Survival lies in nurturing

It’s cool now to care. The thin veil between staff treatment and customer pathos is coming undone. People are paying attention to where they spend their money and who profits. “Customers are much more aware of how staff is interacting with each other and with management,” says Aldo Zaninotto, owner of Chicago’s Osteria Langhe and Testaccio. “It’s making an impact on their interactions with staff as well.”

The most progressive restaurateurs already value a positive and nurturing company culture, but the catastrophic exit of hospitality workers caused by the pandemic is forcing the industry as a whole to reevaluate the importance of the health and happiness of staff everywhere. It’s not enough for management to appropriately handle surly guests. What can be done?

A workplace that cares about its people is especially important now, says Bella Greco, a college student who worked as a host at Bar Mezzana in Boston until a study abroad program started recently (see related story here).

“It felt like a family,” she says. “For example, on Thanksgiving, anybody who wanted to was welcome to get together for a big group dinner. Every time there was an event, not only did they want me to participate – I wanted to be there.”

Checking in with members of your team on a personal level should be normal for the functioning of any restaurant. “We have an open line of communication with all staff – top to bottom,” says Alexis Percival, managing partner of Kindred in New York City. “Anyone can text or email the four managing partners at any time or talk to their direct managers. It’s an extremely close-knit team.”

At Osteria Langhe and Testaccio, all staffers have been included in the decision-making processes, says Zaninotto. “They’re the backbone of the restaurant(s), and we want to make sure they know we’re listening and prioritizing them. We love when our team has a sense of ownership over the restaurant.”


Practicing good communication and executing it effectively should be the norm. Kindred distributes nightly staff emails as a way to easily share important information and to allow a comfortable, in-the-moment space for questions and concerns among the team. “We believe in transparency and staff retention,” she says. “Trust is currency. On a micro level, we reach out to individuals and ask after their health (issue) if we are aware of sickness or other personal challenges.”

The importance of cross-training the team, emphasizing the importance of being able to hop into any position at random, cannot be overstated. While this may seem to benefit the restaurant, a staff that operates as a team will see how it helps everyone. “Last minute things can always happen, and many of our team members have families, second jobs or other responsibilities outside of work.”

Buy-in, working for the same goals is also essential. Many roads lead to a positive environment, but a staff-wide tip distribution weighs heavily because it benefits everyone. By utilizing a “pooled-house” approach to staff tipping, a culture of teamwork, friendship and good communication became instilled among everyone in the workplace, Greco says.

Meaningful perks matter most. Kindred offers gratis “field trip” meals to visit other comparable businesses, cited as “a treat and a source of inspiration.” Wine and beverage courses are also taught a couple times a month to engage the staff in a pedagogical environment, one that supports the growth and learning of every member, Percival says. Kindred offers health insurance for all full-time employees, defined by anyone working just four shifts a week. “No 80-hour weeks,” Percival says.

On her birthday, Bar Mezzana management went above and beyond to host Greco and several friends. “Everyone was so warm and happy to have us. If I ever return (to Boston), I know I’m welcome. Had I not moved, I would have happily stayed.”


For Employers:

Be Creative
Creative and fun team-building events and dinners will strengthen the bond of your team and make work more welcoming and streamlined.

Get Educational
Provide opportunities for your team to learn and grow together. Allow the seeds that have been sown to grow. Nurture the continued growth of your staff.

Commit to Caring
Free meals and birthday celebrations are wonderful, but employees need to know their health and happiness are a priority. Encouraging days of rest by providing trustworthy protective measures is crucial for the vitality of any restaurant.

For Employees:

Be Vocal
If you see something, say something. Voice your concerns, and be honest with management and coworkers.

Take Initiative and Take Care
At the end of the day, it’s up to ourselves to make change. Set up a group chat with coworkers, create an open line of communication, cover for others who need it and check in on each other.

Self-Awareness is Essential
If you need a day, you need a day. Be aware of your mental and physical health needs, and be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Any good employer should respect your needs.