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Some restaurants offering perks to get, keep employees

Sharon Caskey Hayes • Sep 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Sandy Brown refills drinks at Riverfront Seafood in Kingsport. Brown holds a college degree in electronic engineering, but continues to work at Riverfront for the pay and benefits, including a company paid cruise this November. Erica Yoon photo.


KINGSPORT — Wayne Michelli knows how hard it is to find good help these days.

That’s why the owner of Riverfront Seafood in Kingsport plans to reward his long-time employees with a company paid cruise to Jamaica and the Cayman Islands this November.

“It’s kind of our way of rewarding the people who’ve been with us a long time,” said Michelli, who plans to spend $15,000 to $20,000 to take about 25 employees and their guests on the five-day cruise.

Restaurants around the country are offering various incentives to attract and retain employees in today’s tight labor market.

Many nationwide restaurant chains, including Waffle House, Captain D’s, Papa John’s, Perkins, Taco Bell, Long John Silver’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and McDonald’s, offer medical, dental, and vision insurance along with paid vacations, retirement savings plans, and meal discounts. Some restaurants even offer tuition reimbursement, stock options, and adoption assistance for employees.

And it’s not only the managers who are lining up to collect the perks. Servers, greeters, line cooks, and support personnel in many companies can participate.

East Tennessee State University economist Steb Hipple said the trend is indicative of the tightening labor market. The unemployment rate for Kingsport was 3.88 percent in the second quarter this year, down a whopping 19.95 percent from the same period a year ago.

“The labor markets are getting tight across the board, even when you start thinking about people in the lower-end service occupations, like food service,” Hipple said. “So to attract and keep good people, not only are the wages being pushed up, but fringe benefits and other goodies are also being used.”

To attract top-notch people, some nationwide chains even offer an array of benefits to part-time employees as well as full-time workers. Starbucks, for instance, gives full and part-time employees a comprehensive benefits plan including health coverage, income protection, tuition reimbursement, employee assistance, adoption assistance, 401k savings plan, stock options, and bonuses. And Starbucks makes coverage available to eligible dependents, including same and opposite-sex partners.

At Riverfront Seafood, the cruise is just the latest perk to be offered to loyal employees. Eligible workers can also participate in the company’s profit sharing and 401k savings plan. Employees can get 8 percent of their annual earnings through the profit sharing plan, and another 4 percent of their earnings through the 401k plan.

And the restaurant is closed on Sundays — another attractive incentive for employees.

The restaurant recently highlighted its employee benefits in its help-wanted advertisements. Several jobs are open at the restaurant, including line cooks, servers and greeters.

But don’t think you can get a job today and cruise with the company tomorrow. Michelli said employees must meet certain time measures to be eligible for the cruise.

Any employee who’s worked at the restaurant since it opened at its current location in October 2002 can join the cruise and bring a spouse, friend or family member — free of charge.

An employee who’s worked less than five years but has logged at least 1,300 hours can also join the cruise for free, but the trip won’t be free for his or her spouse.

And an employee who’s worked between 1,000 and 1,300 hours can join the cruise but will have to pay half the cost.

Michelli said he’ll close the restaurant the day before Thanksgiving, and employees and their guests — whether it be spouses, friends or relatives — will fly out of the Tri-Cities Saturday morning on their way to the Carnival cruise.

He said some folks in the restaurant business might be swayed to work at Riverfront if they know incentives such as a company paid vacation are part of the package.

“It’s tough to find qualified, mature responsible people,” Michelli said. “Maybe it will draw some people.”

Sandy Brown, who’s worked at Riverfront for five years, plans to take the cruise and bring her son, Alex, 13.

Brown, 46, started working for Michelli part-time in 2002 while taking her last class at Northeast State Community College. She earned her degree, then decided to keep working at Riverfront.

“I have a college degree in electronic engineering on top of the refrigerator gathering dust,” Brown said. “It’s hard to find a job at entry level that will pay what I make here.”

The Purple Cow, another locally owned restaurant, also rewards its loyal employees with a company paid vacation. The drive-through restaurant on Stone Drive just shut down for 10 days, and its owners, Mike and Debbie Warren, sent their full-time employees to the Dominican Republic.

The Warrens have been sending their full-time workers on paid vacations for about 10 years. Mike Warren said the perk helps him attract and retain good employees.

“I’m sure it does because we’ve had some of them a long time,” he said.

The Purple Cow also offers its employees half price meals and special bonus incentives on occasion.

“We’re always doing something for them,” he said.

Still, the restaurant is having difficulty finding enough people to fill all its positions.

“We’re down right now” and looking to hire, Warren said.

At Riverfront, Michelli said he’s dealt with tight labor markets before. A few years ago, he offered $1,000 signing bonuses to new employees who stayed a certain length of time.

But today’s labor market is “worse than we’ve ever seen,” he said.

“It’s awful,” Michelli said. “Everybody’s talking about how bad the labor market is right now.”

New retail stores and restaurants being constructed in Kingsport are adding to the shortage of good workers.

Brown said there are people in the area who could work — if they have the right attitude.

“Wayne (Michelli) is not hard to work for if you come to work when you’re supposed to, look like you’re supposed to, pay attention to what you’re doing, do what you’re told, and you don’t lie,” Brown said.

“But,” she added, “in this industry, people aren’t afraid to quit their jobs because they know there will be other jobs out there just waiting for them to take.”

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