May 5, 2022
Restaurants are in a desperate hiring position. But even in the current environment, hiring the wrong person is costly.
The restaurant worker shortage may have peaked in 2021, when 75% of restaurateurs said hiring and retention was their top business challenge, but it remains a serious issue across the industry. It's hard enough for restaurants to get one applicant through the doors for an interview, much less hire the best applicant for each opening.
But even in this environment, hiring the wrong person is costly. Between the dip in productivity, resources spent filling the role and time required to onboard, it costs nearly $6,000 to backfill a worker. This is why it’s crucial to hire candidates who are competent, capable and have the potential to serve customers for years.
One of the best ways to separate true hospitality champs from those who might be a poor fit is with restaurant interview questions. The right interview questions allow strong candidates to explain their knowledge, experience and potential, while also giving a hiring panel the confidence they need to make a hire.
Here are 10 interview questions to consider asking when face-to-face with candidates.
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What to Look For: Staffing issues like no-shows are inevitable, and managers must be quick on their feet to ensure they don’t disrupt the guest experience. Applicants for manager-level roles should either have experience navigating this issue or experience helping their own manager navigate it. In either case, this question allows them to show what they learned from those experiences and provides a glimpse at their leadership style. This relates to how they would manage the situation itself, along with how they would reprimand the employees who didn't show up.
Red Flags: Be wary of applicants who "poo-poo" the issue and make it sound too easy to manage. For example, if they say they would simply contact other workers to pick up the shift on short notice, but don't say what they would do if no one agreed, that's a sign of inexperience. Also pay attention to how they would handle the employees who didn't show up. If they seem like they would rule with an iron fist — or be too timid and non-confrontational — it may not fit with your team culture.
What to Look For: A good response should demonstrate the ability to solve complex problems. The applicant should know that this question is hard to answer without more information, and their thought process should begin by asking questions. In particular, they should start by asking where they missed their numbers, which is the first step to determining why they missed their numbers. From there, they can start to answer how they would address the issues. It would be great if they added an example, but even walking through a process like that is a good sign.
Red Flags: It's an issue if your candidate responds with a "blanket answer" — something that doesn't suggest they want more information. For example, if they say they would call a staff meeting, tell everyone performance is struggling and give them a pep talk, it's a sign they're not ready for a leadership role. Certain issues might call for a solution like that, but other issues call for something quite different. You can't solve inventory issues with a pep talk.
What to Look For: Turnover in the restaurant industry is worse than ever, so managers need to be able to retain top talent. A good answer should explain how they would persuade this employee to stay — but it should also note the importance of applying what they learned to prevent other employees from leaving. After all, retaining talent has more to do with the everyday workplace than the sales pitch once another offer is on the table. It's a good sign if your applicant says they would start by understanding why the employee wants to leave. That's the first step to addressing both sides of the issue.
Red Flags: A bad answer to this question jumps to solutions before seeking to understand the problem. The applicant might say something like, "For great employees, I would put in to increase their salary and match the outsider offer," but what if salary wasn't their main motivation for leaving? Similarly, it's a bad sign if the applicant doesn't mention future employee retention. If they treat one employee leaving as a one-employee issue — rather than a catalyst that could cause other employees to leave, or a chance for self-improvement — it suggests they don't see the full picture.
What to Look For: Experienced front-of-house candidates should have multiple stories like this at the ready. Pay attention to the story itself, of course, but also pay attention to how they tell it. People have different communication styles, but you need to at least detect some degree of passion and excitement for delighting guests.
Red Flags: If they struggle to recall a time they delighted a customer — only times they met expectations — that's an issue. Similarly, if the story they tell seems out of whack with their demeanor or personality, they may be borrowing a story from one of their co-workers. Lastly, make sure their answer touches on things they did to delight guests. If the story is all about how much a guest loved his food, it's really the kitchen who delighted them.
What to Look For: This isn't a test to see if the applicant knows your area's dram shop rules (though that would be impressive). It's a test to see how they would handle one of the hardest parts of their job: hospitably telling a customer something they don't want to hear. If they recite some version of what they would say to the customer, pay attention to how they balance confidence and professionalism with empathy and friendliness. A good applicant should be able to straddle that line.
Red Flags: A good answer to this question is all about balance, so a bad answer is one that veers too far in either direction. If the applicant says they would simply "lay down the law," they may not totally understand the importance of hospitality in front-of-house positions. If the applicant looks uncomfortable and kindly asks the customer to stop ordering drinks — rather than telling them they can't — they may not be fit to maintain decorum in your dining room.
