How restaurant chain Gusto 54 is attracting talent in an industry short of workers

Juanita Dickson, president of Gusto 54, one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies, has reinforced her company’s welcoming culture to ensure employees stay.Kailee Mandel/Handout

THE PROBLEM

After two years of pandemonium, like many of its industry counterparts, Gusto 54, a Toronto-based restaurant group, is facing a staff shortage. The pandemic forced the company to lay off the vast majority of its more than 700 employees; when restrictions began to ease last fall, many of those workers had moved on to other industries. “It became very clear that attracting and hiring the quality employees we had before the pandemic was going to be a challenge,” says Juanita Dickson, president of Gusto 54.

THE SOLUTION

“We’ve always focused on attracting and retaining top talent,” says Dickson. “But we had to take it to a whole new level, upping the ante on how we were going to attract people not just to the business, but to the industry as a whole. First, we took a hard look at what we call the team member experience. Gusto 54 sent out a survey to past and present employees, with questions such as “Are you satisfied with the company culture?” One question asked employees to rank a list of factors (health and wellness benefits, training opportunities, hiring practices, etc.) in order of importance.

Managing finances was a major issue for pandemic-battered restaurant workers, according to the survey. In response, the company has implemented workshops that guide employees on the path to greater financial well-being. The program is part of Gusto 54’s larger benefits program, which underwent other major changes as a result of the investigation: health benefits were extended to all full-time staff (only managers previously receiving them) and expanded to include fully funded therapy for the leadership team. “Health and wellness issues in addition to COVID-19 itself have become a pandemic in their own right during lockdown,” says Dickson. “As employers, we wanted to take responsibility to help.” Managers received training on how to recognize when an employee’s wellbeing might be compromised and how to offer options for help without stepping into the role of a counselor or therapist.

The survey also highlighted the importance of expanding training and career advancement options. Before the pandemic, Gusto 54 invested in an online system that allowed employees to take part of their training virtually. It has stepped up this system, adding a program on customer experience, pandemic safety measures, diversity and inclusion and, of course, food and wine literacy.

He also reinstated a pre-pandemic coaching program, which paired new hires with skilled staff in a given role. “It’s made a big difference in retaining good talent,” says Dickson. “This helps ensure that our employees don’t get overwhelmed and that they have all the tools they need to do their job. Employees the company has identified as “high potential” have been provided with development plans designed to help them grow, whether that’s to a higher position or better performance in their current role.

Internal company policies aside, Gusto 54 has doubled down on its role as an industry thought leader in an effort to attract more workers to the industry. “Working with educational institutions like Ryerson University and George Brown College, we’ve participated in job fairs, developed online degree programs and given numerous talks. I’ve done about a dozen guest lectures at various colleges and universities,” says Dickson.

The above made a difference in hiring – according to Dickson, the company is shaping up to have a strong spring and summer, although it’s still early days. Staff shortages are still an issue, and in a somewhat controversial move, Gusto 54 is exploring programs to bring in foreign workers. “There is no perfect solution to a crisis that only happens once in a century like COVID-19, but when I think of Gusto 54, what comes to mind is their resilience, their solutions-oriented policies and how good they are for their people,” says Chinmaya Thakore, a Deloitte partner and Gusto 54 coach for the consulting firm’s Canada’s Best Managed Companies program. They are transparent, communicative and rooted in their values, and that was true long before the pandemic.

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About Vivian J. Smith

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