How to Put Employees First, From 4 Restaurateurs

How to Put Employees First, From 4 Restaurateurs
Samantha Fung

By Samantha Fung

“Take better care of your staff.” We’ve all heard it. Some of us know that we should - but in between dealing with maintenance issues and hiring new employees, it can be hard enough to take care of yourself, let alone your staff.

With rising food and labor costs, how can you prioritize the working conditions for your team so they stick around? How can you encourage them to care about the business and invest time and energy into their role? We invited 4 restaurant operators to discuss how they put their team first.

It starts with hiring

When you’re short-staffed, it can be tempting to hire the first person who walks in the door. But onboarding someone with a poor attitude or performance impacts the team.

“It's bad morale if you bring someone in who isn't very good, doesn't know what they're doing,” says Kelly Phillips, Founder of Destination Unknown Restaurants.

In a survey of 3,700 restaurant employees, they ranked their co-workers as a factor that affects their satisfaction the most. It’s important to vet candidates not only for their technical skill, but for their culture fit as well. That includes ensuring they align with your business’s values.

What affects employee satisfaction the most

“I interviewed a lot of people and I stopped thinking about what I was looking for and [started thinking about] what they were looking for. Because I don't wanna hire the wrong people. And if I'm not listening to them, I'm not hearing what they want to get out of this job or what they care about, and it's not gonna be a fit,” explains Kelly Phillips.

The most crucial area this applies to is with management. A manager can make or break an employee’s experience as it trickles down from the top. Kwini Reed, Co-owner of Poppy & Seed LLC, made sure candidates understood their brand when they were rehiring for GMs:

“Do you have a giving spirit? Are you okay with interacting with the homeless? What are your ideas of the tip structure and where the industry should go? Just to get some feedback to see if we think alike. And what I've found is that once I have hired those people, I started to see the hourly team changed.”

Invest in developing your people

One value to look for in managers is an interest in developing the team. Kelly Phillips looks for managers that want to help employees get to their next step. “If your managers are actually spending time with people and really kind of connecting with them and setting goals for them and saying, ‘Hey, you're a food runner now, but I want you to be a server in six months or a year, or maybe you wanna be a chef one day, like, let's get you training there.’ I think that's really a crucial part of it.”

At Fork in Philadelphia, they have development programs for every level of seniority, from interns to managers. Culinary students and grads come to stage as part of a paid internship program. When they identify those with potential, they map out their 3, 6, and 12-month plan. Staff are also welcome to receive education in areas outside of their main roles, like bakers who want sommelier training. And managers are encouraged to keep learning through their management development program that addresses areas like progressive discipline and giving feedback.

“I think that our industry has not been viewed by itself as a truly professional industry. And I think we really need to work toward creating that professionalism,” says Ellen Yin, Co-Founder and Owner of High Street Hospitality Group (HSHG). Fork is one of five restaurants under HSHG.

Sometimes it can be as easy as suggesting books for staff to read. These are some recommendations that Ron Hsu and Kwini Reed give to their team:

  • Setting the Table by Danny Meyer
  • Letters to a Young Chef by Daniel Boulud
  • What the EOS by Gino Wickman and Tom Bouwer
  • Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia
  • Conscious Leadership by John Mackey, Steve Mcintosh, and Carter Phipps
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to pay

Restaurant wages have become a hotly-debated topic over the past few years, especially when it comes to tipping. In addition to tip creep, there is a magnifying glass on the subminimum wage and the tip credit. The practice of tipping has roots in slavery and workers from marginalized groups often earn less gratuities. Ellen Yin, Kelly Phillips, and Ron Hsu have all chosen to implement service charges at their restaurants.

“We are one of the few industries that still does tipping,” says Kelly Phillips. “It's not a reliable wage and you know, it's at the whims of your guests, at the whims of the weather. Other people just show up to work and they get paid. Doesn't matter if it's snowing outside.”

If you’re not ready to go all in on a service charge, consider alternative compensation or benefits. Kelly Phillips offers staff an additional incentive through online reviews. If the restaurant receives good reviews, staff are eligible for a monthly bonus. They may also receive additional bonuses when the restaurant earns great press or an award.

“I've never had a team that cared about reviews more than I did...when we're hiring someone new, they're like, ‘We need to train this person because we can't get any bad reviews tonight’. And so they really take that person under their wing and it encourages this teamwork environment that I've never had before,” says Kelly Phillips.

At Poppy & Rose, Kwini Reed makes vacation time mandatory to give staff the chance to rest and recharge. They also ensure staff only work five days a week and no more than six to eight hours per day. “How can you expect greatness out of your employee and you're working them to death, right?...Now people understand that it's okay. They're not scared to come and ask for time off.”

To reduce the wage gap between the kitchen and the dining room, Kwini Reed includes the back of the house in the tip pool. Ellen Yin includes the kitchen in the tip pool during holidays and events, with front of the house staff earning a higher hourly pay to make up for sharing tips. They also use a weighted tip pool where workers can earn more from the pool as they gain experience.

Create a culture of transparency and communication

Listening to your employee’s feedback can boost retention. Not only does it show you value their opinion, but it gives you useful insight into problems or solutions you might not have known about otherwise. You can also flat out ask employees what it would take to keep them around.

