Although salary stands supreme as the most important part of the compensation package, other benefits factor in as employees decide where to hang their workday hats. Health insurance and paid vacation are highly desired while some workers continue to look for — and get — more.
In the go-go era of the restaurant industry, when the economy hummed and big growth was practically a given, job perks were given freely. A company-leased BMW for unit managers? Check. Fully covered gym memberships? Absolutely. Signing bonuses? But of course.
“You won’t see many cars anymore. Those days are definitely over,” insists Geordy Murphy, founder of Cypress Hospitality, a Jacksonville, Florida-based consulting and executive placement firm.
Indeed, extravagant gestures to lure and retain a first-rate workforce were a sign of the times: strategies cooked up to be competitive amid low unemployment and red-hot growth in the 90s. Today’s playing field has changed, however, and with more people looking for work and growth rates clipped to a more moderate pace, excessive packages have been stripped out for all but the highest C–level positions. For the rest, benefits packages are a grab bag of sorts, wildly disparate among companies, segments and job titles. And that’s if they even exist at all. Across the industry, many part-time, entry-level staffers don’t have wide access to company-supported benefits.
But change may be afoot. In June, Chipotle announced plans to significantly amp its benefits for its workers, adding paid sick time and vacation pay at all levels and making tuition reimbursement available. In doing so, it stirred conversation around the topic both at large chains and independent restaurants.
Picking up the tuition tab has Chipotle following in Starbucks’ footsteps; the Seattle-based coffee giant announced a similar program in 2014, aiming to be more competitive and to help provide career paths for its workers, rather than just a paycheck. Along with its tuition program, it also offers other benefits including stock options and free coffee.
“Today, benefits packages are all over the map,” says Murphy. “Companies like Starbucks and Chipotle are enhancing their offerings in order to attract people who will stay longer. How else will they convince someone to wait around to be named a unit manager when thousands of other workers at the company have the same dream? It helps them, but there are other ways that may be more suited to a company’s needs.”
Murphy, a longtime industry veteran who started working in chain restaurants before transitioning to executive search, believes that today’s workers are more informed and keen on landing positions that will offer career nourishment and growth but not necessarily at the expense of benefits. “More so than six or seven years ago, today’s job candidates ask a lot of questions — not just about the job, but what comes with it. That’s especially true for someone who has worked in the industry for a while. They’re older, maybe starting to have health issues or there’s a pregnancy in the family,” he says. “They come in knowing what to ask about.”
Think creatively. Benefits exist beyond health insurance,” suggests Ken Spahn, president of Restaurant Placement Group, a Boca Raton, Florida-based recruiting and placement firm. Salary is the main draw, but today’s workers are drawn to other job benefits as well. “Especially for someone who is weighing two or three job options, the perks can make the difference.
Large chain restaurant groups are more likely than independents to have the structure and resources to cobble together enticing benefits packages. But Murphy believes that independent restaurants often attract employees due to other, less tangible offerings. “Some people are more concerned about what they’ll learn and where they’ll go next. This is especially true for workers on the culinary side,” he says.
When Robert Merrifield opened Polo Grill in 1983, he was keenly aware of the industry’s rampant turnover. He also knew that without incentives, most of his kitchen staff would be short-lived at best. “When I worked in Los Angeles, I had one foot in the door and the other out,” he says, “Here, I knew we had to do things differently. Somehow, I had to figure out a way to keep them in our market and a competitive salary along with benefits would be the start.”
Along the way, as the success of the fine-dining restaurant has grown, so have the benefits he extends to workers. “From the beginning, I noticed that during the holiday season, the workload for our culinary team far exceeded that of other times of the year. It did for the service staff, too, but they benefitted from the increased business through tips and that just wasn’t true for the back of the house.”
He instituted a program in which front-of-the-house team members voluntarily contributed any amount they wanted for the culinary team; he then matched it. The total take was divided among the kitchen workers. “It was great for morale and we’ve done it ever since.”
Merrifield also offers health insurance and, in a creative alliance with area dentists, offers dental care for all workers. “We trade full service at the restaurant for full service at their dental offices,” he explains.
In keeping with Polo Grill’s upscale look and feel, service staff members are required to wear suits in the dining room. A stipend helps with the purchase while a monthly allowance helps to ease the dry-cleaning tab.
“You have to keep people happy to keep them around and that requires conversation around what is right for them,” Merrifield says. “You give to your people, work experience and otherwise, and let them have freedom to do their thing. That has worked well for us.”
Not all benefits are tangible. Cypress’s Murphy firmly believes that some people are drawn to what he describes as the more creative, artistic environment of independent operations. “A certain type of person wants to be in an environment that’s constantly changing, where they think they’ll be on the cutting edge. For them, it’s a soft benefit, in some ways as important as more formal packages,” he explains.
Hala Habal, vice president of communications for the 350-unit, Dallas-based sandwich chain Which Wich, might be described as hard evidence that larger organizations can also offer a goldmine of intangibles. “I am a direct beneficiary of soft benefits,” she says.
When she was approached by company founder Jeff Sinelli to join the company five years ago, she initially demurred. “I said to Jeff, ‘I love you and I love the brand but I had had five-year old twins and don’t want to drop them at the bus in the morning and then not see them until I come home at the end of a long day.’”
She told him that the ideal opportunity for her had to have built-in flexibility that allowed her to balance home and work lives; he had a simple answer. “You don’t need to be a butt in a seat to get the job done,” she recalls him as saying. “I almost passed out. He is very forward thinking,” Habal notes.
“Very rigid and strict policies make it pretty likely you’ll lose a lot of great people,” Habal says. She says that with a phone and an Internet connection, “I could do my job from the moon.”
What do Sinelli and the organization get from offering such flexibility? “I will tell anyone who will listen that it has bought my loyalty and passion forever. There’s nothing I would not do for Jeff,” she says. “Things sometimes get rocky — they do in any situation — but the bigger picture is always there: that this is someone who is invested in me. He’s not an overlord. Need me to do something on a weekend or take a call on vacation? That is the least I can do for him.”
Which Wich is a fairly young brand, founded 13 years ago. Habal says that at the start, benefits were slim but they have been layered on over time. “Of course we have health insurance and a 401K plan. But Jeff prides himself on being forward thinking and it is that aspect that makes it such a satisfying place to work. Every day, I get to see my handprint on the organization. That beats being a cog on a wheel,” Habal notes, adding that she believes such environments are increasingly important to Millennials. “It’s not just a few who have bubbled up to the top who have their voices heard. We all have a part in the company and that matters.”
The company has what it calls the Cinco Club, populated by corporate-office employees who have worked there for five years. At that milestone, they get a few more perks such as additional vacation time and valet parking. They also have a party thrown for them at the venue of their choice. “Some have picked pick a nice club and others have gone to Medieval Times,” Habal says. “The point is, you get your party, whatever you want it to be.” At the 10-year mark, Sinelli encourages them to take off four consecutive weeks and do something to “feed their soul.”
As a franchise organization, Habal says that conveying the same values to franchise partners is essential. “We try to impart to the nth degree that the folks who work for them are so important to success. If they’re treated well, they’ll treat guests well and we all know how that positively impacts the bottom line. For an employer, it really all boils down to being a decent human being. And really, why would you do it any other way?”