There are so many difficult aspects of running a restaurant business, and not the least of them is recruiting, training and retaining employees. This vital part of the business was discussed during an American Express Trade program at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Sharing their approach to employee relations was Gretchen Selfridge, who oversees all employees for the 1,200-plus-unit Chipotle Mexican Grill; Bobby Stuckey, co-owner and master sommelier for Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, CO; Rick Bayless, chef/owner of Frontera Grill, Topolabampo and Xoco in Chicago; and Danny Meyer, c.e.o. of Union Square Hospitality Group, which operates several of New York City's best restaurants, including Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern.
What sorts of things are you doing to train and keep employees?
Every day we have 15 minutes of serious training before pre-shift. The short meeting can be on anything, from a cooking demo to someone's love of beer. We do it because it gives a depth of knowledge to the staff and it keeps them fresh.
Every year we also have a staff trip to some part of Mexico for four days. It's our upper management team of about 35 people and we delve into a specific cuisine with the intention of coming back and developing new menu items. On top of that, we also give dining-out allowances to expose our staffs to other restaurants and what they do. From those experiences they come back and report what they found.
Meyer: We see ourselves as a place for career builders. The people we hired first have to want to make people happy. Our favorite employees are those who worked with us and left to go elsewhere and then come back to work for us because they appreciate what we do here.
Our hiring of people centers around what we call enlightened hospitality, which means giving people the tools they need to do the job successfully. It's my job to hire the best people possible and then make sure that they hold everyone below them to the highest standards possible.
Stuckey: When I had plans to open Frasca in Boulder, everyone told me that I was crazy because finding talent in a college town would be impossible. But I worked at the Little Nell [in Aspen] in 1994, and it performed at the highest levels, even though it was operating in a ski town where talent is often hard to find. And then I considered Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Yountville, [Calif.]. There wasn't a deep labor pool in Yountville either, but he manages to operate on a high level. So it can be done.
In our case, we do a 45-minute pre-service meeting every day. But since I'm a sommelier, we often get people working here who hope to do the same some day. So I'll often set aside two hours to do wine tastings with an employee. The cost of doing this over a year can add up to $5,000, but we do it because it adds a broader knowledge of wine for those who serve wine and hope to do more someday.
Incentives help employees, restaurants succeed
We have more than 35,000 employees and we found six years ago that 20 percent of our managers were coming from within. That means 80 percent of them we were hiring from the outside. So we created what we call a crew ladder, where anyone in the company could rise up from a crew level to become a general manager. Now, 97 percent of our general managers come from within the company.
We believe that no experience is often the best when hiring someone. You can teach someone to roll a burrito, but there are 13 characteristics that you can't teach, like friendliness and a willingness to serve others. People with these characteristics are the ones we want to hire.
Bayless: We like to think of our company as an innovative machine. We want our people to take risks because we don't want them to become stagnant. The risk-taking often leads to tremendous success, but sometime not. But a failure can be changed tomorrow, so it's worth taking chances.
It's also important to give your employees incentive. In our restaurants, they're slower in the winter than the summer. During the summer months when things get busy, they share in the extra revenue.
Meyer: There's always been two camps: those who believe in pure capitalism and those who say it's not about making money, but rather about doing what's right. But over the years there's been a convergence where you use capitalism as a model, but run the company in a way where your people believe in what you're doing and reward them. For example, at Shake Shack, we give our staff 1 percent of sales each day. A happier staff leads to happier guests and more profit.
Selfridge: Once people rise through the ranks of our company and reach the top in their unit, they share in the profits of the store and can make even more mentoring other new stores. We open 160-180 new stores a year.
Meyer: A key is to use your people to make things better. For example, we were not happy with our coffee program in our restaurants. So we created a barista Olympics, where the top barista from each restaurant competed against each other. This friendly competition led to better coffee in our restaurants. Now we're using that same model to target other areas of the company that need improving.