Addressing Labor Shortages

What to do about the labor shortage? A natural product retailer offered some frontline wisdom. At Natural Products Expo East in September, Abraham Nabors, Owner of Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, shared that he’s working with 210 employees—down about a fifth of his work force, which was a daily challenge. Discussing how he finds employees and encourages them to stay whenever possible, he said: “We’re doing everything under the sun to attract employees. We have to really show that we’re a different kind of company, we’re going to teach you different skills that will transfer to other companies.”

Going into detail, Nabors continued: “We’re lucky in that we’ve always been a values-based business—it’s hard to argue with our mission. We want to tout that: Hey, come join a good mission. In a world where people do shady, unethical ways of making money, we’re trying to communicate that we’re values-based and always have been. We also teach servant leadership. Our best customers are our employees. Superstars do not win the game. It’s important that we continue to shower them with love and support. I am on the frontlines with them. I understand that it’s hard, and I’m there to support them. It’s not about making money: It’s about treating people with kindness and respect. For instance, I buy these electrolyte tabs. I let my employees go mix and match and have as much as they want. That helps line cooks, helps them absorb water when they’re working a hot kitchen for 12 hours a day. The more you love and authentically care about your staff, the better you’ll do. There’s some stuff that you can change on a dime, but some stuff has to be baked in. We’ve relaxed our background check requirements, relaxed our tattoo and piercing guidelines—still no violence and no theft, but we’re working on employee recognition movement, more formally than we’ve done it before.”

Plus, as always, money talks. “We give gift certificates for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays,” Nabors continued. “We’re not getting an application that says desired wage is under $15 an hour, for any position, with no experience at all. We took a big leap of faith and adjusted the market rates of our frontline employees. We started advertising the dollar wages—a line cook used to be $12-15 hour, it’s now $15-20 hour. And that gets more applicants. In grocery the margins are razor thin, but it’s a new labor paradigm, and you have to jump on board for that, or they’re always going to struggle. There’s always inefficiencies and waste, especially in our business—look into turning shrink into value-added products, garbage-to-gold, but you have to look into cost-reduction and efficiency before raising prices. Where does it make sense to buy in bulk? Can you use those ingredients in other parts of the business? Cafe, deli, market—they might all buy the same product from the same vendor, but with different managers, they might not taking advantage of that buying partner.”

Looking to retention, Nabors added: “It really is a combination of letting them know how much we appreciate what they’re doing—we had a dish washer who had never worked up front, and he volunteered to take an extra shift up front, and we told him that if he hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have been able to run. And then we backed that up with a gift certificate. And unfortunately a lot of employees have never been treated that way.”

The pandemic, Nabors said, has exacerbated a long-standing trend of income inequality. The resulting shift towards higher pay? “This whole shift is going to benefit the employees,” he said, “and that’s a good thing.”