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Rewards and Recognition

Rewards and Recognition

How to Ensure Your Employees Get Their Just Desserts

A good man or woman is hard to find, and in the restaurant business, even harder to keep. A shrinking labor pool combined with hiring back to pre-recession levels means a buyer’s market for employees, and much extra attention lavished on recruiting, training and retention. Restaurant Inc. checked in with the pros to uncover the best R&R programs (rewards and recognition) for today’s most valuable players.

Phone it in

Millennials and younger employees “use their phones
for everything except phone calls and savvy operators
are leveraging this to connect with them,” says Joni Thomas Doolin, Founder & CEO of TDn2K.com, a leading software provider for the foodservice industry. “Applebee’s has run a very savvy social media campaign with employees, giving them the chance to post selfies and new ideas, and be recognized locally and nationally. Chili’s created a special hashtag to recognize employees all day long on Twitter and Facebook.”

At Cooper’s Hawk, an upscale casual eatery and winery with multiple locations in Chicago’s suburbs, a self-service portal allows for instant peer-to-peer recognition. “Any team member can send an associate a badge to recognize great work, and it will show up on the news feed for that location so everyone can see it,” reports Kristen Zagozdon, vice president of Human Resources.

Go Top Down

“One of White Castle’s most innovative programs involved corporate executives visiting every single restaurant in the system and inviting celebrities or local politicians to come and work with them,” says Doolin. “Employees met and posed for pictures with everyone; they created a really memorable event.”

At Bluegrass, a popular suburban hotspot, longtime hospitality leader and owner Jim Lederer sits down with each member of his 25-person team regularly, and recognizes great performers daily at shift meetings. Cooper’s Hawk CEO Tim McEnery regularly holds focus group with line cooks, servers, hosts and kitchen managers to find out what’s working well and what isn’t.


Bring them on. While a tidy wad of cash is always appreciated for stellar performance, material rewards are also in the game, such as fleece hoodies, high-tech quarter zip sweatshirts, logoed sports team t-shirts, bottles of wine. “Go bigger by partnering with your vendors to send star employees on vacation or to culinary school for advanced training,” advises Ed Doyle, 30-year veteran of the restaurant industry, now president of RealFood Consulting. “Remember, people don’t leave just because of a paycheck, but because they don’t feel the company has invested in them, or that there’s opportunity for advancement.”

While cash is always appreciated for stellar performance, material rewards are also in the game.

Connect to the Core

“No matter what your reward is, from monetary bonuses to ‘employee of the month’ recognition, it must connect to your restaurant’s core values and vision or it’s not sustainable,” says Debi Benedetti, CEO, Beyond the Possible, a leading provider of executive services to the hospitality industry. “In foodservice, notorious for high turnover, it’s critical to develop the loyalty that makes people want to stay by building an emotional connection ... think Starbucks, with its emphasis on inspiring and nurturing the human spirit.”

Cooper’s Hawk built its vision of creating community around values that include: ‘we care about people, we are committed to being the best, we are different and innovative, we have fun and celebrate.’ For instance, teamwork is encouraged with a creative cash incentive program. At the center is the waiter, needing to share the benefits of the restaurant’s wine club with guests, a coach who has already excelled at this, and cheerleaders from the kitchen team who provide reinforcement and spirit, all of whom share in the reward.

You’ll find a big payoff on initiatives that take time and ingenuity, but not money.

Drinking games keep it fun at Bluegrass, where Lederer asks staff to sample a glass of wine and match it up to the respective bottle. “It heightens awareness of the varietal differences in an intriguing way,” he says, “because it’s not always that easy to do.” Even better, he throws in a small cash incentive for the most discerning sippers.

Love Doesn’t Have To Cost a Thing

You’ll find a big payoff on initiatives that take time and ingenuity, but not money. Goofy contests abound at Cooper’s Hawk, with general managers offering to wash the staff’s cars or do 100 pushups when their goals are achieved. Doyle has seen training swaps work well, with restaurants switching staffs for a day. “That’s exciting when you’re a young cook, and changes it up; otherwise it becomes like the movie Groundhog’s Day!” he laughs. “Quality of life is very important to Millennial employees; make flex hours something that can be earned by top performers.” Doolin agrees: “We’re moving out of the ‘me generation’ to the ‘we generation’ who are motivated by words like ‘authentic, purpose and love.’ It’s a dramatic societal shift in terms of employee values, and this new proposition will endure for at least another 25 years.”

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