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How to create an effective restaurant schedule

By Su Edgley|Sep 8, 2023|3:42 pm BST

How to create an effective restaurant schedule

Restaurant scheduling is a thankless task. Needlessly tricky, this cornerstone of restaurant ops is all about balancing labour costs and profit margins with staff availability and contract hours.

A good restaurant schedule maximises the customer experience, boosts staff loyalty, and protects profit margins. A bad one leads to over or under staffing, burnout, volatile labour costs and a workforce that’ll jump ship at the first opportunity. In short, a poor restaurant schedule has a knock-on effect on everything else.

What exactly is a restaurant schedule in 2023 (and beyond)?

We all know what a restaurant work schedule is. If you’re here, it’s because you want to know how to stop restaurant employee scheduling taking over your life; whether that’s managing constant shift swapping, juggling time-off requests, minimising labour costs or just trying to reduce the number of hours you spend in excel. Staff scheduling takes up a significant chunk of restaurant managers’ time.

A restaurant shift schedule looks a little different for every business so, while restaurant schedule templates and spreadsheets are a good starting point, the complexity of scheduling means the utility of such examples are increasingly limited – a quick service restaurant will have very different requirements to a michelin starred restaurant or a venue that includes a cocktail bar and live entertainment, for example.

The aim of a restaurant schedule is to have enough restaurant staff working to meet demand and provide the best possible customer experience without having so many staff that labour costs eat into profits. It’s a difficult balancing act at the best of times, but consumer demand in the restaurant industry has been particularly volatile this year thanks to factors like the rising cost of living, supply chain issues, unseasonable weather, soaring energy costs and the introduction of new alcohol duties. We’re in unprecedented waters, and restaurant scheduling software and tools need to be able to help managers chart them.

Effective scheduling, then, is based on a host of factors; from weather forecasts to staff availability, anticipated demand peaks to the need for different skill sets. Restaurant owners and managers need smart scheduling and forecasting tools that can not only pull in data from a range of external sources but also help to streamline the administrative process around building and managing a restaurant schedule. In a recent study, just over a quarter of managers said dealing with last minute cover (not building the schedule itself) was the biggest time sink of the whole restaurant scheduling process.

Why is a restaurant schedule so important?

It might sound melodramatic, but staff scheduling really does make or break a restaurant, particularly in the current economic climate.

Labour shortages are an ongoing theme in the hospitality industry – a topic we covered in depth in our recent Hospitality Workforce Update – and look set to continue into 2025. Hourly workers are in high demand and it’s common for many to receive multiple employment offers. With competition for staff so high, making sure they have a positive experience at work is critical for both attracting and retaining employees long-term.

Scheduling is one of the biggest contributors to staff engagement, with 44% of hourly workers saying a lack of schedule flexibility is one of their biggest workplace gripes. Routine understaffing is another core culprit when it comes to negative employee experience and restaurants that consistently expect their workers to fill in for understaffing issues will struggle to compete against other employers when it comes to retaining their staff.

Against today’s backdrop of high interest rates and soaring costs, restaurant scheduling becomes even more important since it helps to manage labour spend and conserve profit margins. Prescriptive scheduling – leveraging set rules around the number of staff that need to be scheduled for certain events, such as lunch or closing – is a common cause of overstaffing. With demand so changeable, managers need more agile processes to ensure they have the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

How to create a restaurant schedule

There’s no one size fits all solution, but there are a number of restaurant scheduling best practices to consider when developing both your schedule and the processes around it.

Think about scheduling as more than just the restaurant schedule itself; it’s the typical demand patterns for your business and any additional data you need to pull in to predict how those might vary, it’s the amount of time you provide staff between shifts to ensure they don’t get burned out, and the tools available to them to request time-off, shift swap or make last minute changes. There’s a lot more to a restaurant schedule than just the schedule.

1. Nail onboarding

It might sound a little left field to be advocating for onboarding in a scheduling article, but onboarding is your first opportunity to show potential employees what you’re about.

At a time when staff have multiple job offers to choose from, a digital onboarding experience that allows them to upload documents directly, sign contracts from their phone and access team resources could be a competitive advantage. It also makes life easier when it comes to restaurant scheduling, since owners and managers can view applicants’ status and anticipate their start dates.

As the first touchpoint for your restaurant, onboarding sets the scene for what employees can expect. For those still choosing between employers, it could make the difference between them accepting your offer or going elsewhere.

2. Decide which types of shifts you’ll use

Another area where generic restaurant schedule examples fall down is shift types. Your restaurant will have very different scheduling requirements to your competitors, and the type of shifts you implement will depend on staff availability, trading times and a host of other considerations. There are a few broad types of shifts common in the hospitality industry:

  • Fixed shifts don’t move, staff know exactly what hours they’ll be working week in, week out. Not great from a flexibility standpoint or in periods where demand is changeable, but it does create consistency and reduce the administrative burden around scheduling.
  • Split shifts break a standard shift into two across the day, for example four hours on breakfast and four hours at closing. It’s a great way to manage labour spend effectively, but doubles commutes for employees and limits their personal time.
  • Swing shifts kick in later in the day, normally to cover the evening rush. They’re helpful for bolstering staff that have been on their feet all day as a busy period looms, but can lead to overstaffing in the lull between dinner and closing.
  • On-call shifts are last minute shifts to cover unexpected demand, staff illness or no shows. It’s a helpful way to manage labour and avoid over or under staffing, but can be problematic for staff since they have to be available with no guarantee of work.
  • No-scheduling is an ad hoc approach to staffing with no fixed rules or patterns, managers schedule week-to-week depending on demand. While it’s an effective way to manage labour spend, it does create a lot of administrative work and very little clarity for staff, who get given their hours on short notice.

