You’ve heard it a million times a million ways.
The customer is always right.
The customer comes first.
It’s all about the customer.
Think again. Restaurateurs across the country are beginning to recognize that putting your employees first is the true power that drives hospitality.
Sounds backwards, right?
But restaurant owners far and wide are seeing results for their customers by focusing their business decisions around employee happiness. By hiring, training, and treating their employees right — in ways ranging from simple recognition to accelerated compensation and ownership shares — restaurants are seeing enhanced efficiency and a “trickle-down” effect of customer satisfaction.
“By putting your employees first, you have happier employees, which then lead to a higher hospitality quotient,” according to Danny Meyer, world renown restaurateur, author, and owner of the Union Square Hospitality Group. “A higher hospitality quotient leads to happy customers, which benefits all the stakeholders.”
Meyer has put this philosophy into practice over years of building Union Square’s brand, launching such restaurants as Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, and of course, his fast casual chain Shake Shack.
“When you really take a perspective that the customer comes second, which is counterintuitive in a society that always puts the customer first, you also end up attracting stronger employees over time,” Meyer concluded. “[It] increases the odds that your technical and your emotional and hospitality performance are going to be competitive.”
There is an authenticity to service provided by employees who genuinely love their jobs and are focused on paying forward the hospitality they’ve received from their managers and restaurant owners.
It’s for precisely this reason that Sonny Mayugba established this core set of values right out of the box when he opened Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar in Sacramento, California, in early 2012. As he shared in a session entitled, “View from the Top: Trade Secrets for Success” at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, Mayugba consciously sets the priorities for his brand in this order:
It’s paid off for Red Rabbit. Two-thirds of its staff have been with the restaurant since 2012, an absolutely astounding track record for retention in an industry that boasts a 66.3 percent annual turnover rate.
And that consistency in staffing has not only led to a stronger company culture, but more satisfied customers as well, as the restaurant has only continued to grow in profit and reputation over the past four years.
So, how can you develop the kind of positive results Meyer and Mayugba describe for your business? It’s not just about doing one thing better or implementing a new program. Centering your restaurant’s success on putting your employees’ needs first requires a complete culture shift, and making sure that you reinforce that point of view every day in every way.
And you do that by integrating the concept directly into four core areas of your business: hiring, customer service, training opportunities, and financial reporting.
Most employers can tell you that it’s preferable to find someone with the right experience over a new employee you’d need to spend additional resources on to train. But the reality is, the most important factors to being the best at your job aren’t the ones commonly listed on your resume.
For as many hours as it may take to train a new server or line cook, there are certain qualities you can never teach. And those are the ones Danny Meyer looks for in his hires. Nicknamed the “Hospitality Quotient,” these six traits are actively pursued in every employee Union Square Hospitality Group interviews.
Seeing these traits in new hires, he’s found, correlates strongly with the ability to provide true hospitality:
- Personal warmth and an optimistic worldview
- Intelligence that embraces curiosity
- Work ethic
- Empathy and appreciation for others’ differences
- Integrity that centers honesty and good judgment
Making sure you get the right person for the job doesn’t stop at a quick handshake. Every new hire at Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar goes through a rigorous three-step interview process, and then a subsequent four to five days of full-time training, before ever working alone out on the floor. This ensures every employee not only knows the lay of the land, but also can fully understand the value they bring to the organization.
Refocus attention on making people happy.
In an industry focused on providing the highest quality meal possible, it’s not surprising that food is often considered the number one driver of consumer decision-making — and therefore a restaurateur’s first priority. But the most successful restaurants know this secret: it’s not all about the food.
Encouraging everyone on your staff to divide their focus equally on food, drink, ambiance, and service creates a different mentality, according to Sonny Mayugba. Suddenly, it’s not just the host who’s responsible for the lighting and the music, or the line cook for getting table 14’s order correct. It’s up to everyone down the line to collaboratively deliver hospitality to customers, and to boost each other up in the process.
Restaurants like Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago, Illinois, embrace this mentality so thoroughly in their daily routine that its owners encourage the staff to look at the idea of the “customer” holistically.
Co-owners Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski encourage their team to look at co-workers, vendors, and members of community all as customers of the brand that deserve exceptional service, even from each other. It creates a culture of generosity and support that leads to employees who represent the company well to everyone they greet — and to co-workers who simply like working together.
Manage by lifting people up.
In creating an environment where your employees take care of each other, as well as your customers, it’s also important that managers care sincerely for their staff, and invest in their development as well. The idea of generosity as a guiding light for business isn’t just about providing fair wages, but involves helping your employees grow from stewardship and training.
Adam Eskin, proprietor of 11 Dig Inn restaurants in New York City, starts at the very beginning by offering an in-house culinary school to his employees. No matter what skills someone walks through the doors with, he feels confident in training them successfully.
Eskin also maintains relationships with several fine dining restaurants in New York, and sponsors chefs to go intern for a night or two in their kitchens — on 11 Dig Inn’s dime. The result? Employees deeply grateful for the opportunities their employer can provide.
And part of investing in your employees’ well-being is also accepting when it may be time for them to move on.
“Increasingly, I found [that] to get the best cooks, the best wine captains, the best maître d’, it was important to have for them a place to grow,” said Danny Meyer, who in 2011, transferred his restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, to its chef and manager because they were ready to go out on their own. It’s a bold move, certainly, but one that exemplifies Meyer’s employee-first mentality at its most generous.
Share your top line success.
It should go without saying that your employees want to be paid a competitive wage for their hard work and commitment — and money is certainly one significant meter of value in our industry. But transparency goes a long way as well in creating a culture that puts employees first. Many restaurants are choosing an open book method of financial reporting that not only includes employees in profit sharing, but educates them along the way in the state of business.
Honey Butter Fried Chicken has integrated open book-style management into their business structure from the very beginning, five years ago, and what it’s done is produce a culture of trust between employer and employee.
Everyone on staff can see revenue, COGS, bottom line profits, and debt — everything except individual salary rates. Cikowski and Kulp hold weekly paid staff meetings to review details and engage the entire staff, but the details are always on view in the employee-only area of the restaurant.
Being able to show your employees that every benefit has a cost associated, and how business is forecasted for any given week, gives everyone extra incentive to build the company up. And when forecasted profit isn’t met, that gives you an opportunity to solicit advice from the bottom up on how to turn it around the next week.
“We had a fry cook come up with a whole new way of rotating fryer oil that saved us $500 a week,” Kulp shared. “It was something that no one could have come up with had they not been familiar with our expenses, but because he was, he was motivated to come up with a solution and implement it.”
Want to get your restaurant started on developing a culture that puts employees first? Check out our free eBook on Restaurant Management for Success: