Kitchen Management: 7 Tips For Kitchen Managers to Guarantee Back of House Serenity

Kitchen Management: 7 Tips For Kitchen Managers to Guarantee Back of House Serenity
Laurie Mega

By Laurie Mega

Anyone who’s worked (or even stepped foot) in a restaurant knows how important effective kitchen management is. Yes, the back of house (BOH meaning) is where food is prepped, cooked, and plated, but it’s also where chaos can quickly ensue if roles, responsibilities, and tasks aren’t communicated well. Simply put, if things aren’t running well in the kitchen, restaurant staff and diners alike often suffer.

What’s more, restaurant kitchens often call up images of long hours, punishing work conditions, and a hostile work culture. While part of this is informed by sensationalized depictions in pop culture, (Chef Gordon Ramsay, anyone?) this atmosphere has long been considered a given, and even a rite of passage, for any kitchen job.

Thankfully, the narrative on kitchen culture has been undergoing a transformation over the last few years. Restaurant owners are placing more importance and effort than ever on making sure employees are engaged and fulfilled, and that toxic work cultures are stamped out before they can thrive.

Read on to learn more about effective restaurant kitchen management tactics you can use to ensure your employees feel supported, safe, and engaged.

The Effects of a Stressful Kitchen

A kitchen where stress and fear are the key motivators is actually a pretty inefficient one, and it’s one where team members’ well-being is at risk.

The Heirloom Foundation and Chefs With Issues surveyed 2,000 restaurant employees about their job concerns. Of those surveyed, an astounding 94 percent admitted to struggling with mental health issues, either currently or in the past. The top three issues cited were anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), risks to mental health in the workplace include:

  • Inadequate health and safety policies
  • Poor communication and management practices
  • Limited participation in decision-making or little control over an area of work
  • Little support for employees
  • Inflexible working hours
  • Unclear tasks or organizational objectives

Two other risk factors cited by employees are long hours and the stress of the work environment.

But even if a poor work culture isn’t taking a toll on your employees’ mental health, it can still negatively impact the efficiency and profits of your restaurant. According to a Gallup poll, disengaged employees have 37 percent higher absenteeism, 18 percent lower productivity, and 15 percent lower profitability.

A poor kitchen culture can also lead to a higher churn rate, which means time and money spent searching for, hiring, and training new staff to replace those who left.

What Makes a Good Work Environment?

Back of house staff laughing

In The Restaurant Manager’s Handbook, author Douglas Robert Brown writes about the need to foster motivation at the most basic level.

“If you know what people need and want, then you know what they will work for, and if you reinforce them for their performance, they will continue to work well and achieve.” — Douglas Robert Brown

According to Brown, the most basic factors for keeping and motivating employees are a comfortable physical work environment and good employment conditions (salary, benefits, security, policies, etc.). In a recent study carried out by 7shifts, 62% of restaurant employees surveyed supported these findings by stating that a pay raise would make them happy at work.

However, Brown emphasizes that your restaurant should aim higher than the basics. “You need to foster a culture and environment that values your employees and allows and encourages them to reach their potential.”

And that’s really what kitchen staff (and all restaurant employees) are looking for. While a good work environment and employment conditions may keep employees from leaving, there are other factors that truly motivate staff to excel.

Those, according to Brown, include:

  • A sense of achievement
  • Recognition for a job well done
  • The work itself
  • The opportunity for advancement
  • A sense of responsibility
  • The opportunity for growth

More practical needs, like schedule predictability and flexibility as well as employee support, can also keep stress levels low and morale high.

These are all things a kitchen manager can work into a kitchen culture systematically through careful planning and best practices.

Let’s look at some kitchen management tips and examples of how other restaurants have created serenity in the kitchen by incorporating these motivational needs.

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Tips for Creating a Great BOH Environment

There are two kinds of actions you can take to change your kitchen culture: less-formal changes that you implement at the team level, and more programmatic changes that come from the owner or corporate headquarters.

All of them focus on the employee, their well-being, and their job satisfaction. Here is how to be a good kitchen manager.

1. Motivate Employees Through Recognition, Ownership, and Incentives

Darden Restaurants owns Olive Garden, Capital Grille and Longhorn Steakhouse, among other chain restaurants. In 2019, they were one of Indeed’s Top Places to Work.

On top of a higher-than-average salary (nearly $15/hour), restaurant employees can get discounts in Darden’s restaurants, as well as discounts on cell service and loans for computers. After a year of service, the company will match contributions to their 401K program and employees can sign up for the Employee Stock Purchase program.

They also recognize the good work their employees do by hiring from within. According to their site, 1,000 employees are promoted to management positions every year, and 99 percent of all directors of operations were promoted from within the company.

Some of these rewards and incentives are decisions made at the corporate level, but that doesn’t mean you can’t apply them to your kitchen staff.

Infographic about how restaurant staff want to be recognized

Takeaway: Make an effort to recognize your employees for a job well done. Recognize good work by calling it out at staff meetings, or by promoting internally on a regular basis. Organize informal team outings to say thank you to your hard-working staff. You could even consider an “employee of the month” routine where your top performers are highlighted and congratulated, perhaps with a prize as well.

2. Offer Employee Development and Career Advancement Opportunities

In-n-Out Burger, Glassdoor’s #4 Best Place to Work in 2019, offers ongoing training for employees, as well as training for associates to become managers. In fact, all of their managers are trained up from associate positions.

Other restaurants offer education assistance, professional development, and even personal development classes.

By encouraging employee growth, you’re achieving two things. First, you’re letting employees know that you care about their career growth and you’re willing to invest in them. Second, you’re reducing costs related to hiring and training new employees from outside the company.

