The Best Ways to Create a Family Environment Among Restaurant Staff

Hiring is a constant challenge for restaurants, particularly in large cities with more competitive labor markets. There’s no simple answer to creating an inclusive culture that keeps workers on either side of the house from jumping ship.

Now, growing restaurant chains are turning to building stronger cultures to better meet the needs of workers while creating a compelling support system for those new to the industry.

“It’s about finding people who can enjoy what they’re doing no matter what it is; if we can find people who really enjoy making other people, happy we know those people will be happy with us,” said Jeffrey Lefcourt, founder and CEO of Corner Table – The Smith, at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York. “There’s a lot more people in New York, we’ve been operating restaurants in New York for years. Our challenge is making sure people know who we are, and that we are a great place to work.”

Lefcourt is in the midst of launching the first location of The Smith in Chicago, a 10,000 square-foot location with 250 seats. The company is currently experimenting with how to best reach the right potential employees in Chicago, since the labor market differs so heavily from New York.

The candidate with the most experience, though, isn’t always the best option.

“I don’t look for experience, I’m looking for the qualities of people who really display attributes of hospitality,” said Ellen Yin, founder and co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group. “There are so many parts of hospitality you can teach but that inherent graciousness is not necessarily something you can get out of someone without coaching… there has to be some authenticity. People come to the interview knowing what they have to answer, the key is to figure out who really means it: do they know who you are, what you’re about, and what the concept is.”

It can be a challenge to retain more experienced workers, particularly if your competitors are willing to pay them more.

Yin gave the example that a porter making $12 an hour may quickly jump to another restaurant offering $13. In a space where workers are eager to jump for a larger paycheck, a restaurant’s work culture and ethos has taken on a new importance.

“We need to find a way to entice people without money,” said Yin. “It’s great you make people know you are there to support them, but it’s not that easy. So we’ve looked at all different programs. For example, [one of our chefs] believes if you’re bringing in young CIA grads to a new city, you have to indoctrinate them into adult life and find that family support system, because it doesn’t really exist for them.”

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

[Updated with full transcript]

Full Transcript of Discussion With Yin and Lefcourt

Skift Table: Thank you so much for being here, both of you. Ellen Yin is the co-owner of High Street Hospitality. She has four locations now in Philadelphia: Fork, High Street Provisions, High Street on Market, and A Kitchen and A Bar. Then, one location here in New York, High Street on Hudson. It’s been open for three years. I also have Jeff here, which has co-owner of The Smith and has six locations between New York and D.C. now and soon to add a seventh in Chicago.

Lefcourt: Yeah.

Skift Table: This session is all about hiring and training and staff retention. Basically, the easier part of running a restaurant. Right? All right. Let’s get into some of your hiring strategies. One of the most important things to look for in the people that you hire is to make sure that there is a passion there that you have for the restaurants that you own, for the industry overall. How do you find that?

Yin: Well, personally, I don’t look for the experienced necessarily. I’m looking for the qualities of people, especially in the front of the house, who really display attributes of hospitality. Their demeanor, how they approach answering questions because as Kevin was saying earlier, there’s so many parts of hospitality that you can teach, but that inherent graciousness and hospitality is something that you can’t necessarily get out of someone without a lot of coaching.

We do look for that initially. I love Philadelphia and New York and I love interviewing people from out of town because they bring something new to the table, not necessarily what our normal talent pool in whatever city we are in brings to the table, just something in addition.

It’s a mix of different people, different attributes, different members of the team, people who might be great at wine, but people who might also be great at just being friendly and hospitable.

Skift Table: When you’re hiring in New York, you mean you look for out of towners, out of New Yorkers?

Yin: Well, we need to have New Yorkers. Since we’re not New Yorkers, we absolutely need to have people from New York helping us understand the market and understand how the front of the house is going to work, but definitely looking for a mix.

Skift Table: Same question to you.

Lefcourt: For us, it’s about finding people that can really enjoy what they’re doing, no matter what that is. We talk all the time about having fun at work. If we could find people that really enjoy making other people happy, we know that those people will be successful with us in whatever department, in the kitchen, a cook, a dishwasher. If they really like being on a great team and taking care of the person next to them and taking care of guests on the floor and really get pleasure out of that, we know that they’ll be successful with us.

Yin: That’s a really good point because it’s not just the front of the house, it’s the back of the house. They have to want to please the front of the house staff as well because everybody is working together as a team and without that culture of everybody coming together to create a great experience, it’s very difficult to maintain employees in either department.

Skift Table: How often does that happen when you sit down in that initial interview and you’re like that person’s got it?

Lefcourt: I lead with the questions that I’m hoping they say the right thing.

Skift Table: Like what?

