Building A Charitable Restaurant Community

Restaurants see a return when they help staff in need

A debilitating illness, the unexpected death of a loved one and other life-altering events galvanize the restaurant community in a way that exemplifies hospitality. 

Staffers organize monetary collections, host or participate in fundraisers. They’ll deliver food to a co-worker’s home or take turns bringing meals to the hospital. 

Pitching in for co-workers has long been a hallmark of restaurant life. Some restaurateurs, however, find it pays to do more. Creating a caring culture, operators say, is smart business. A happy staff ultimately means happier customers.

“Investing in people pays off in loyalty and commitment,” says Dan Simons, a partner and concept developer at Founding Farmers Restaurant Group, a 500-person company that runs four farm-to-table restaurants in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.

“Once they get through the hard time, if you need them to pick up an extra shift or stay late, it’s the mentality of ‘you were here for me, now I’m here for you,’” he says.

Last year, two of Simons’ employees faced life-altering events: A server spent several months in the hospital after a serious car accident and a sous chef gave birth to her first child.  

Rainy Day Funders

Co-workers organized a monetary collection matched by the company. The restaurants sent food to the hospital for the server’s family and the hospital staff. Staffers organized a baby shower at the restaurant for the sous chef, complete with gifts of furniture and other nursery basics.

“In those situations, everyone knows what happened and we have a very caring staff that takes action,” Simons says.

If an employee needs a hand, we do our best to help out.

-Dan Simons of Founding Farmers Restaurant Group

More common, he says, are employees struggling in private. “This is where we want to help in a one-on-one way.”

Simons established a $5,000 annual discretionary fund when the group’s first restaurant opened in 2008. The fund aids at least 10 employees each year.    

“We’ve helped people pay rent and buy food; we’ve given gift cards,” Simons says “If an employee needs a hand, we do our best to help out.”

A Different Kind of Health 

Chad Mackay, president of El Gaucho Hospitality, which includes upscale steak and seafood restaurants in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, stepped in with financial education.

“Some staff did quite well; others were broke all the time, living paycheck to paycheck,” he says, noting that some of the financial difficulties came from debts such as repaying student loans. The tipping point came last year when a bartender gave notice to avoid having his wages garnished.  

Mackay purchased the Dave Ramsey CORE Financial Wellness video series for $10,000 and offered it free to his 375 employees. So far, 40 employees have participated and feedback has been positive.

Show, Don’t Tell

When a water pipe burst and temporarily closed The Modern last year, the Union Square Hospitality Group, which operates the restaurant, used the time to show employees their value to the business.

“We knew the restaurant would get taken care of, but our concern was how do we take care of the team,” says Dino Lavorini, director of operations for Art Food, which includes The Modern, located at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

USHG created a program to pay its 180 staffers 40 hours' worth of their average hourly wage for continuing education and volunteer work. Opportunities included tours of Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, a service seminar with CEO Danny Meyer, volunteer days at Edible Schoolyard NYC and training at sister restaurants, such as Gramercy Tavern (cocktail creation) and North End Grill (rooftop farming). About 90 percent of the staff participated.

“Our staff felt cared for,” Lavorini says. “The morale of our team really was at an all-time high when we reopened.”

Exceed Expectations

Tony Maws, owner of Craigie on Main and The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, both in the Boston area, decided to be proactive about the needs of his employees. That meant providing the best benefits he could afford and pushing for a better work-life balance. 

Maws hired a human resources director, who helped create a package that includes employer contributions to health insurance and paying more than half of dental and vision coverage.

“When we started, it was almost unheard of in this industry,” he says.  “Even if it’s the given, we want to be the place doing more.”  

Maws’ show-you-care benefits for his 100 part- and full-time employees also include free yoga classes, bike-share memberships and a new focus on staff education. Turnover, he says, is below average, and teamwork is high. 

“As an employer, I have to listen to what the market is about,” he says. “There are more great restaurants and more great restaurant cities. If people don’t want to work for you, there are plenty of other options.”  

Monica Ginsburg is a Chicago-based business writer.

The Fine Line Between Caring and Smothering 

Showing staff that you care can be tricky, especially when it involves personal matters. How to step in without crossing the line:

Determine interest

“I didn’t want to be parental to staff, but I did see a need,” says El Gaucho’s Chad Mackay, who purchased a financial management tool to help his staff with money issues. “There was a definite cry-out for help when I asked them about it.” 

Be consistent

“There’s no straight formula, but your efforts will be a disaster if you’re seen as being kind only to a certain group of people,” says Founding Farmers’ Dan Simons. “Take each situation on its merit and try to help in a reasonable manner.” 

Maintain some distance

“It’s not uncommon for us to help our employees get guidance on things like immigration matters and even pay for legal fees,”  Simons says. “It’s important to get good guidance, but I don’t want to be the source of that guidance. It’s pretty easy to get sucked in. I have to remind myself to balance my head and my heart.”

Communicate your values

Generosity is one of the values of the Boca Restaurant Group in Cincinnati, says John Giua, director of culture for the four-restaurant company. “We’re all about going the extra mile for our guests, and we treat our employees the same way,” he says. “We talk about our culture and share examples in the interview process, during training and at daily staff meetings. We’ve found that storytelling is very powerful.”

Walk the talk

It’s easy to say you care about your staff but “at the end of the day, it’s all about our actions,” says Craigie on Main’s Tony Maws. “We have two busy restaurants, and the work is mentally and physically draining. Anything we can do to help balance that is an important thing.”