After a rough 2018, the restaurant industry has made some progress toward better employee treatment across the board.
— Lesley Balla
As the #metoo movement continues to churn waves in the world of hospitality, operators are looking for new ways to improve the work culture for employees.
It’s no longer acceptable to say, “That’s just how restaurants are” in response to sexual harassment, the lack of family leave, gender and racial equality, health benefits, and career growth.
As the social movement picked up momentum, it made everyone from employees to operators take a good look at what was happening, how it was happening, and what needed to change. Operators large and small are finally investing in programs to change the status quo, making employee happiness and retention a high priority. After all, a happy staff means a healthy business, which affects the bottom line for the better.
You see it happening at restaurants from high-end groups like Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group to chains like Starbucks and Chipotle. Opening better channels of communication to senior leadership has led to conversations about, and solutions for, better training programs, and adding unique benefit packages and perks. It’s as easy as making everyone feel like they’re integral to the team to drive higher morale, no matter if he or she is a dishwasher, hostess, server or floor manager. Things like family meal is used to check in with employees and address new issues as much as it is to feed staff before a shift.
Perks are being used in myriad ways. In New York, The Smith implemented a Bring A Friend to Work Day, which empowers staff to create a place they want to work by introducing new talent to the pool but also adds a monetary bonus for each hire. At Chipotle, quarterly bonus programs have had “a material impact” on employee satisfaction, per a second quarter earnings call. Developing a great team is paramount providing a great experience, said newly CEO Brian Niccol.
Because good workers are hard to find, the Philadelphia-based High Street Hospitality Group has developed mentoring programs for all levels at its restaurants, including Fork Restaurant, A.Kitchen and High Street. Offering tools for career growth, including mentoring, training and formal coaching programs, co-founder and CEO Ellen Lin said they try to hire from within. But there’s also aid for new recruits straight out of culinary school who may need life lessons, to boot.
“It’s great you make people know you are there to support them, but it’s not that easy,” Lin said. “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.”
To keep good people on staff, more benefits are offered outside of healthcare. A job listing for Fork touted “an open environment where mutual respect to all members is essential.” There’s also 401(k), transportation benefits, and a women’s round table to help support careers of all staff (men included). At Starbucks, subsidized child care was added to its list of employee perks. For the Dinex Group, there’s been a push for mindfulness to create and maintain a healthy work culture.
“Being honest about the stress and triggers of the restaurant industry is a huge step in the right direction and the more we can do together as a community, the better we all, and the industry, will be,” Kristen Diver, Dinex’s director of human resources, said. “One of our main initiatives has been to give all of our employees access to Whil, which they can personalize and use confidentially. Having something digestible and with options for mobile were key selling points for us. Whether you have one minute or want to create a full series of sessions, there are options to fit the lifestyle of our team members.”
Across the board, the fallout from the #metoo movement as well as racial tensions have made operators check themselves and their companies. In many ways, this has been a main driver for better communication in the hospitality industry. Starbucks famously closed 8,000 stores in May for “sensitivity training” after a Philadelphia store manager called the police on two black men waiting for a friend. Whether or not the company made back the millions in sales lost, or if the few hours of video conferencing with teams made an actual impact, is still yet to be seen. While the company did something, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.
Rate of change
Small and large-scale change won’t happen overnight. Women in Hospitality United was formed in an effort to give more people in the industry louder voices. According to its mission statement, the group — founded by Elizabeth Meltz, the director of environmental health for Eataly USA, Erin Fairbanks of GROUT Consulting, and Liz Murray of The Marlow Collective — wants to help build a stronger community in the hospitality industry; to help set new standards for equity, accountability and transparency; and find solutions to many of the problems that seemed rote.
But as with any social movement, people want to see immediate and actionable change; if they don’t, they suffer fatigue and lose interest. To keep the momentum going, owners and operators, management and staff will hopefully continue communicating to find what works for their restaurant or group. New policies and laws from city and state governments can only help.
“The reality is that we’re talking about change on a generational landscape, and that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around,” Murray said. “We’re encouraging women to gather and talk and keep talking to whittle away until we to that thing that will make the biggest impact. What will that be? I wish there was a silver bullet, and I think the needle is moving in the right direction. We need to really dig in because this is the long haul.”
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