Lefcourt: “How did you end up in the restaurant business?” “Why are you here?” “What do you like about it?” If people are, “I just happen to stumble into it” and those kind of answers are not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for someone that’s like, “I love coming to work every day.” “I’ve loved learning about food and wine and taking care of people.” Those are the home run answers that if people could say when I see a smile on one of my guests’ face, that’s why I come to work every day, that’s the best person you could look for.

Yin: Also, there has to be some authenticity because I think a lot of people do come to the interview kind of already knowing that they have to answer those type of questions.

Lefcourt: You’d be surprised.

Yin: I think the key is to figuring out who really means it and did they do their homework on the group? Do they know who you are and what you’re about and what the concept is? If they’ve done their homework, that’s usually a good step.

Skift Table: How is the hiring process different for a manager position versus your hourly employees?

Yin: For us, generally the manager positions, we do a fairly in depth search. We use tools like Culinary Agents, of course Craigslist, although it’s more and more difficult to because the labor market is so competitive, it’s harder and harder to only have one strategy.

Also, I think networking. I found a lot of my managers by asking other restaurant owners if they know anybody. These days, it’s tough because nobody wants to give up anybody, but I think one of the things is that people outgrow their positions and part of my role as the restaurant owner is to try to guide them and create opportunities for them. I might not be able to offer that to somebody in my group and finding if I can replace them with Jeffrey because I know he’s a great operator, that’s a win-win for everybody.

Lefcourt: First, with managers and chefs, we’re able to really spend more time with them. We invite them into the restaurant to hang out with us for a day and meet more people. We really try to empower everybody on our team to kind of decide whether managers and chefs are the right fit for us.

We always try to get as much feedback as we can. With hourly positions, it’s tougher to have that, although with servers or cooks during their first trial, their first day, we really try to see how they’re going to fit in on the team and see if they really are just answering the questions in the interview or if they really believe it and if they could show us in their first couple hours with us that they care about how everybody is doing around them and taking care of people.

Yin: Actually, 20 years ago when I first opened Fork, people would come in and they would want you. Now, it is also trying to present who you are to your potential candidate as well, so it’s really important when we have — whether it’s an hourly employee or a management employee — we want to put our best foot forward and we want to present all the best that we can about our organization.

Lefcourt: Such a good point. We talk all the time that a new a person coming in, we’d love it if they walk through the front door and the host is like nice to see you. We’ve been expecting you. Then, they go to through the restaurant and the chefs and cooks are saying welcome, we’ve been waiting for you to start today. We’re excited and it’s really important because that I think for to people want to come back the next day, so it’s important to make sure that you’re starting off on the right foot.

Skift Table: I’m curious. How does the labor market vary between the different markets that you’re in? For you, New York and Philadelphia. You, D.C. and New York.

Lefcourt: There’s a lot more people in New York, so I think it’s a tight labor market in New York. Also, we’ve been operating restaurants in New York, The Smith, for 10-plus years and other restaurants before that. I think we’re well known in New York, so it’s easier for us to attract people and a lot of our team is homegrown. People have been with us for 10, 15 years, so we don’t have to go outside looking for managers and chefs as much.

In D.C., we’ve only been there for a couple of years, so our challenge there is just making sure that people know who we are and know that we’re a great place to work, and we want to be a great place to work, and we want people to come and enjoy coming every day and enjoy the people they work with and the bosses and the chefs and managers.

Jeffrey Lefcourt, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Corner Table – The Smith, speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018. Skift Table / Dan Loh

That’s a challenge, and it’s different kinds of people. New York, it seems a wider breadth of students and actors for the server positions in front of house and just tons of people that have experience working in kitchens.

Skift Table: I want to ask the same question of you, but while we’re on this train of thought: You talk about wanting to be a great a place to work. You have these hiring videos. It seems like The Smith is just this great family you’re talking about. How do you create that atmosphere among your employees?

Lefcourt: I think it’s letting everybody know from the beginning that that’s our goal, that we want to be a fun place to work where people can be themselves, have a good time, trust the managers that they have their best interest in mind and that everybody is rooting for. From your first day of work, everybody around you is rooting for you and wants you to succeed and we’ll do whatever we can to make sure that you have all the tools you need to be successful.

I think that kind of environment where they believe and it’s not just talk that the senior leadership and every level is really helping everybody be successful. We kind of have changed how we talk about that over the years, that I look at my job as serving everybody else and make sure that they are successful and supporting people and caring for them.

If someone is failing in any role, I take it on my shoulders and question what could we have done better to give them the tools to be successful.

Skift Table: Can you give an example of that?

Lefcourt: You name it. In the kitchen, if a grill guy is blowing up one night and burning all the steaks or something, it’s so easy for the chef to yell and scream at the guy like pay attention, stop overcooking everything or whatever. But, that’s the easy approach and our approach is what could we have done better to set this person up for success.

