December 2, 2019

Managing Staff Shortages During Seasonal Peak Periods


During seasonal holidays, most coffee shops are inundated with customers. If you’re a coffee shop owner or manager, it can be one of the most profitable times of the year for this reason. However, it’s also when you’re most likely to experience staff shortages. 

This has the potential to be stressful – but it doesn’t need to be. By making the necessary preparations, its impact on your coffee shop and its bottom line will be kept to a minimum.

Here are some practical tips for helping your business manage its festive season staffing challenges.

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It’s common for staff members to request time off during busy periods. Credit: Devon Barker

Dealing With Staff Holiday Requests

Coffee shops usually see their biggest sales increases take place during the summer and winter months, which often coincides with festive seasons around the world. Your staff members might want to take time off during these periods to go on holiday or be with friends and family. So how can you handle this potential clash of interests? 

Firstly, make sure you have a holiday policy in place to inform all employees of what to expect if they request time off work. It should emphasise the importance of not making any definite plans before their leave application is accepted. This makes the process fair for everyone and keeps everyone up to date.

Secondly, make sure your policy requires that staff members give you sufficient notice when requesting time off, so that you can review their requests. While you’re legally allowed to refuse them for warranted reasons, you should consider the welfare of your staff and the significance of their requested time off.

Thirdly, grant time off requests on a first come, first served basis, and limit the amount of employees that are allowed to take leave during specific periods. Recording holiday requests and continuously reviewing them throughout the year will help you keep track of this.

Andrea Allen is co-owner of Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas, USA. She believes that it’s important to create a fair system where everyone gets to take a break from work. She says that “At Onyx, we gather everyone’s availabilities and try to hire to make the holidays doable for all”. 

She adds that she often asks employees if they’re “available to shift their travel days at times…[We sometimes ask] them to go before a holiday, or after a holiday, and try to balance things out that way”.

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Signs directing customers can have a big impact on helping out staff members during busy shifts. Credit: Tasmin Grant

Tips For Dealing With Staff Shortages

It can be stressful for both yourself and your staff to have to deal with fewer hands on deck during the busiest periods of the year. However, there are ways to minimise the negative impact this has on everyone.

Estela Cotes is a co-owner of Café do Moço in Curitiba, Brazil. Her café experiences its biggest sales increases during Brazil’s colder months, which are between May to August. 

When dealing with understaffed shifts, she suggests that you “Ask the employees…to work for more [h]ours” in order to maximise the workforce already employed. The employee’s welfare should be taken into consideration here, as long periods of working overtime can be physically and mentally demanding.

She also suggests that coffee shop owners manage the activities that need to be completed, to optimise the time that employees will spend at work. This could take the form of organising outstanding tasks in order of importance. For example, serving customers should always be the biggest priority, whereas organising existing stock would be less important.

When dealing with staff shortages, Andrea tells me that if she has “shifts that normally start at six, we might…[ask that person to come] in at eight or nine and have them stay later to try to cover our busier times”. This ensures that there will be enough members of staff available when they’re needed the most.

“We always post a note thanking customers for their patience and letting them know that we’re short of staff but are working hard to serve them…In my experience many people are very understanding when they know that there’s something like that happening,” she says. 

For example, signage can be created asking customers to place their orders at the counter during staff shortages.

These solutions work as a temporary measure. However, if your business is constantly dealing with understaffing issues during certain periods, it may be time to hire temporary employees.

Hiring temporary members of staff may help you cope with your coffee shop’s short-staffing issues. Credit: Ethan Covey

When And Why Should Temporary Staff be Hired?

It’s important that you get your timing right when hiring temporary employees.

A Land of A Thousand Hills is a coffee shop and roastery with multiple locations in Georgia, USA. Johnni Jesús, a manager at one of their locations, spoke to me about how and when he starts looking for temporary staff. He says that “We try to seek out [temporary staff] about a month in advance. I like to spend about three weeks with new employees going over the company’s history, expectations, getting to know each other, and brewing coffee!”.

This is a great way to inform temporary hires about what the coffee shop stands for and wants from them. Not only is this crucial in helping them ease into their new roles, but it also helps root unsuitable hires out.

Johnni explains that “I give them all of my time so they’re fully equipped and confident in what they’re doing…they can possibly stay with the company and go on to work at a new shop, or even manage a new shop!”

Taking this amount of care when hiring temporary employees is important, as they could become permanent workers in the future. For this reason, it’s important to treat temporary staff with the same respect and regard as permanent staff. By making them feel valued, they’ll be more productive and efficient.

Estela recommends taking your time when searching for temporary workers. “I’d recommend [starting your search] at least two months in advance. You have to consider the time you’d [need to take] searching for the right employees, the documents you’d need to recruit them and… the training [they’d need] before they start working,” she explains. This allows for plenty of time to prepare everything before they begin, smoothing their transition period.

