The foundation of great restaurant service begins with great restaurant staff. Surprisingly, this concept is lost on many owners and managers, yet the solution really is simple.
As the restaurant business is transient by nature, high turnover is a fact of life. I’ve worked with lots of restaurants over the years that struggle to find and keep good help and this negatively impacts the guest experience. When I started my first restaurant the challenge was much the same—that is, until I discovered the magic of building my “dream team.”
It wasn’t easy at first. Lots of people came and went in the beginning and this caused poor morale from those who had to pick up the slack and lost productivity, not to mention time and money to retrain. In this business of 1,000 details—inventory, ordering, preparation, costs, maintenance, etc.—many owners and managers get caught up in the daily fires and fail to notice the great things our people do day after day. When staff feel like they are just cogs in the wheel and expendable, they perform as if it doesn’t matter, collect a paycheck and then quickly move on to where the grass seems greener.
The key to impactful and lasting change was treating staff like family, recognizing them for their achievements (big and small), lots of thank yous and rewards. It wasn’t about the money. Sure, everyone wants to make more money, but more money doesn’t always equate to better performance or longevity.
Leading by example was a key element of this cultural shift. No one, including myself, was ever too important to bus a table, answer the phone, mop a floor or make a burger. This was our company culture. My people saw that I was right in there with them making things happen for many years, even after we had managers. We all did whatever it took to deliver great dining experiences to our guests and worked together as a team.
I would constantly be on the floor or in the kitchen making friends with customers and staff. In turn, I trained my staff to treat every customer like they were our “only” customer. In my rounds during a typical shift, I would notice staff doing things right and caring about their work. These employees were thanked on the spot with a handshake and sincere “Thank you for working with us, I really appreciate your being here!” I would get to know my staff personally and take a few minutes just to chat alongside them as they worked.
We provided rewards, too. I would randomly pass out gift cards to local businesses or t-shirts and hats from suppliers. Once a week two standouts were recognized and rewarded in front of the team before the restaurant opened for the night. I talked about how they made a difference for either a guest or a fellow team member, presented them with their reward and added their name to a “Make a Difference” sign in our staff area.
Before you know it, great staff recommended new players to our team and pretty soon after, those who didn’t fit were voted off the island by the family. Now we had only “A” players, delivering fun, value and care to every customer and every plate. You can see how each person’s unique personality, approach to their job and relationship with other team members raised the tide in our restaurant. We always promoted from within, and it was not uncommon for dishwashers to become competent line cooks and ultimately kitchen managers. Hosts became dining room managers and even general manager. In a seasonal restaurant open just four months a year, I had a 90 percent retention rate, and many people were with me for 10, 15 and even 18 years, returning again and again each season.
As much as anything in our restaurant, I believe this philosophy built our business and brand.
In this highly competitive and most challenging of all businesses, restaurants need to be resourceful and use every advantage. In my long experience, nothing was more powerful, nor more fundamental to our success, than recognizing, rewarding and appreciating each and every team member for their important role in the guest experience.