Is there something wrong with our system? Did they get in the weeds because we didn’t get someone over to help them or they didn’t have enough training or they didn’t know how to cook the steaks correctly? We always blame that cook last and look to us first.

Skift Table: Back to that labor question. Have you seen differences in the labor market in Philadelphia and now moving into New York?

Yin: Well, they’re both really competitive. Just to finish your thought, to compete for those people and then to retain them, I wish it was like a two-minute answer, but it’s extremely difficult and so we have to look at other ways besides money to try to entice people to want to work with our group.

I’m sure everybody in this room knows a porter who make $12 an hour, if somebody else offers them $13, it’s really easy for them to decide that they want to go elsewhere. What can you do to try to create this culture? I think it’s great that you make people feel that you’re there to support them. I’ve always felt that way. I’m there. I’m like your person to go to for support to make you successful.

But, it’s not that easy obviously and so we’ve looked at all different programs and we try to get other managers involved. For example, our chef at Fork, John Patterson, he really believes that an environment that is [welcoming]. If you’re bringing in young CIA graduates into a new city, you have to indoctrinate them into basically adult life. Whether that be helping them open a bank account, helping them find housing, really creating that family support system because it doesn’t necessarily exist.

We’ve been trying to develop managers from within and not just mentoring-type programs, but also giving them the opportunity through formal training like coaching and through classes and things like that to try to get potential managers to grow into larger roles.

But, because it’s so hard to bring outside people in, especially at the higher level, when you’re trying to hire a manager, they could change your entire culture when you don’t know them as well. It’s better to bring them in from within.

Skift Table: This is something that I kind of struggle with understanding, in terms of what you have to do as employers. You’re talking about opening up bank accounts for some of your employees, helping them find housing. You’re talking about creating this family atmosphere. How do you draw the line here? Because also this year, we’ve talked about harassment all year with there not being a clear delineation between this is your place of work. You know what I meant there?

Yin: Well, in terms of professional behavior.

Skift Table: Yes.

Yin: Of course, we went back and we reviewed all our handbooks and made sure that we have the proper language in place and made sure that all our managers are familiar with what is happening. In New York, obviously, it’s even more stringent than Philadelphia, but they do need support in that way. There just has to be a line. For us, there’s no shift drinks or anything like that.

Most people in this room are a part of our larger group. I don’t think that that exists really anymore. But, a manager is there to help you get through whatever your biggest challenge is. If your challenge is that you’ve moved to a new city and you don’t know how to get to work or you don’t know what the best way of setting up your work life is going to be, we try to help without getting too too involved.

Lefcourt: Yeah. We try to have managers get involved with people’s lives, but at work, it’s high fives and no hugging and what used to happen at work. It’s just about setting lines and keeping everybody professional and being very aware of how you’re being perceived. Even if you’re joking around with one person, it doesn’t mean that everybody else will find it acceptable.

Skift Table: Moving on. I want to talk about the Chicago opening.

Lefcourt: Okay. We just started construction, so we’re really excited about that. It’s about 10,000 square feet in River North neighborhood of Chicago. It’ll be a 250-seat restaurant. It just felt like the perfect spot for us to do something in another city and we’re really excited.

Skift Table: How many people are you looking at hiring?

Lefcourt: Probably about 150, 175 people. That’s kind of the average for all of our locations.

Skift Table: How many people are you bringing in from other Smith restaurants?

Lefcourt: It’s very important for us to hire local, so already we’ve hired a general manager from Chicago. We brought her to New York for the next six months or so to kind of learn about us and our culture and how we make decisions and how we think about things.

Then, we’re looking for a chef if anybody has any ideas? Probably a lot of people from Chicago. In D.C., we ended up moving about six plus people from New York to D.C., managers and chefs, but we’ll see.

Skift Table: Talking about the majority of the 150 people you’re looking to hire, are you going to be doing open calls for that?

Lefcourt: A lot of open calls.

Skift Table: Yeah. How effective are those?

Lefcourt: Pretty much nonstop open calls from probably a month and a half before we open through forever, so just keep looking for great people. We really never stop. There’s always a spot for someone that would be great.

Skift Table: How effective are the open calls?

Lefcourt: We have this program called Bring a Friend to Work. That’s our most successful program, so we give bonuses. But, it’s really about empowering people that are on the team to kind of create the team around them. That’s what we find to be the best. Just bring people that they know and then they always seem to work out.

Skift Table: I want to read off a recent job listing for a server position at The Fork that I saw. “We support an open environment where mutual respect to all members is essential. In addition to health insurance, a 401(k), and transportation benefits, we host a women’s round table to help support the careers of all staff, men included, and strive to promote from within.” Can you tell me about that round table initiative?

