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Healthier Workers, Happier Workplace

Healthier Workers, Happier Workplace

How operators are stepping up employee programs that foster well-being, inclusiveness and community spirit to make better work environments for everyone

Restaurant work isn’t for the faint of heart. Long hours, antagonistic work environments and a permeating culture of substance abuse has long riddled the industry. From larger companies to small mom-and-pops, operators are building employee relations that foster an environment of inclusivity, well-being and support.

Cristiana Gillies, owner of McGregor Café in Fort Myers, Fla., has been focusing on employee fulfillment since taking over her father’s restaurant in 2018.

“As a small, family-owned business, we are faced with the challenges of coming up with financially feasible, but relevant, staff perks,” she says. “We are always actively working to conceive and increase our incentives bit by bit.”

Such initiatives include holiday gifts for employees, free uniforms and wholesale pricing for restaurant goods—an opportunity that helps take the bite out of cost-of-living expenses. She’s also looking to foster employee engagement through volunteer days at local food pantries, which also addresses another restaurant issue: food waste.

“We see a lot of food waste in our business and giving some of our time and means to those who experience food insecurity gives perspective on what we take for granted,” Gillies says. “Through volunteerism, we hope to inspire our team to give back in other aspects of their personal lives as well. Volunteering is well documented as a benefit to both employers and employees in terms of decreased turnover and increased engagement—in addition to overall emotional and mental well-being.”

Lee Maen, partner and founder of Los Angeles-based Innovative Dining Group, also sees the benefit of folding community activity into the company’s overall employee program. While a full curriculum of initiatives includes educational and experiential retreats and gym memberships at Equinox, taking his employees to cook for homeless youth at West Hollywood’s LGBT Center had a major impact. “People were really excited, so we’re looking at expanding throughout the company, giving people an opportunity to give back with the whole team,” he says.

Sometimes the helping hands have helped Innovative Dining Group’s employees directly as well. Though not part of any official program, Maen says that employees suffering from substance abuse have found support from the company.

“Growing up in this industry, especially in Los Angeles, we definitely have first-hand knowledge of the issues with addiction and abuse,” he says. In those cases, management has assisted those receptive employees to get the treatment they need. “We’re here to help them and guide them, and their position is held for them when they return.”

One tool to help restaurants tackle destructive behavior is Unilevel Food Solution’s #FairKitchens movement, which seeks to build a brighter future for the industry. Its Fair Kitchens code suggests that to succeed, the industry needs to work as a unified team.

Says marketing manager Katie Dunnigan, “What makes a kitchen ‘fair’ will be different for every restaurant. We recommend that each start with ‘An Hour for Us’ session, an open discussion to talk through the Fair Kitchens code and how this gets put into practice.”

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