Patti Simpson, chief people office of Union Square Hospitality Group, was chosen for the Power List by president Chip Wade because of how she harnessed “her knowledge of key HR functions alongside her innate empathy and compassion to exhibit incredible leadership in a tumultuous year.” Here’s what else Wade had to say:
As the chief people officer, Patti is primarily responsible for the well-being of our employees. In order to be effective in this role, of course there is a need for deep HR professional knowledge, and Patti joined USHG in December 2019 with ample experience — she has led HR operations for various domestic and international foodservice brands such as TGI Fridays, Ignite Restaurant Group (Joe’s Crab Shack, Brick House Tavern + Tap), Au Bon Pain, and most recently Ruby Tuesday.
However, equally if not more important to success at USGH is understanding our people-first culture. Our guiding principle of Enlightened Hospitality is a virtuous cycle that begins with our valued team members. We’ve observed how crucially important it is to put hospitality to work, first for the people who work for us, and subsequently for all stakeholders in a virtuous cycle — in successive order, our guests, community, suppliers, and investors.
Patti has been able to harness both her knowledge of key HR functions alongside her innate empathy and compassion to exhibit incredible leadership in a tumultuous year as we navigated the insurmountable task of significantly downsizing a company during a state-wide shutdown; at one point we went from over 3000 employees to fewer than 80. Patti worked furiously to provide our people all the necessary support. She collaborated with our finance team to extend benefits and she built an intra-web where she consolidated resources such as unemployment benefits, job listings, community resources, and most impressively, USHG HUGS, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) fund we created in March to support USHG team members facing unexpected and exceptional financial needs. To date we have awarded over $2 million. As a leading member of our HUGS board Patti has been crucial to the distribution process.
Restaurant Hospitality talked with Patti Simpson about navigating the challenges of 2020 and building a diverse, people-first company culture. Here’s what she had to say:
What are you most proud of in terms of company leadership and community impact as you look back at the challenges of 2020?
On March 13, 2020, we were faced with difficult decisions for our teams in N.Y. and D.C. Our leadership team was united and resolute on the first filter with which we made every difficult decision; put our people first. Keeping our teams safe and healthy led to our decision to preemptively close all of our restaurants. We recognized the financial hardship for so many and immediately got to work to create a 501c3 employee relief fund that we called HUGS. To date, we have raised and granted nearly $2 million dollars to our team members. I am proud of the work that we did as an organization and look forward to keeping our HUGS fund operating and supporting our community permanently.
How are you or your company fostering diverse and inclusive future leaders of foodservice?
In 2020, the fight for social justice became a battle cry across the world. Not unlike many organizations, we struggled early on to find our voice. To that end, we reached out for expert help to support our pivot from being a non-racist company to becoming an organization committed to anti-racism. We have committed to 60% of our team members to be people of color and a 50/50 male-to-female ratio. Our Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging DIBS platform continues to evolve and diversity in hiring and education for all are critical components.
As you look to the future of foodservice, what excites you?
While 2020 has presented our industry with many challenges, it has also provided us the opportunity to re-imagine our future. While in the moment, the constant change required this year could feel at times overwhelming, the uprooting of an entire industry has given way to new ideas for a post-pandemic world. Throughout this year we have been forced to find ways to do business with less. We've had fewer employees, fewer guests, and far less cash. Deploying a streamlined approach has led us to ask the question, “What is essential to providing hospitality to our people and guests?” The answer has led us to change our employee value proposition at all levels. One example that I’m particularly excited about is that we have increased and up-leveled technology usage whenever possible to reduce the administrative burden on our operators. As we rebuild, we are actively seeking those in the industry who may be looking for a change in company due to the pandemic. I really look forward to the experiences that we are able to create in 2021 and beyond.