes, there are some dance moves, but don’t linger there or you’ll miss the real story.
Here’s what I can assure you based on my countless hours of couch-bound research: the people you are trying to reach and eventually hire are aligned about one thing—they want nothing to do with the establishment, social norms, or sacred cows. I mean think about it. You can’t make it through 30 minutes on Instagram or the annual family Christmas selfie without a teenager flipping off the camera. This generation is giving a giant middle finger to “the way it’s always been.” Institutions have become the enemy and authenticity is no longer a buzzword…it’s a generational rallying cry. During the pandemic they found fresh starts elsewhere, they turned hobbies into side hustles and they skipped the middleman and went directly to monetize their brand.
It’s time to face the new reality and take a serious look at who makes up the talent pool. Spend as much time learning about this audience as you do your customers. Are your beliefs about what is happening the actual truth? Does your company position itself in a way that communicates its purpose and values to potential employees? Are you following through on your promises to take care of your workforce? In the quest for talent, restaurants must take an introspective look and acknowledge that the disruption the industry (and everything) faces is going to change what works moving forward.
Click here to check out part 2 of this blog series: Restaurant Talent Marketing: 3 Big Ideas to Focus on in 2021 and Beyond
Chris Ebbeler Bio
Imagine being in the audience when the leadership team at Blockbuster Video stated “We don’t see Netflix as a threat to our business model.” Chris was in the audience that day, and the moment forever marked a turning point in his beliefs about vision, strategy, corporate culture, and “seeing around the corner.” For the past thirty years, Chris has led broad and diverse teams across several industries under pressure, including retail, restaurants, and mobile technology. After years in people strategy and talent marketing, he took his vision to brand marketing, where he championed a reinvention of social media for the Chili’s Grill & Bar brand and OnePlus North America, infusing a long-lost sense of humor, authenticity, and brand voice into their national platforms, spearheading strategies to foster brand love through engagement and community.
During his thirteen-year tenure with Brinker brands, he was the guiding force behind the design and development of experiences that connected ChiliHeads to the deeper meaning behind why we work. A student of Gallup and a certified Strengths coach, his love for all things engagement brought him full circle to Gallup research and the link between great leaders and well-being. He encouraged Chilis to bring “The 5 Essential Elements of Wellbeing” forward as a platform to ignite a movement, where it is still used to this day. A storyteller at heart, Chris is a student of culture and is uniquely plugged into the reality that consumers and teams are expecting more from companies—more appreciation, more values, and more meaning. He understands how to shape the deep authenticity and connection necessary to deliver on these new realities. From social media to employment marketing to internal communication vehicles, Chris is an advocate for the importance that tone of voice, design, and experience plays in the engagement of Guests, Team Members, leadership, and stakeholders with a unique brand story.
He graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a BBA in Marketing. He is a proud father to Sydney and Sean and an occasionally embarrassed father to his golden retriever Grayson. A lover of unfiltered real people who believes the workplace can be a fun place if you surround yourself with heart & soul.
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