Estela informs me that there are positives and negatives to taking on temporary staff. She explains that “The positives [include] the energy new employees bring to the entire team. The negatives [are that] new people aren’t used to your customers and sometimes it [takes] a couple of days for them to understand your store’s process [and] to get used to all the items in the menu”.

Managers and owners can look back on the previous year’s data in order to establish how many extra staff members they’ll need the following year. Credit: Tasmin Grant.

Forecasting For Temporary Staff

Forecasting involves predicting the future labour needs of your business based on its projected sales, growth, and other factors. It can be used to predict how many extra staff members you’ll need to hire during the holidays. Past data can inform this, and this can include the previous year’s sales figures over the same time periods. Knowing this will help you track an increase or decrease in the amount of customers you’re expecting. 

When forecasting, consider the skill level and availability of your current workforce. This will help you to set an overall performance level that informs you of what sales volumes your coffee shop can handle without needing additional help.

Make sure that you’re doing this continually to get the best possible picture of your coffee shop’s needs. You want an accurate forecast, as the wrong numbers could mean you end up with too few or too many employees present.

For small coffee shops, forecasting can be dependent on a ‘gut feeling’ as well as past sales figures. Long time staff members who usually work over seasonal holidays could provide insight into how many customers walk through your doors each year, or approximately how many drinks are made daily over this period.

Advertising for and hiring temporary staff well in advance helps to ensure the efficient running of a coffee shop. Credit: Virginia Coffee Roasters

Finding And Hiring Temporary Staff

When advertising for temporary seasonal workers, it’s important that you don’t rush into hiring anyone.

It helps to start by drafting a job description for the role you want to fill. This should include the fact that the role is seasonal, start and end dates, shift scheduling times, and the experience a person should have. Being upfront about your expectations for the position will tell the candidate exactly what’s required of them.

Andrea explains to me that Onyx follows a specific process when advertising for new employees. They keep resumes and applications on hand whenever they receive an application, use social media to advertise open positions, and hire former employees for seasonal work. 

Keeping applications on hand (instead of filing it away and forgetting about it) speeds up the process, while using social media opens the position up to a larger pool of people. Finally, using past employees means you’ll benefit from someone familiar with how your coffee shop operates.

If time is limited or there are many applicants, it could help to interview them in groups. This will speed up the application process up, let you assess the individual’s people skills in a group setting, and show you if they’d fit into the culture of your coffee shop.

Hiring based on experience can benefit coffee shop managers and owners, but it will depend on their needs and outlooks. Estela advises that “It’s very important to have baristas with some experience, since you’ll be having more customers [and you] probably won’t have…much time to keep an eye on them”.

On the other hand, working with a blank canvas can be more beneficial. Johnni states that “I really just look [for a] person who’s] is willing to learn and [get] excited about the job. I don’t think it’s necessary to have barista skills or too much knowledge to start working with us”. 

He explains that “I can teach you how to make coffee, but I think wanting to work and serve people comes from the person applying. I … enjoy training people who have no experience because [I] love to watch people… ‘fall in love’ with the specialty coffee industry”. 

Techniques used in training temporary staff can have a major impact on their performance during the holidays. Credit: Rea Café

Training Temporary Staff

The level and intensity of training your temporary employees receive will depend on how many hours they’re scheduled for and the needs of your coffee shop.

“If I’m hiring a temporary employee I’d have them only working [in] really straightforward positions like [washing] dishes or perhaps food preparation,” Andrea tells me. This could also save time and money on training. Estela informs me that she’ll often “give them the same training we give to regular employees. But as the time is short for this… you have to be focused on the specific activities each temporary employee will do”.

Johnni says that for the first week of training, “we train off-site at a training facility where I try to run over [what I] can”. By removing the temporary employee from the coffee shop, it could help them to focus more and retain information better, as there’s less pressure in a non-customer facing environment. 

He also adds that “On slower days I might hold an hour [of] training on certain things like cupping, pour overs, latte art, [and] retail”. This is something that could also help temporary staff come to grips with the different types of roles they might eventually fill.

Finally, Johnni believes that “Everyone loves making drinks and [I] think when everyone knows how to do [it] and is given the opportunity [to do it], [they’ll] start to put more care into the things that are ‘less fun’, like restocking”. This can increase temporary staff efficiency and productivity, as when they feel valued and that they’re equal to permanent staff, they’ll go above and beyond the expectations of their roles.

A staff member’s efficiency can be majorly impacted on how short-staffed a coffee shop is. Credit: Van Marty

With a little organisation and the right preparation, you can avoid dealing with the worst aspects of the chaotic holiday season rush.

Balancing staff holiday requests with a comprehensive time management policy will help to ensure your coffee shop runs run smoothly and without any shortages.

You’ll also avoid the usual mishaps and hiccups associated with last minute hiring, and ensure that your permanent and temporary staff members work cohesively together.

Enjoyed this? Read How Long Should It Take You to Train Your Baristas?

Feature photo credit: Tasmin Grant.

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