What to Look For: A good answer displays empathy and accountability. The customer isn't always right (as seen in the question about getting cut off from alcohol), but in this case they are rightfully upset, and the applicant should acknowledge that. Their response should take ownership for the error and believably apologize for the inconvenience. They should also note that based on the gravity of the error, they would either issue a blanket "make good" like a gift card or flag a manager to offer something better.
Red Flags: Any answer that fails to address the customer's needs is insufficient. It's not as simple as apologizing and resending the order; they need to acknowledge the customer's perspective, and explain why they feel compelled to make it right. On the flip side, be careful with applicants who say they would "offer anything they can to make the customer happy." They should know that expensive "make goods" require management approval.
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What to Look For: Kitchen staff cook all day, every day. That doesn't mean they need a burning passion for the craft, but it's obviously a good thing to have. A great answer demonstrates that passion and shows they understand and appreciate culinary arts. This is also their chance to demonstrate their knowledge of dishes and culinary techniques.
Red Flags: If their favorite dish to cook (and the reason they like it) conflicts with the menu at your restaurant, it might be an issue. For example, your job may require intricate cooking and advanced techniques, but the candidate might say they love cooking gourmet grilled cheese because it's a quick and easy crowd-pleaser. That doesn't mean they can't do your job, but you'll want to at least follow-up and set expectations about the role, then see how they respond.
What to Look For: First and foremost, you want to see if the applicant has worked in a professional kitchen environment. They should proactively mention the steps they take before, during and after each shift, and those steps should show that they understand food safety regulations. When they discuss steps they take during their shift, they should note the importance of staying calm under pressure or vigilant about spills and cross-contamination.
Red Flags: If their answer sounds more like the steps for cleaning and stocking a personal kitchen, rather than a professional one, they may be exaggerating their work experience. Likewise, it's a bad sign if their answer ignores the importance of cleaning during a shift, as opposed to before and after.
What to Look For: This answer should be all about resourcefulness. The interviewee might mention ways they would fix the problem, like taking another steak on the grill and using it for the medium rare order, or holding the rest of the table’s orders so everything comes out at once. Bonus points if they make a note to report the steak as waste for better inventory management.
Red Flags: Since this question is a test of quick thinking, signs of uncertainty display what could be indecisiveness in these moments. Candidates who take too long to answer (or simply say “throw the steak out and start a new order”) might not be able to handle the role well.
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What to Look For: This question exposes how familiar a candidate is with the restaurant, which may suggest how quickly they will ramp up once hired. Even if they hadn’t heard of the restaurant before applying, researching it beforehand shows professionalism and preparedness — two traits that go far in a restaurant workplace. Top-tier candidates should call out specific people, stories or values they share with the restaurant and explain why that makes them a good fit.
Red Flags: If a candidate doesn't know anything about your restaurant, other than the fact that it serves food and has paying jobs, it's a warning sign. Candidates like this who simply need a paycheck are more likely to leave quickly, setting the restaurant back to square one. This may not be a dealbreaker for restaurants during the worker shortage — which is fair — but at minimum it's worth paying attention to.
What to Look For: This is a two-part question, and you're looking for different things on each part. For strengths, you want to see if they're a culture and role fit, so a good answer depends on you're looking for. On the other hand, the weaknesses question is about self-awareness and humility. Unless their weakness is a dealbreaker — e.g., a server saying their weakness is dealing with guests — a good answer has more to do with sounding sincere and showing a willingness to learn and improve.
Red Flags: As noted above, the strength question depends on what you're looking for. If an applicant says their strength is "a good sense of humor and keeping things light," that may fit perfectly with your front-of-house staff but concern you if they're interviewing for a GM position. On the weakness question, it's a red flag if they refuse to name one or say a humblebrag like "I work too hard." Mistakes are going to happen in a restaurant, and when they do, someone needs to raise their hand and take ownership. Fumbling through this question is a sign the applicant struggles with that.
What to Look For: As technology becomes more important for modern restaurants, operating technology becomes more important for modern restaurant workers. The best answer to this question will demonstrate experience with the tools your restaurant uses — but even if the applicant has used different tools, the second part of the question is a chance for them to show their experience. Citing specific examples of how technology has helped them, or where they feel it fell short, is a strong indication they will hit the ground running with your tools.
Red Flags: If the applicant stammers through an answer, or cites vague examples, they may be overselling their experience with restaurant technology. It's OK for an applicant to have less experience and need a more training, but it's a red flag if they're dishonest about that in an interview. If a candidate says, “My former restaurant used basically no technology, which was frustrating, but I'm eager to learn quickly,” that would not be a red flag.
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