How to Build (and Maintain) Epic Restaurant Culture

How to Build (and Maintain) Epic Restaurant Culture
D. J. Costantino

By D. J. Costantino

The restaurant industry has long been associated with long hours, hot-headed chefs, and an intense working environment that only the most passionate could handle. But that's been slowly changing over the past few years.

Even before the pandemic hit, there's been a growing feeling that the restaurant industry has to do better when it comes to employee experience. We're seeing a culture shift. And the restaurant brands that are leading the change in our industry are putting culture at the forefront.

What is restaurant culture?

Restaurant culture is how you do the things in your restaurant, and why you do them that way. It's your core values, systems, behaviors, and everything that goes into the employee experience. And by extension, the guest experience.

Picture this. You're working at a restaurant, and you walk into the kitchen. The cooks are yelling at each other. The employees aren't helping each other out. What does that tell you about the culture? Probably that it's not great.

Now think of it from the guest side. A restaurant where you're greeted kindly, with an energetic server. And a chef that's touching tables. That's representative of that restaurant's team culture too.

Restaurant culture is the sum of all of these parts. They define the experience of working in a restaurant and dining at it.


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Why is restaurant culture important?

Restaurant culture matters for two main reasons: employee experience, and guest experience.

Employees are leaving the restaurant industry in record numbers. Culture plays a big part in that. According to a 7shifts 2021 survey, 60% of restaurant employees have left a restaurant job, and some are planning to make moves sooner rather than later. Nearly one-third of employees don't see themselves working in the same place this time next year.

one-third of employees don't see themselves working in the same place this time next year.

However, restaurants with great culture see this less often:

“It's more than just a job to them. If we can create that type of culture within a team, then the guest experience will mirror that and really be heightened...,” says Chris Williams, Director of Brand Culture at Walk-On's Sports Bistreaux.

When the employee experience is great, it makes the guest experience even better.

“And with a heightened guest experience, obviously involve more traffic to the restaurant, and we're start to look into the financial measurables,”

With great culture, everybody wins. Great company culture and an engaged team make the guest experience better, and improve a restaurant's bottom line. It's a winning formula for restaurant success.

How restaurants create (and reinforce) great culture, according to experts.

For as many restaurants without a strong culture, there are as many who are elevating what it means to be a hospitality employer. Among them are brands like Taziki's Cafe, Walk-On's Sports Bistreaux, &Pizza, and 7 Leaves Café. They're different kinds of restaurants, but they have something in common: strong company culture and great staff retention.

We spoke to leaders at each one of these brands to find out what they do to both build and reinforce great restaurant culture.

Know and live your core values

The foundation of restaurant culture lies in your core values.

“[It's about] being clear-eyed about what it is that differentiates you. What are we here for and why are we here and why not something else. Because the industry needs true innovation, maybe not in product, but in people management strategy and in value proposition,” says Andy Hooper.

It's not enough to just tell your employees what your values are. They must be lived.

&pizza makes their core values clear to employees from the get-go.

“I think the first thing is as a brand, we are not shy about publicizing our perspective on key issues in the public sphere.” says Andy Hooper, former President at &pizza.

On March 13, 2020, when coronavirus was declared a national emergency, &pizza immediately raised hourly wages by a dollar and guaranteed every job for 30 days.

“Our willingness to put our family first has kept them showing up. It's allowed us to raise multiple rounds of financing into COVID, and that is an output of having a team that is dedicated and committed,” says Hooper.

At 7 Leaves, they call this “the promise.” But these principles go by vision, purpose, mission, core values, and more. Whatever you want to call them, these are what drive every decision in a restaurant group.

“We're very, very, very purposeful in the language that we use,” says Chris Williams. At Walk-On's, one of these values is “living with integrity,”

Walk-On's demonstrated this when they provided all employees—furloughed or active—with a hot meal every day in the early stages of the pandemic. Soon after, the team partnered with Furlough Kitchen in Dallas to feed any and all furloughed workers, regardless of industry.

“When you've got a strong culture, when you've got that foundation, and you can make decisions that align with that, it doesn't really matter what your circumstances are or what's going on in your surroundings,” says Williams.

Core values provide a guiding light for all the decisions you make in your restaurant—from simple ones like how to treat a customer to what to do in the event of a national emergency.

“It's not just window dressing. It's not just something that we say. It's the way that we live,” says Williams.

Talk to your staff — and make yourself available

Great team culture can't exist in a bubble. The most common advice we got was to keep open lines of communication with your employees in both directions. One way to do that is by using surveys.

“...Good leaders don't need to guess from an ivory tower. It's just [about] talking to our staff. Surveys are a way to do that. In the last several months, we've asked them about why they stay or why they might be tempted to leave,” says Dan Simpson, CEO at Taziki's Mediterranean Cafe.

At Taziki's, Simpson and his team were able to glean from these surveys ways to keep employees engaged. One place it had an impact was on their job interview tactics.