Ellen Yin explains, “what your employees want is really important. Although we have a process in place, sometimes there are things that develop out of hearing things from your staff”. One of those things is offering donations, a gift certificate, or financial support for causes that HSHG staff are interested in, like theater or a local fundraiser.

Kelly Phillips has also identified perks that staff want based on their feedback. Among them are flexible schedules, time off, and more work-life balance.

Having an open-door policy is easier said than done. You can tell staff that you’re available to chat but they’ll only take you up on it if a level of trust is established. Especially when restaurant staff may feel uncomfortable communicating openly with their bosses for fear of retaliation. To encourage transparency among your team, do it yourself first.

Ellen Yin and Kwini Reed practice transparency with their finances so that staff can see how decisions and actions impact different areas. At HSHG, it helped make the case for including the back of house in the tip pool on holidays, since the pay discrepancy was so large. And at Poppy and Rose, employees are acting more like owners.

“I have some employees coming in asking about the operations, like, ‘how does the business work?...How does the food get on the plate?...I'm gonna be a little bit more careful with that wine glass, cuz if we continue to break wine glasses...that's taking out of something else. That could be something beneficial for me, like healthcare or like incentives’,” says Kwini Reed.

The operators suggest trying to be humble and admitting when you don’t know all the answers. It’s important to remind staff that you might make mistakes and you’re still learning. Ron Hsu, Chef and Owner at Lazy Betty and Humble Pie says, “I always tell my guys like, ‘Hey, like if I'm messing something up, I'm not perfect. And I make a lot of decisions that have repercussions, like four levels down that I have no idea. Communicate and let me know.’ You don't wanna surround yourself with team members that are just ‘Yes, I'll do that’, and only tell you what you want to hear. You want people that will tell you their opinion...Iron sharpens iron, and if you're not upholding standards and practices to each other, then you're kind of cheating yourselves from being a good, well-oiled team.”

Use tech to save time

When you or your managers are bogged down with administrative tasks, it’s hard to make time for check-ins or coaching with staff. That’s why these operators all use technology to free up time to invest in their people. Tech tools can also help with team management, like hiring, training, scheduling, paying, and retaining. Here are five tools that these operators use:

1. 7shifts

The complete team management platform. Simple to set up, easy to use.

“7shifts which integrates with Toast, which is great. The tips allocation is fantastic.” -Kwini Reed

“With 7shifts, I'm actively managing my labor because my labor is very high...I could not do this labor model without something like that. Something that works so quickly.” -Kelly Phillips

2. Toast Handheld POS

Take contactless payments, streamline your ordering, and keep service hustling.

“I'm using Toast handheld POS because it really cuts time. We close checks out tableside, and we have a really small team because we have people on that really saves us a lot of time.” -Kelly Phillips

“We also use the Toast handheld POS at one of our restaurants. It's a casual quicker-service restaurant, which also helps with speed...we need to get people up and out. That has really helped and we are on all of the tablets.” -Kwini Reed

3. Craftable

Seamlessly connect purchasing, recipes, inventory, and sales with accounting to help operators drive profit.

“Craftable pulls in all of the analytics so you can readily see food cost, liquor cost, those types of things. You're able to see an overview of your financials, which is great.” -Kwini Reed

4. Microsoft Teams

Teams connects you with the people and information you need to more efficiently collaborate.

“Teams has been incredible for our actual management team. So we have all our shift reports that can be searchable...we can put financials, we can put our sales spreadsheets, word documents. Then we moved all our shared documents into SharePoint.” -Ellen Yin

7shifts’ platform also offers a team communication app with the ability to send messages, documents, images, and videos.

5. Instawork

Instawork connects businesses with go-to hourly workers near them.

“Instawork is also a cool little plug if you just need a body sometimes. I've used them sometimes, like when I just needed a busser real quick. We've also used it for a dishwasher cuz sometimes dishwashers don't show up, you know? Like a dishwasher, porter, host, busser, runner, those types of people, you can kind of band-aid if you need a couple of days or a week or so to try to get someone in to hire the right person.” -Kwini Reed

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it

All of these restaurateurs have seen improved teamwork, lower turnover, and more engaged employees with these initiatives. Staff are more personally invested in the business and the restaurant’s performance. That being said, they recognize the hardships that the restaurant industry is facing right now. The extraordinary support that eateries received at the start of the pandemic is dwindling. Diners now expect pre-pandemic prices and service, despite rising food costs and labor shortages.

The operators acknowledge that systemic change and government policies are needed to create a more sustainable environment for both restaurant owners and staff. But they also can’t wait around hoping it will happen. Ron Hsu believes that change starts small, and it starts now.

“This whole wage battle we were talking about, it's not gonna be figured out in a decade or two decades. It's gonna take one restaurant, one operator at a time, all moving in the same direction.”

Watch the full restaurant roundtable below:

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Samantha Fung
Samantha Fung

I've taken orders at a drive-thru and a golf course. I've quit a Thai restaurant after 3 shifts. I've done marketing at a Tex-Mex franchise. Now I create content about the restaurant industry.