6 Ways to Strengthen Weak Restaurant Culture & Boost Sales

6 Ways to Strengthen Weak Restaurant Culture & Boost Sales
Laurie Mega

By Laurie Mega

No one will deny it; working in a restaurant is tough. There are the long hours on your feet, the unexpected rush of diners, the last-minute callouts, and the customers you just can't seem to please.

A lot of the tough situations that arise during a restaurant shift are difficult to control, and they can make for some pretty grumpy employees. But there are aspects of the job that you, as a manager, can control to strengthen a weak restaurant culture and keep employees happy. By keeping employees happy, you boost can boost your bottom line. First a good restaurant culture reduces the costs associated with high turnover.

In a study done by TDN2k, a company that provides restaurant industry analytics, the annual cost of employee turnover per manager is $13,867.

Imagine if you can retain happy employees more often, rather than having to train new recruits every so often. The savings to your bottom line would be phenomenal! Plus, happy employees are more productive, reducing wait times for guests, and more likely to make recommendations or upsell menu items. The point is, long gone are the days of restaurants as high-pressure workplaces where only the most hardened souls survive.

Today's restaurant culture supports its staff and builds a sense of ownership among employees.

The Old Way Isn't Always the Best Way

I'm sure you're well aware of current perception of restaurant culture. The high-stress, aggressive and sometimes toxic environment is so well known, it's been made a caricature by mainstream media, is everything from Hell's Kitchen to Disney's Ratatouille.

And while it makes for great entertainment, what's traditionally thought of as restaurant culture has real consequences for its employees.

A spate of high-profile suicides by celebrity chefs has finally brought more attention to the growing mental health problem in the restaurant industry, for instance.

In 2017, Mental Health America, a nonprofit committed to mental health support and advocacy, released a two-year study of 17,000 workers in 19 different industries. Of those, the food and beverage industry was in the top three worst to work in.

In fact, 50 percent of food and beverage employees surveyed sad the stress of their job affected their personal relationships and 43 percent said it cause them to engage in unhealthy behaviors like drinking or crying regularly. Thirty-eight percent were afraid to go on vacation for fear of losing their job.

#MeToo has also brought restaurant work culture to the fore. In 2017, a number of prominent chefs and restaurant owners were publicly accused of sexual misconduct, and for the first time. those outside the restaurant world saw just how prevalent sexual harassment was in the food industry, one that many restaurateurs are trying hard to fix.

But it isn't just employees who suffer under a toxic restaurant environment. When employees aren't engaged, the entire business suffers.

According to a Gallup poll, disengaged employees have 37 percent higher absenteeism, 18 percent lower productivity, and 15 percent lower probability. But there's something interesting happening.  As the restaurant industry grows, the search for high-performing, quality employees is becoming harder and harder.

What restauranteurs are finding, according to Michelin, is it's becoming a workers' market like never before. Real talent is hard to find and if they don't like their job, it's pretty easy to find one at another restaurant. As a result, restaurants are having to rethink the once-demanding, hard-knocks culture of the past and create a culture that is supportive and rewarding for staff.

Busy Chinese restaurant

The Model Restaurant Culture

Let's look at one restaurant company that's garnered a lot of attention and accolades for its company culture.

Levy Restaurants owns a number of establishments, including QSR and fine dining restaurants, as well as fast-food like restaurants in sports and entertainment venues across the country.

The company was started by brothers Larry and Mark Levy in Chicago in 1978. They claim to have pioneered the concept of fine dining at sports venues they opened up a food stand in Comiskey Park in 1982, and they've even made it to Disney World, with Italian restaurants that transcend the typical chicken wings and ice cream Mickeys.

Levy prides itself on its company culture, and it has won several awards for it. It has appeared on Forbes America’s Best Employers list twice, as well as their annual Best Employers for Diversity and Best Employers for Women lists.

Their company culture has been studied in books like Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, by Saru Jayaraman. On Glassdoor, it has earned 3.5 out of 4 starts.

Among those reviews, the most common positive comment was the friendly, supportive people on Levy's staff.

Also mentioned were its benefits and employee appreciation programs.

Levy offers its employees health and dental benefits, paid time off for salaried employees, training programs for team members who are looking to grow, 401Ks, flex spending and profit sharing.

And while all of that makes employees feel pretty good about their company, going the extra mile to create an environment where employees feel appreciated is what really creates a good company culture.

At Levy, they provide social engagement for employees and highlight exceptional employees on their site. They provide volunteer opportunities and discounts with retail partners like Target.

"From creating new recipes to planning company retreats," reader their site, "we're all about collaboration, experience, and making each other better."

Companies like Levy are looking at restaurant employees in a whole new way. Where restaurants of the past embraced their tough reputations, current restaurants are taking cues from other industries and revising their company cultures.

