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Staffing Up

Staffing Up

When you find good employees, you want to hold onto them. Here's how to do it.

As a restaurant owner or manager, do you ever find yourself wondering why good talent is hard to find? Hiring great staff that you could groom and grow — whether in the kitchen, behind the bar or on the floor — seemed much easier.

There's no question with the rise in popularity of food culture, staffing within the restaurant industry is in a constant state of flux. We're not talking about seasonal or hourly staff, which has always been a segment that has moved around. But finding and keeping good managers, chefs and operational staff has also proven difficult. People want to find the next great thing or, in the case of some cooks, to build their brand and become the next celeb chef. So how do you first find and then keep good people? First off, treat them well.

"There has to be an environment where people are happy and they feel respected and appreciated," said Rob Katz, co-founder of Chicago's Boka Restaurant Group, which owns a dozen restaurants, including Girl & The Goat and Momotaro, and employs around 1,200 people. "We're in a very competitive landscape. People are scrambling to incentivize people and pay more. At the end of the day, it's how you treat your staff and fellow employees. You have to treat them with respect. It has to be a learning environment that can be fun. We've always tried to do that."

Creating pleasant spaces where people want to work is key. Restaurants are tense environments to begin with so if you can make work joyful, you'll have a better time keeping people around. But first you have to get them in the door. Sure, if you have a dozen restaurants and a good reputation in the business, as the Boka Group does, people will flock to you. But if you have a single place or are a newer venture, how do you recruit good people?

"Going back to 2003, no one knew who we were and we wouldn't attract good people," said Kevin Boehm, Katz's partner. "We wanted people to know we're good mentors and teachers. We could teach them about wine and food. We found some amazing gems who maybe didn't have great experience."

Finding those gems came from looking at the people, not their resumes. Someone may not have blue chip experience, but they have a willingness to learn, a drive to succeed and a great attitude to be part of a bigger team. Case in point: Katz and Boehm's first-ever hire is now a partner and the company's vice president.

"Some of the best people we work with had terrible resumes," said Max Goldberg who, along with his brother Benjamin, own Nashville's Strategic Hospitality, which owns and operates nine bars and restaurants, including the chef-driven Catbird Seat and artistic-inspired cocktail haunt Bastion. "I would guide people to look at personalities way more than experience."

Being able to teach and groom people you gel with can sometimes work out better than hiring the person with a great resume, but who can't get along with anyone. Having one bad apple can spoil the proverbial bunch, otherwise known as your restaurant. That said, no matter what position they work, treat everyone with respect and show them they matter. "Showing equal appreciation of every chain of that restaurant is important from a culture standpoint," Boehm added.

"The restaurant business is a full-contact sport and a race without a finish line"

Beyond education and treating people well, you can incentivize them. Offer top-notch chefs an equity stake or profit sharing. Consider giving staff nice discounts to dine at your restaurants when they're not working. Hold monthly or quarterly events like bowling nights, contests for prizes or parties to show people you appreciate how hard they work.

Ultimately, people will respect you and want to work at your restaurant. If you own a few places, staff is more likely to want to grow with you so identify good talent early, help them mature professionally and promote from within. "It's fun watching people who start as a dishwasher, work their way up to line cook and eventually become a GM," Goldberg said. "One person is leaving to open his own place. I'm so proud of him. That's the dream."

Finally, make sure you have a presence. No one likes a fly-by-night boss and when you're around a lot, showing your staff you're working as hard as they are to improve the business, it shows you're a team player.

"The restaurant business is a full-contact sport and a race without a finish line," Goldberg added. "It's important to be present, aware and supportive of your staff. And that translates."


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