“[We ask] 'Tell me about what matters to you outside this job. And let's see if you can work out a schedule that works for you' instead of it just being 'here's [the] schedule, take it or leave it...'” says Simpson.

By building a culture that takes employees' needs into account, restaurants have a better chance at retaining them longer. Especially when 56% of employees say that flexible scheduling would greatly affect their happiness at work.

More Schedule Flexibility

And while surveys can give you great insights, they are best used alongside continuous, open dialogue.

“You're asking for feedback in a moment where like, it seems sort of forced you seldom get the real feedback,” says Newton Hoang, Director of IT and Marketing at 7 Leaves Café. He believes that when you give everyone the same survey, you will more likely get the answers that they think you want to hear.

Hoang and the rest of 7 Leaves executive team make regular visits to each one of 7 Leaves 34 locations. Chris Williams is doing the same at Walk-On's.

“What [building great culture] looks like on a daily basis is, I'm constantly reaching out and talking to teams and supporting them through any difficulties that they may have within their restaurants,” says Williams.

&pizza takes the idea to what some may consider the extreme; Every employee has cell phone numbers for company leadership—including their CEO, Michael Lastoria.

“Every employee in the company has access to my cell phone, to Michael [Lastoria]'s cell phone, so they know how to get in touch directly. And so we get a lot of direct ideas,” says Andy Hooper.

One of those situations? A team member at &pizza texted leadership directly with a photo of an area in their shop that needed new paint. Not only did this lead to a quick fix—that team member felt heard by leadership.

Recognize who's doing it well—and reinforce it.

Great culture must be backed up by recognition. 7shifts latest labor report shows us that in employees over the age of 25, manager recognition (or lack thereof) are among the top reasons why they've left jobs (or are planning to).

Turnover is a huge issue for restaurants. You can't afford to not recognize your employees. And it doesn't just make that team member feel good. It reinforces those actions and gives everyone on your team—new hires or longtime employees—a look at what good looks like in your business.

“If you want something done, find time to recognize when it's being done and scream it from the rooftops,” says Chris Williams.

This can be in a physical form. Walk On's has boards in each location where team members can post recognition of each other. It can be in a team group chat using a restaurant communication app. Or combine both and share what great team members are doing on your restaurant's social channels.

Provide opportunities for growth

Employees want to work somewhere that has opportunities for growth. A third of restaurant employees would like to see manager recognition come in the form of promotions.

It's common for restaurants to have a training program for employees to become managers. But there's more to a restaurant brand than just front-line employees and store-level management. Just because a cashier isn't interested in becoming a manager, doesn't mean there can't be opportunity for them to grow.

On their regular store visits, 7 Leaves team keeps this top of mind.

“We have regular casual conversations with our team members that at various different points of their, their journey with us, we always tap into, 'What are you interested in? What is it that makes you tick?' And so through that own discovery, we then begin to organically nudge folks that if they have an interest,” says Hoang.

For example, one of 7 Leaves' cashiers was studying graphic design, and through conversation, Hoang interviewed them for an entry-level marketing role. He hired them on the spot, and they've grown within the company since.

“We just make ourselves available and then, you know, good things happen when we do that,” says Hoang.

Offer benefits that they actually want (or need)

Your core values and culture are reflected, too, in the benefits that you offer to employees. “Benefits” is a term that usually covers the basics—a 401k and health insurance.

But that may not be what restaurant workers are looking for. Younger generations may have health insurance from parents or guardians. Most 17-year-olds are not yet thinking about retirement.

Instead of offering blanket benefits like health insurance and a 401k, look to your team and your core values to come up with tailor-made benefits. Ones that have a positive impact on your employees' lives.

At &pizza, this means a Lyft credit for those working late nights (some &pizza locations are open until 4 am), so they don't have to worry about them getting home safely.

At 7 Leaves, this means helping out the students on their team with programs that award money for prom or professional headshots.

And at Taziki's, they found that they had three main “buckets” of employees. For the younger part-time workers, they offer real-time pay. For working parents, flexible schedules for childcare and retirement benefits for the future. And for First-Generation Americans, English language lessons.

The bottom line? The benefits you offer should reflect—and reinforce-your company culture.

Continuing to build and maintain great restaurant culture

Your restaurant culture is the sum of getting a lot of different things right. It's supported by habits and actions, and impacts the guest experience in your restaurant. Restaurants must focus first on the people they have working there. The great guest experience and profits will follow.

“Ultimately, there are a lot of wise folks in the industry who have, you know, repeated the phrase that "the guest experience will never exceed the employee experience," And that's true. The more you can pour into your frontline family members, the more they're going to be able to give across the counter to the customer,” says Dan Simpson.

That's what building great restaurant culture is all about.

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D. J. Costantino
D. J. Costantino

Hi! I'm D.J., 7shifts' resident Content Writer. I come from a family of chefs and a background in food journalism. I'm always looking for ways to help make the restaurant industry better!