Interior of bar counter with bottles and glasses

Tips to Make Your Restaurant Culture Outstanding

As we mentioned before, there are aspects of restaurant work that you just can't control. There are just so many variables to restaurant work, it's impossible to ease all of the pressure. But there are programs and practices you can put in place to help employees mitigate and handle the stress.

Here are six ideas to help you improve a weak restaurant culture and boost your sales at the same idea.

1. Proper Training and Support

Even if you're hiring seasoned workers, they still need training on your restaurant's rules and practices. The way you greet customers, your payroll system, what to wear to work, and how to open and close could all be very different from what they're used to.

Training isn't a one-and-done deal, either. Periodic training on new systems, customer service, conflict resolution, or even CPR, will help bring your team together and build a sense of camaraderie at the same time.

Develop a training method that is all your own, but still covers what your team needs to know. For new employees, don't just throw a book of rules at them. Partner them with a mentor, someone who has been working at your restaurant for a while. The mentor should have the new employee shadow them during shifts, and they should be available for questions after the formal training period is over.

For those interested in moving into management positions, online training courses or shadowing a current manager for a period of time might work.

Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants ranked #76 in Glassdoor's 100 Best Places to work in 2019. They offer a mentorship program for all employees, as well as online classes for both business and personal development. There's also a management-in-training program to help employees grow with the company.

Proper training means employees who are prepared for anything. And if your team is less stressed about how to perform their jobs, they can concentrate on the food and the customer experience.

2. Team Building Activities

We mentioned training as a team-building activity, and it really can be. Employees taking the same course will learn together, and can use the shared experience to build relationships. Of course, there are other team-building activities you can implement and we're not talking trust falls.

In-n-Out Burger, a regular on Glassdoor's Best Places to Work list, uses company trips, sports events and other outings as team-building activities.

Other restaurants use social events like trivia night or food tasting of new menu items.  Events that are tied to customer service, like letting employees taste and vote on new menu items, can have a positive effect on the bottom line, as well. If a new dish was selected by the staff themselves, they are more likely to recommend it to customers.

Barista making espresso behind the counter

3. Addressing Employee Concerns

Part of supporting your team is listening to their concerns and addressing them appropriately.  Whether is be an unreasonable complaint form a customer or a personal problem that affects their work, your door should be open.

Listen to what your employees have to say and determine the right course of action. Let them know  that you have their backs.

This has been particularly important as restaurants revamp their policies to address sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. Managers and restaurant owners need clear procedures for handling and addressing concerns.

4. Flexibility (or Predictability) with Schedules

If you live in one of the many parts of the country now mandating fair shift scheduling, you may have already revised your scheduling practices. San Francisco, for example, passed legislation in 2014 protecting shift workers from last-minute schedule notifications.

But simply giving employees plenty of notice may not be enough. Some employees need fixed schedules, while others prefer a more flexible one. In fact, a 7shifts survey found that 64 percent of restaurant employees like having a flexible schedule.

The key is listening to your employees and providing a schedule that balances the needs of the restaurant with those of your employees.

Ardent, a small restaurant in Milwaukee, made Food & Wine’s 2019 list of best restaurants to work at. One of its major benefits? Employees get predictable schedules. They also get a full month of paid family leave.

For them, a fixed schedule works. Family leave and vacation time also give employees the chance to unplug, take care of family and take care of themselves - and do it all without having to leave their job.

5. Employee Recognition and Rewards

Everyone likes to be recognized for the good work they do. Making it a regular part of your culture reinforces positive behaviour and provides an example for other employees to follow. Plus, it makes your employees feel accomplished.

In a survey published in 2017 by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 81 percent of respondents used employee recognition programs to help retain their staff. The survey also found that these employee recognition programs had a positive effect on engagement, culture, and employee happiness.

6. Good Benefits

A white paper by the SHRM cites good benefits, particularly health benefits, as a key driver of employee retention. If you have any say in the benefits program at your restaurant, it's a good idea to see if there's any way you can improve them.

Brands like Starbucks constantly receive praise for the benefits they offer employees, including health, parental leave, paid vacation and profit sharing.

Other restaurant chains add perks like free meals during shifts (Chick-fil-A) or the opportunity to see concerts and events (Levy Restaurants)

The key to a great restaurant culture is to make employees feel like valued and supported members of a bigger team. That's done by offering fair benefits, flexible time and time off, fair wages, and an open environment where team members feel comfortable voicing suggestions and concerns.

Keeping employees happy will reduce turnover and training costs and boost productivity and sales. Sure, you may have to spend a little money to put the programs we mentioned in place, but the return on your investment will be well worth it.

Video Version


Reinventing the way restaurant teams work

Simple to set up, easy to use. Give your restaurant the team management tools they need to be successful. Start your free trial today.

Start free trial

No credit card required
Laurie Mega
Laurie Mega

Laurie is a writer with family in the restaurant industry. She lives near Boston with her husband and two boys and has been published in HomeandGarden.com, The Economist, and more.