3. Post the schedule on the same day every time

Restaurant scheduling is a key touchpoint between management and staff. As such, it has a disproportionate impact on employee engagement. Hourly workers can’t make social plans or meet caring obligations until they know what their new schedule looks like, and a lack of organisation around restaurant schedule releases can very quickly sour the relationship between management and workers.

Committing to post the schedule on a certain day is an easy way to head this off, it means employees know exactly when information on upcoming working hours will be available and can plan accordingly.

4. Uncouple labour spend from sales

Historically, scheduling has been based on revenue, with labour spend allocated as a percentage of anticipated revenue. This is a rigid approach that can result in over or understaffing. A bottle of champagne, for example, will contribute more to the bottom line than five soft drinks, but the soft drinks require more labour to prepare, serve and clean up.

Understanding that revenue isn’t the key driver of labour spend and instead taking an item based approach – which maps labour allocations to specific items – and scheduling based on the items you’re expecting to sell, can greatly improve efficiency, guest experience and employee satisfaction.

5. Utilise AI to help you demand forecast

It’s 2023, we were hardly going to publish an article that didn’t mention artificial intelligence (AI) – especially given that restaurant scheduling lends itself perfectly to this technology.

AI is a data technology, it looks at multiple sources of information and uses those to predict likely patterns. Sound familiar? AI can automatically assess weather forecasts, historical demand, staff availability and all the many, many data points that go into a restaurant schedule. These can be fed into a demand forecast, giving a prediction of the revenue for any particular shift that can then be used to generate a schedule based on predicted demand, ensuring you have the right people where and when you need them.

Here at Fourth, we call this auto scheduling. Lebanese restaurant chain Comptoir Libanais rely on auto scheduling to successfully reduce scheduling from the 3-4 hours it took with spreadsheets to a 15 minute job on Fourth.

6. Schedule as far in advance as possible

No one likes uncertainty. The more clarity you can give your staff about when they have the day off, or the number of hours they’re scheduled for, the better. Ensuring your restaurant schedule is available as far in advance as possible makes a significant difference to individuals, enabling them to plan around work and request schedule changes if necessary.

7. Schedule busy shifts first

It is best practice to start with the busiest days of the week first and then move to the slowest time slots when building your restaurant schedule. This is a particularly helpful trick for teams with limited hours and should reduce the amount of changes you need to make between drafting and finalising the schedule.

8. Try to avoid back-to-back shifts

Making sure you give your workers enough downtime between shifts to recover and chill out is vital; it protects against exhaustion, burn out, illness and last-minute time off requests. Pay particular attention to who is scheduled for a closing shift and make sure they’re not on the next open, it’s easy to miss these when you’re focusing on scheduling each day individually.

9. Accommodate shifts swaps

Flexibility is one of the major attractions to hospitality work, with 80% of hospitality staff listing flexible hours as an important benefit. Shift swapping is a good example of this flexibility, and allows staff to change their shifts on short notice while avoiding gaps in the schedule.

But shift swapping can be a headache for managers, who have to approve those swaps – normally outside of business hours. It’s difficult to get away from work if you’re getting texts and notifications from your team asking to approve swaps. Some of the best workforce scheduling tools head this off by facilitating shift swapping automatically.

10. Provide easy access to the schedule

An offline restaurant schedule that is only available on site is a common cause of staff errors and inadvertent no-shows. Ensure your schedule is online and viewable remotely so staff can check their shifts on the go and stay up-to-date with any last minute changes.

11. Vary employee shifts

Be careful to avoid scheduling the same individuals for recurring shifts – this is a trap that’s easy to fall into if you’re scheduling busy periods first. Be careful to mix up the individuals on these shifts so you’re not routinely relying on the same workers to cover the busiest shifts, which is a recipe for burn out.

12. Accommodate time-off requests when possible

We know flexibility is important to hospitality workers and a management team that accommodates time-off requests helps to cultivate loyalty. Staff personal time off (PTO) requests are another complicating factor of a restaurant schedule, so be sure to put some processes in place around booking PTO; such as the number of staff that can be off at the same time and the amount of notice they need to give ahead of days off.

13. Have a back-up plan

Even the best laid plans can go awry. Create an agile restaurant schedule that gives you options. For example, include staff members that can cover multiple areas, such as table service and the bar, on shifts that are likely to be busy knowing they can move between teams as needed.

Internal shift pooling tools can also be helpful and allow staff from the group to pick up open shifts at other sites within the chain.

14. Facilitate clear communication

Teamwork and efficiency are the hallmarks of great restaurants, both of which are reliant on clear communication. Regular updates accessible to all team members maximises efficiency, ensures everyone knows what is expected of them and has the information they need to perform at their best.

15. Promote work-life balance

Work-life balance is vital for ensuring staff are happy, fulfilled and rested. Make sure your restaurant schedule leaves workers enough down time between shifts and that it provides the flexibility to accommodate their commitments outside of work to maximise loyalty and retention.


Restaurant scheduling is fundamental to the successful running of your restaurant. Get it wrong, and it impacts every aspect of your business.

To discover how Fourth’s workforce management solutions can help you to get scheduling right, talk to our sales team today.

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