Ellen Yin, the Founder and Co-Owner of High Street Hospitality Group, speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018. Skift Table / Dan Loh

Yin: Right. I want everyone to succeed whether you’re a woman or a man, but I found that a lot of women in my organization didn’t feel that I was accessible enough to them or that they felt supported enough. I wanted to find out more about that. The first meeting we had was to hear what were they looking for, career advice, how to move forward in the industry, finding a mentor, whatever it was to improve themselves.

I found that it was a lot of different topics. Some were self confidence, some were skills, some were mentors, and so I created a program that was a monthly program to try to bring in speakers from outside, not just myself but other women who could be role models and it ended up being everybody.

Men would attend, women would attend, and that was great. We had a woman who is a sales expert come in and talk about how to not necessarily sell, but how to approach finding out what a customer or another person might be looking for from an interaction, whether it be a front of house interaction or a negotiation or anything like that. We had to keep pushing at it and there are women coming and going in our organization all the time, so we have to sometimes take a step back, but it’s, I think, well received.

Skift Table: Now, how long have you been doing it for?

Yin: We started our first one, I would say, about a year and a half ago.

Skift Table: Does it happen at all of your locations?

Yin: Well, Fork has the biggest … We have about 200 employees and 100 of them are employed in the Old City location at Fork in High Street on Market, which are attached, so that’s generally the easier place because we have the most amount of space, A Kitchen is a tiny little box and there’s really not very much space, but it’s not that far.

The hard part is New York because it’s an hour and a half away. How do you get that same type program going? What we did was we tried to make sure that everybody was aware of it and try to figure out how to get them down. We give 50% off to all our employees to dine at any of the restaurants, so try to make enticing enough that they might potentially want to come down and most of them did.

We also when we opened in New York City, we brought several managers down to Philadelphia to train with our organization and to learn more about the culture. It’s not easy because once you go back into your new environment, things might be very different.

Skift Table: Yeah. I know we’re running out of time, but, Jeff, I want to make sure to get to … We talked previously about something that you’re looking at doing for The Smith location that’s open on Christmas Day.

Lefcourt: Okay.

Skift Table: Can you talk about that?

Lefcourt: All of our locations are closed on Christmas Day, except for this one that’s across the street from Lincoln Center. We stay open because there’s so much going on, but there’s been over the years some grumbling about coming to work on Christmas.

This year, we really wanted to put it back in our team’s hands and let them make the decision on whether we should remain open and we happen to serve about six, 700 people on Christmas Day, so there’s definitely a lot of people, a lot of guests that we make happy Christmas. But it’s not worth it if our team is upset about it. We kind of said well, here’s the operating cost, just the food cost, beverage cost, labor cost, and here’s all the extra dollars.

We’d be curious if we let everybody split that in whatever way, so it came out to like $20,000 or something, that we would stay open if everybody wanted to take home some extra cash on Christmas. We don’t have the verdict yet, so I’ll let you know, but we’ve kind of put it back in their hands. It’s looking like we’ll probably make 600 guests not happy and be closed on Christmas, but we’ll see.

Skift Table: Ellen, I’m curious when you hear ideas like, is that something transferable to your group or not?

Yin: Well, it’s funny because I was thinking nobody in our group would ever agree to work on Christmas Day. In fact, they think it’s not fair when one restaurant is closed on Labor Day and the other one isn’t. I do think it varies, but no, I think the Take Your Friend to Work Day sounds like a great idea. I admire what you’re doing and would love to learn more because 200 people versus 1,000 people is a totally different ballgame.

Lefcourt: Yeah. Once we crossed that 1,000 people on our team, it kind of changed the way we think of who we have the opportunities to touch their lives every day and those 1,000 people have become even more important as we’ve grown.

Skift Table: Okay. I want to get to one audience question here. Let’s go for the top one. What is your most reliably successful tool for making great hires?

Yin: Do I know the answer to that?

Lefcourt: I think, for us, it’s getting input. It’s making sure that people mesh with our beliefs and our values.

Skift Table: You do those communication reports, too. Right?

Lefcourt: Yeah. We have these cards that when people come in for an interview, we show them this is everything we believe in, these are our seven core values, our purpose to make people happy, what do you think about it? That kind of is an easy one.

Then, we have at the end of the day, these communication reports that the first question is how did you feel when you came to work and how did you feel when you leave? There’s little emojis that people can circle. We’re tracking if people are leaving happier than when they got there or not as happy. We’re kind of keeping track of how people are feeling while they’re working, which is key.

Yin: I love that idea.

Skift Table: Yeah. All right. Looks like we’re out of time. Thank you so much.

Yin: Thank you.

Lefcourt: Thank you.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

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