Easy Bistro & Bar’s blog reveals a lot about the staff. The chef de cuisine at the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based restaurant is big on foraging and sharing the details of his trips. When the pastry chef isn’t at work, her creativity lands on paper; she’s an ardent sketcher. Professional photos of the staff, which the restaurant pays for, help diners connect with staff in a more meaningful way.
“(The blog is) a place to highlight our staff…and gives them an opportunity to put themselves out there,” says Amanda Niel, co-owner of Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats, both in Chattanooga. “We find that it makes our staff feel a part of the team and take their jobs more seriously.”
Making employees feel valued is critical to a healthy and successful work environment. Big or small, gestures of appreciation are the most effective when they’re fun, memorable and meaningful.
For employees at Niel’s restaurants, it’s party time when Easy Bistro & Bar closes after a busy Super Bowl Sunday brunch service. The staff brings kids and significant others for a themed annual event, such as this past year’s bowling party. The venue and theme change annually, but even when it’s low-key, there’s always a culinary perk.
“We like to save a few nicer bottles of wine from our wine list, things that are $150 and above, and crack those open during our staff party, Niel says. Not only is it a way of saying thanks, but they also get to taste a variety of high-end wines on our list which is beneficial to them on the floor.
In January, Owner Jack Bardy closes his restaurants, The Beehive in Boston and Beat Brasserie in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a post-holiday party. Outside staff is hired to cater and work the party, so that everyone gets a real night off. A staff talent show is a part of the entertainment.
“In the restaurant industry a lot of people have other careers, other passions. We had singers, dancers, comedians,” Bardy says. Staff members sign up in advance to perform on The Beehive stage in front of the crowd of 200. “This idea came from the ground up. This was their idea. Everyone really let their hair down.”
Niel gives holiday gifts to staff, but a poll among workers indicated a party would also be appreciated. “A party lets spouses and significant others meet one another and everyone feels like they are part of a family. It makes them feel more part of a team,” she says.
Hitting the Road
That’s also been the experience of Mary Cleaver, founder of The Cleaver Co., which owns New York’s The Green Table and Table Green Café. Each summer, the restaurants close for one day so the staff can take a field trip to the farms that provide seasonal produce.
All staff, along with their children, harvests, cooks and dines together at the farms, including one that Cleaver now owns. Transportation is provided for the 8-hour round trip. “They really connect. To each other and to where our food comes from,” she says. “It is just fun.”
Run with Fun
Operators who value team building often work with companies like TrivWorks, a New York-based firm that offers custom-designed trivia parties as corporate team-building events. A partnership with New York’s Spice & Spoon adds the option of custom-designed cocktail making to the event.
"It is a raucous, high-energy way to relieve tension and say, 'thank you,' but it also is a bonding experience."
-David Jacobson, owner at TrivWorks
“It is a raucous, high-energy way to relieve tension and say, ‘thank you,’ but it also is a bonding experience,” says TrivWorks’ owner David Jacobson.
TrivWorks planned a series of events for Shake Shack’s New York-area managers. Jacobson says, “These are all people who work in different restaurants, so it was also a chance for them to get to know one another.”
You don’t have to celebrate staff as a group. One of the perks of being in the food business is that a dinner out or a bottle of wine is more than an indulgence—it can count as R&D, too, says Nicole Ess, director of marketing at The Dawson in Chicago. Savvy restaurant owners and chefs combine the two to make employees feel appreciated, while further developing their skills.
At several restaurants, including Chicago’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, Dallas’s Malai Kitchen and Portland, Maine’s Boda, select staff are taken on trips (or have portions of trips bankrolled) to explore cuisine and cultures, and to reward them for hard work. But you don’t have to shell out for passports, plane tickets or parties for your entire kitchen staff.
“Billy (Lawless) is very generous to work for,” Ess says, ticking off bottles of wine for a job well done and dinners for team building among the ways in which he says, “thanks.” If there’s a new restaurant in town or an old favorite with a new menu, he’ll encourage staff to bring him the receipt to reimburse for the research and night out. Other perks include massages or manicures, all tailored to what will be meaningful to the workers.
“He is conscious of what you would like,” Ess says. “There is thought behind his extra gratitude.”
Steve DiFillippo, chef and CEO of Boston’s Davio’s Northern Italian steakhouse, also prefers a personal approach. “Thanks to my trusty smartphone, I text or call all the team members (almost 800) in our company on their birthdays, and our managers give each of them a $50 cash gift,” he says.
“It’s important to treat your ‘inner guests’ (staff) just like your guests that come in through the front door,” he says. “Because in order to succeed in the restaurant industry, it’s all about the guest.”
Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based writer whose work appears in local and national publications.