Takeaway: Invest in your employees’ growth. Offering training programs or other means of professional development shows your staff that you’re committed to their career development. If you’re not sure where to start, ask! Talk to your kitchen staff about what they want their next career move to be, and start thinking about small changes you can implement that can help, like a grassroots mentorship program or a class you can help subsidize.

3. Communicate Clear Expectations and Accountability

Staff at Shawn & Ed's Brewing looking at phones

Creating a positive work atmosphere isn’t all fun and games. Team members still need to have a clear understanding of your expectations, and be held accountable when they don’t meet them.

Brown recommends implementing SMART goals to keep employees on track. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-framed. All goals for employees should hit each of these benchmarks.

SMART goals

For example, a short-term SMART goal for your prep cook may be to come in at 3pm (before the dinner rush) and grind 30 lbs of meat for hamburgers, chop all vegetables in the cooler for salads, and make sure all stations are stocked with the ingredients they need for the night.

Your prep cook now knows exactly what she has to do and when. There’s no need to guess how much food is needed. And since you gave her a specific time to arrive, she will be finished with her work and all stations will be stocked before the other cooks show up, making for a much smoother dinner time rush.

You may also set long-term goals that help develop skills in your staff. You may task that same prep cook with a goal like keeping track of when certain spices run out and then determining the best time to order new supplies. You may give her a timeframe of a month to collect her research and present her findings to you.

Again, this goal has a specific task, you can measure her progress, it’s achievable, realistic, and has a certain time frame for her to accomplish it.

If your prep cook can’t meet your SMART goals, and your goals truly meet the SMART criteria, there should be clear next steps concerning her job that she understands.

Setting goals with clear rewards or consequences helps everyone know where they stand and exactly what their role is in the kitchen.

Takeaway: Consider how goals are currently being set with your kitchen staff. Are your employees aware of what they need to achieve on both a short and long-term basis? If not, start communicating your expectations using the SMART framework. Work with your staff to understand what skills they want to achieve in the future so you can build their long-term goals together.

4. Create a Supportive, Problem-Solving Environment

In 2018, Wendy’s was recognized by restaurant analytics company TDn2K with their Global Best Practices Award. The company has always been supportive of its staff, and the sheer number of programs they offer proves it.

Wendy’s offers what they call “paid bonding leave” for families, as well as financial assistance for adoption. They even offer financial assistance to employees who have been affected by natural disasters. Finally, Wendy’s has organized a number of support groups for staff members, including Women of Wendy’s, Wendy’s Military Support Network, and Wendy’s Cultural Diversity Network.

Takeaway: While the examples listed above have been adopted at the corporate level, it’s entirely possible to support your staff through smaller gestures. Offering more flexible shifts or more notice about shifts can help employees plan childcare, second jobs and other obligations. Stepping in to help solve staff conflicts in a constructive way will also show your team you care.

5. Foster an Environment of Communication

Opening the channels of communication between you and your staff, as well as between individual staff members, fosters a sense of team, helps your employees trust you, and also cuts costs by increasing efficiency.

First, set up clear procedures for communication in the kitchen. Define clear guidelines for communicating orders down the line, raising issues, and alerting other staff members to each station’s needs.

Then, put together guidelines for communicating beyond the day-to-day. If an employee has an issue or complaint, he should know exactly who he should talk to (most likely you) and how to get some time with you, so he’s not approaching you in the middle of a kitchen crisis or as you’re walking out the door.

When an employee comes to you, listen to them (close that computer) and respond with supportive, constructive suggestions. Send the message that you are here to help.

Takeaway: Creating and open and communicative work environment starts with setting clear expectations and guidelines. Make sure your staff is well aware of the communication breakdown in your kitchen, and do your best to ensure your employees are feeling heard and considered when problems arise.

6. Create a Sense of Work/Life Balance

All of the restaurants featured in this article have one thing in common: they all have programs in place to help employees achieve a sense of work-life balance.

In-n-Out Burger, for example, offers flexible scheduling to accommodate workers in school or those who have childcare needs. They also offer paid vacation time for restaurant employees.

In a business where stress levels are high and long hours are common, taking time off is essential for a kitchen employee’s well-being.

Takeaway: You may not have the resources to introduce a formalized program that focuses on work/life balance, but there are small changes you can make to prevent employee burnout. Start by checking in with your staff to make sure their stress levels are manageable and that they have enough downtime to enjoy their lives outside of work. If not, ask what you can do to help.

7. Reduce Kitchen Hazards That Cause Injuries

Finally, there’s one simple thing you can do to help keep things running smoothly in your kitchen. Take a look around and make sure you’ve done everything you can to reduce kitchen hazards.

According to equipment provider Restaurant Technologies, cuts, slips and falls, burns, and sprains are the most common BOH injuries.

You can prevent these by training employees on the proper use of kitchen utensils, providing splash guards for cooking with hot oil, providing or updating anti-slip flooring.

Takeaway: By being informed about safety risks and prevention, you can implement guidelines and systems to keep your kitchen staff safe. OSHA provides a guidebook to help you prevent common injuries in your kitchen.

The Bottom Line: Kitchen Management Doesn’t Have to be Chaotic

Restaurant kitchen work can be stressful, causing tempers to flare and workers to burn out. But there are some actions you can take to help keep the peace and let your team know that you care about them and their careers.

By encouraging communication, personal growth, and recognizing good work, you can keep a harmonious, efficient kitchen culture. In addition to the tips above, using smart technology will ensure your kitchen is properly staffed for every shift, and also help you establish transparent and clear communication with your BOH team.

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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, The Economist, and more.