How to Motivate Staff in Your Restaurant

When it comes to motivating restaurant emplyees, it's all about creating incentives.

Expecting cooks, servers and managers to start each shift on their A-game is like thinking every evening will be flawlessly executed. Not impossible, but close to it. To increase your odds of success, think in terms of incentives.

Rewards can work, but only if executed within the context of your restaurant’s overall philosophy, operators say. To curb, and possibly prevent, bad habits and restaurant malaise, chefs and owners offer a few of their proven remedies.

Say What?

Marilyn Schlossbach, owner of multiple restaurants along the New Jersey shore, including Asbury Park Yacht Club and Langosta Lounge, runs quarterly comment card contests to encourage friendly service. Servers who collect the most comment cards during the quarter—whether the feedback is positive or negative—have received gift cards ranging from $25 to $100 and even a bike.

Get Bested

At Wild Olive in Charleston, S.C., nabbing the honor of “most wines sold” is more fun than the prize itself.  “The staff really enjoys some friendly competition,” says Jason Parrish, general manager. Every Saturday after service, the server with the best OpenTable reviews for the week wins the Manager’s Menu (ordering anything off the menu for free). “To us, that is more important than selling a particular item. Guest satisfaction is, ultimately, what drives the business and is our best measure of success.”

Game On

Many restaurants offer monetary incentives, but how many play bingo as a way to win? Gravy, an Italian restaurant in Raleigh, N.C., motivates staff and generates sales with food bingo. Instead of collecting numbers on a bingo card, spaces are filled with menu choices, types of wine, desserts and other items. Servers who sell three of the same item or spell “bingo” win a prize, such as dinner, wine or gift cards. “When we pull this out on a Friday night during pre-shift, everyone gets pumped,“ Executive Chef Brent Hopkins says.

Paper Collection

Managers, including Corporate Executive Chef Josef Huber, at the Amway Hotel Collection in Grand Rapids, Mich., award paper chits to acknowledge good work from their staff. Employees cash them in for prizes such as tickets to sporting events, cash cards for on-site dining and hotel stays, catalog purchases of personal goods and vacations.

It’s On Us

Chef Anthony Goncalves at the Ritz-Carlton in Westchester, N.Y., believes that to sell your product, you must believe in it. He motivates his team by inviting them to dine at the hotel restaurant, 42. “While staff members are dining and enjoying themselves, they are also discovering and learning about dishes that will leave their mark,” Goncalves says. “There is nothing better than making the staff feel it, taste it and experience it for themselves.”

One for the Books

Boston restaurateur Garrett Harker launched a book club at his restaurant, Eastern Standard, that brings together cooks, servers, bartenders and other staff members. They take turns choosing a book (often food- or service-related) and discuss it over the pre-shift lineup. It gets the team excited about foodservice and hospitality, allows them to interact on a different level and improves the team dynamic through the shared experience of reading a book together, Harker says.

Change of Scenery

Harker closes all of his restaurants, including Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne, for an annual summit right before the busiest time of the year: baseball season. Fenway Park hosted the last summit, where staff came together for team-building activities and seminars led by local business leaders, such as Larry Lucchino, president and CEO of the Red Sox. Harker says the summit rejuvenates staff and instills a sense of pride.

Play Farmer 

All the staff at Robert’s Maine Grill and sibling restaurant Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine, is invited to spend a at day at nearby Greenlaw Gardens, a farm that supplies the restaurant with produce. The restaurants pay staff and provide lunch for a day of weeding and harvesting. Farmer Rick Greenlaw also sends staff home with produce. The work, says owner Michael Landgarten, instills pride and excitement about the ingredients, which the staff then shares with guests.

Increase Attendance

To entice staff to attend meetings, Chef-owner Troy Guard of Denver’s TAG Restaurants (TAG, TAG RAW BAR, TAG Burger Bar, Los Chingones and Sugarmill) puts a twist on raffle drawings. Servers who draw the winning ticket can choose prizes such as “manager does your sidework” and “choose the best section.”