Can restaurant design improve employee retention?

As restaurants continue to deal with the fallout from the Great Staffing Resignation, a renewed focus on employee culture and wellbeing is being seen across the country. But while many restaurant owners assume that higher wages and paid sick leave will reduce turnover, many overlook the role that restaurant design plays.

It’s not unlike how the move away from open workspaces in corporate America has, in many cases, boosted employee productivity and morale. The space in which employees work Questions. This impacts their physical comfort and mental health. And restaurants shouldn’t be treated any differently.

By applying a human-centered design approach to building restaurants, we can begin to improve the dining and indoor staff experience, which is critical to their long-term retention.

Here are six design elements that can help restaurants be a better place to work.

Set up a space dedicated to breaks

A running joke among restaurant workers is that they eat their meals standing over a trash can, hiding behind a low waiter’s open door, or crouching over a milk crate. And we’ve all seen employees hanging out by the dumpsters from time to time, which is not a place anyone can get some fresh air let alone grab a quick bite.

With valuable space and tight margins, dedicated employee break space is a rarity. But it is also a handy fruit to improve employee morale. Breaks are surprisingly rare in the restaurant industry, despite labor board standards, with staff choosing or being tacitly forced to work their shift. So a dedicated space also sends a clear message that having a moment to recharge is important to management.

Increase natural light

Studies have shown that designing office spaces to allow for more daylight can improve employee health and well-being. Natural light is less of an issue for indoor teams, who often spend time near large windows. But those who are in the kitchen often go for hours without being near a window or without going out. Increasing natural light in the back of the house can be tricky, but even small changes like a screened back door can let in natural light and air circulation.

Adjust the height of the shelves

For workers who are below average height, reaching for items on shelves can be a daily frustration, not to mention a risk of injury if it means having to use a stepladder or ladder to access heavy items. Making shelving more accessible is an easy tweak that can make a huge difference in an employee’s shift.

You wouldn’t put important items like forks and napkins out of a customer’s reach, so why not make the same accommodations for employees? At the same time, tall employees are often at risk of banging their heads against pots and pans hanging from the ceiling. Consider that not all employees move through the space in the same way and adapt accordingly.

Add temperature controls

Especially in kitchens with gas-powered equipment or wood-burning ovens, temperatures easily exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Not only does this put incredible strain on staff, but dehydration also affects how we perceive flavor, which means a dehydrated cook serving food is more likely to make mistakes. Cooks often hack their own rehydration solution out of salt, sugar, lime juice, and water just to get through the shift.

Where possible, management should attempt to install air conditioning, more powerful hoods or other forms of ventilation. The goal is not only employee comfort, but also lower turnover and better retention.

Install softer flooring and provide anti-fatigue mats

According to Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, certain types of flooring as well as anti-fatigue mats can make standing all day more comfortable. Although tiled floors are easy to clean, they are also hard and unforgiving, which can contribute to pain in employees’ feet, legs, knees, hips and backs. Staff often improvise their own mats from cardboard gleaned from produce boxes, which provide some support but can slip. Wooden, cork, carpet or rubber floors are softer, which helps employees feel better in the short and long term.

Basic Security

An informal poll of my co-workers revealed that all of us – five out of five – had been electrocuted during our stays in restaurants. Restaurants are often older spaces that resist upgrades due to time and cost constraints, at the expense of basic employee safety. Steep out-of-code stairs, missing chemical safety data sheets, and lack of basic safety equipment like masks for cleaning are all easy areas for improvement.

Final Thoughts

Over the past two years, restaurateurs have moved figuratively mountains to reconfigure their spaces to allow for more third-party delivery and curbside pickup. Now is the time to consider doing the same for the benefit of their team members.


Leigh Loper is an R&D leader with The culinary advantage, the nation’s leading culinary innovation agency, where it works alongside operational experts, designers, brand planners and food anthropologists to merge culinary excellence with human-centered design for the most large food and beverage companies. Prior to joining The Culinary Edge, Loper spent more than 10 years working in the restaurant industry, as a private chef and as the chef and owner of a San Francisco culinary cafe that served fresh and changing lunch menus every days. Loper is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the Culinary Institute of America.

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