Hiring teens and college students at your restaurant? Here's what to know

Hiring teens and college students at your restaurant? Here's what to know

Jonathan Bender
By Jonathan Bender
May 10, 2024
10 min read

Finding staff for your restaurant might require you to get creative. Instead of hoping to discover that one perfect candidate, you might consider hiring several teenagers and college students in part-time roles to help fill out your front-of-house.

After decades of decline, more Gen-Z teenagers are working compared to before the pandemic, driven by the desire for financial independence, trying new things and helping families out due to inflation. With more than ⅓ of teenagers currently employed, there’s a big pool of potential bussers, dishwashers and servers waiting for the right message.

If you’re considering hiring students, you need to understand the laws that dictate how many hours a teenager can work, as well as what insurance coverage you might need to protect your business against liability. You should also rethink how you’re reaching, interviewing and training employees to account for students’ specific needs and wants.

We’ve put together a guide on how to meaningfully recruit and retain new employees who are teenagers or college students. Jump ahead for:

What should restaurant owners know about child labor laws?

Before you add teenagers to your team, it’s important you understand child labor laws, which apply to workers under the age of 18. Those laws ensure work doesn’t interfere with school and kids aren’t performing dangerous jobs or being exploited.

The Fair Labor Standards Act lays out clear guidelines for the type and number of hours a teenager can work. In addition to federal regulations, there may also be state laws, like requiring employment certificates, that determine when a teenager can legally work in your restaurant.

So, what does federal law currently say? Teenagers, who are at least 14 years old, may work up to 18 hours per school week; but they are prohibited from operating large kitchen equipment like an industrial mixer or commercial pizza oven.

Even with limits on hours and potential responsibilities, teenagers can still help your restaurant at critical moments. For example:

  • A 14- or 15-year-old is allowed to work as a cashier or dishwasher for three hours after school.
  • A 16- or 17-year-old can prep pizza dough or mix batter for cupcakes in a stand mixer for up to 8 hours on the weekend.
  • A 17-year-old may even make a few deliveries during the dinner rush.

Before hiring a teenager, you may want to consult with a legal professional so you understand labor law basics in your state and gain feedback on the tasks you want them to perform.

What insurance will you need if you hire students for your restaurant?

A restaurant job might be the first job for a teenager or college student. While it’s important to hold safety training and have workers obtain a food handler’s license, you will often have new employees who have never worked in a busy kitchen environment.

Accidents (unfortunately) happen, and that’s when you need workers’ compensation insurance to protect your employees and your business. It doesn’t really matter if they are minors; workers’ comp typically doesn’t have age requirements, so young people have protections like any other employee. Workers’ compensation can help cover work-related medical expenses and lost wages while also shielding you from liability.

Whether you’re hiring a 17-year-old to run errands or a college student to deliver dinner orders with the company van, you should secure commercial auto insurance. Some states require it for business-owned vehicles. In the case of an accident, your commercial auto insurance policy can potentially cover fees related to property damage, medical bills and the cost of car repairs.

How do you go about hiring teens and college students for your restaurant?

Since you may not be the only business hoping to attract teen and college-age workers, it’s important you find unique ways to reach out and stand out when you’re looking to hire students. Here are three key areas to think about when you’re searching for new talent.

Keep outreach authentic

Utilize your networks to find new team members. Talk to your staff, friends and family to find teenagers and college students looking for employment.

Be transparent about the hours you’re looking to fill and the specific tasks of a given job. Likewise, talk openly about the kind of workers you think will fit your culture.

You should also adjust the application process. While you may not be ready to take resumes on social media like Chipotle, which turned to the platform TikTok to attract new hires, you will likely have to get creative. Consider accepting video resumes in lieu of printed copies, or hold a chicken tender party, instead of a job fair, and use the promise of free food to attract students from local colleges (reach out to career services departments and entrepreneurship clubs).

Rethink interviews

Keep interviews professional, but not formal. Sit down with a potential candidate and your restaurant’s most popular dish. A conversation over a meal gives you the opportunity to tell them why people love your burgers and offers a subtle way for you to see how they might sell the same story back to you if you’re hiring college students for a front-of-the-house position.

Tip: Begin the interview by establishing your expectations and giving an overview of what will happen. This will help a potential hire feel more relaxed and ensure you get to ask the questions you want answered.

Don’t forget the perks

What can your restaurant offer that will make you stand out? Maybe it’s a free meal each shift, a significant employee discount or performance bonuses. Highlight regular menu tastings and shifts that cater to students trying to balance school and work.

Consider employee referral bonuses, wherein your current restaurant staff is rewarded for helping you find new employees. Your employees will pre-select people they think would fit the culture and their description of your workplace holds more weight with peers.

Training students to be part of your restaurant staff

While you may find it easier to attract teenagers to work in your restaurant as a hostess or barista, you’ll also likely have to devote more resources to training in order to help them succeed.

Take the time to build a formal training process where new, younger team members can shadow experienced staffers. Give them time to learn the menu and master your restaurant’s technology, such as a point-of-sale system.

You’ll also want to pay specific attention to two areas: food safety and conflict resolution. Proper food handling is smart business for a restaurant; it’s important not to assume that your new hire understands your local food code in and out.

Nearly every job in an eatery has contact with your customers, not all of whom are going to be having a great day. So, walk your college-age food expediters through difficult interactions (rude diners, complaints) before they happen and explain what remedies are available (free meals or the intervention of a manager). This will give your new team members autonomy yet also demonstrate that you or senior staff is available to support them.

You’re good at hiring teens. Now, how do you retain them?

Your busser is figuring out when to grab the plates from the first course, and your host has stopped triple-seating your best server. Dinner service has a great flow, and you want to keep it that way.

Two simple steps can help you retain your restaurant staff: reward them for their work and show them the way forward.

Consistent, meaningful rewards let team members know you appreciate them. Highlight great work when it happens on a whiteboard or with a text message. Give performance bonuses or raises as an employee takes on more responsibilities or meets time-based milestones.

Align your restaurant’s goals with their goals. If a teenager plays sports on certain nights of the week and they’re looking for income, establish a flexible schedule. If they’re looking to make a career in the service industry, make sure they have access to a mentor and additional training after orientation. Clearly lay out what they might need to do to earn a promotion or receive financial assistance for school.

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Jonathan Bender
About the author

Jonathan Bender is a food writer who lives in Kansas City, Missouri. He's also an Emmy Award winning documentarian and the author of a pair of cookbooks: Stock, Broth & Bowl and Cookies & Beer. He's written about restaurants for two decades, which thankfully for diners and his self-esteem, is much longer than his career as a waiter. He is always happy to share barbecue recommendations and is open to your sandwich suggestions.

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