Creating a culture that attracts and retains with Danny Meyer

Creating a culture that attracts and retains with Danny Meyer
D. J. Costantino

By D. J. Costantino

How do you create a restaurant culture that attracts staff and retains them?

We asked someone who's done it—the one and only Danny Meyer.

Danny Meyer is the founder of Union Square Hospitality Group and Shake Shack, one of the most prolific restaurateurs of our time. Danny is also a founder of Enlightened Hospitality Investments, which invests in hospitality-driven companies across a variety of industries.

Danny joined 7shifts CEO, Jordan Boesch, for a talk hosted by Danny Klein of Food News Media. From what culture is, to how it's built, and how to use servant leadership, a lot of ground was covered.

Don't have time to check out their full chat? Here are our top five takeaways from Danny and Jordan's conversation:

1. Your restaurant has a culture, whether it's intentional or not

Danny Meyer defines restaurant culture succinctly:

“Very simply, culture is the way we do things around here.”

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.

“Everybody has a culture, whether they work at it or not. The question is, is it an uplifting, intentional culture?,” asks Meyer.

Only those who are immersed in the culture can answer that question.

2. Culture is built by championing good behaviors...

“So I've come to learn over many, many years that if you want to have an intentional culture, you've gotta start by naming the behaviors that you want to see more of. And you've gotta champion and celebrate those behaviors when you see them. And then furthermore, you've got to make it very clear that you're not willing to accept the behaviors that are antithetical to the culture you want,” says Meyer.

“Culture is the sum of all the behaviors that we champion minus all the wrong behaviors that we accept.”

Culture = The Good Behaviors You Champion - The Wrong Behaviors You Accept

...And quickly calling out bad ones

“...Every time I put up with a behavior that is antithetical to our culture, it undermines every word I say about what we want. So taking care of our soil comes down to feeding the nutrients we want in the soil and making sure to take out all the things that are toxic to that soil,” says Meyer.

3. Core values communicate culture

But how do you communicate what behaviors and qualities that you want (and don't want?).

By establishing what your core values are. And it's important to be intentional in the language you use:

“Language is the mortar between the bricks that build culture,” says Meyer.

And you don't have to wait until you're a certain size or employee count before putting core values in place:

“I think the sooner that a leader can define her core values for their team, the sooner that the team can say, okay, now I understand not just what I'm supposed to do, but how I'm supposed to behave while I'm doing it,” says Meyer.

There is one caveat, though:

“You can't really expect to hold people accountable for more than three to five behaviors,” adds Meyer.

A laundry list of core values can end up being confusing. Which ones are more important? A tight list is your best bet.

4. You can train skills, but you can't change who someone is

Danny Meyer has long been a proponent of hiring for cultural fit, and training for skills required to do jobs:

“Emotional skills are kind of baked in by the time we've already hired you. So we've never learned how to train someone who's otherwise not nice to be nice. We've never been able to train someone who's otherwise a natural born skeptic to feel hopeful,” says Meyer.

Danny has outlined the emotional skills they look for in his book, Setting the Table, as well as in a chat with 7shifts in 2021:

5. Leaders are there to serve their team

When it comes to retention, Meyer is bullish that people don't leave their job—they leave their leaders.

“We learned that people more often leave their manager than leave their job. And so there's just not enough training we can do for leadership. And it all comes down to servant leadership. I promise you when someone, when we have that moment, we've all had it where someone really good leaves our company and you kind of slap your forehead and you went, ‘oh my gosh, how are we gonna get on without them?” says Meyer.

“Invariably, in the exit interview, if you chip away at it enough, it comes down to, they left their boss. And so that is on us to create a servant leadership culture. They probably did not have a boss who came to work every day for the purpose of helping them feel and be successful,”

The key to success? What Danny and many professionals call servant leadership—where leaders work to serve, empower, and uplift their employees, rather than rule from the top down.

Access the full webinar

You can listen to the full, unedited conversation, including listener questions here:

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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!