There are very few, if any other businesses that view a staff meal as not just a benefit, but rather a necessity. Labor laws do not mandate that a restaurant provide a meal for its staff, only that time for consumption of a meal is provided. Restaurants choose, somewhat due to tradition, to offer this sustenance for employees.
Over many years chefs and management have expressed mixed feelings about the meal and far too often have viewed it as a costly inconvenience. Recently, there has been a commitment on the part of a growing community of restaurants to view the staff meal as a “family” or team building opportunity. This is becoming a vehicle for restaurants to communicate, set the tone for service, inspire and build stronger team relationships. The reference commonly used is the chance to “break bread”.
There is, of course, plenty of history and subliminal meaning behind the “breaking bread” phrase. Much of this history dates back to the early days of Christianity when the church referred to this as a part of fellowship.
“The early Christians came together regularly for common meals, which included the breaking of bread. The reference is to these individuals having everything in common.” http://www.gotquestions.org/breaking-of-bread.html
In a restaurant, that commonality is evident in the purpose of service, the respect for food, the passion for preparation, the respect for process and historical cooking traditions, the enjoyment of food as entertainment, and the responsibility to create customer value. The staff, or family meal, provides everyone the opportunity to reinforce this common bond, refer to the restaurants objectives and enjoy each other’s company before they are immersed in the moments of service. This time, as short as it might be can be the difference between success and failure during a meal period and beyond. The significance of breaking bread should not be overlooked.
What is served, how it is set, in what manner the time for family meal is allotted will be critical and as more and more restaurants grab onto the opportunity the benefits are becoming evident.
If your restaurant views the meal as an opportunity to simply provide a carbohydrate rush that helps to build energy for service, then the larger benefit will never be addressed. If time is not built into the schedule that allows staff members to stop for 20 minutes or so, sit and enjoy a meal together, then the value of “sharing things that people have in common”, will be lost and the real growth of a team will be diminished.
An effective family meal can provide a chef with the opportunity to excite staff members about his or her style of cooking and the uniqueness of what the restaurant offers. A taste of a new wine offered by the sommelier or manager will provide staff members with the opportunity to build their wine knowledge, especially pertaining to how it might complement certain foods. Adequate time for both front and back of the house employees to sit and enjoy the food, converse and learn about each other will be critical in building understanding and keeping everyone focused on what is important. For a period of time everyone in the restaurant can truly feel that they are equal. Everyone begins to see that each person contributes to the success of the operation and each job is critical.
There are ancillary benefits to family meal in those restaurants that wish to use this time as a broader educational event. Looking around the staff table, most restaurant employees will see a diversity of ethnicity, race, and life experiences. There is an opportunity to break down barriers and learn from each other. Maybe that line cook or dishwasher from Central America should have an opportunity to prepare a dish for staff that reflects his or her family traditions. Quite possibly, the waiter who proudly emigrated from France, Italy, Russia or Spain could toast the staff with a wine from his or her homeland and talk about its historical significance. Maybe the chef or sous chef who has worked in a variety of restaurants can bring back a dish from a past operation and demonstrate how his or her personal cuisine evolved from those early beginnings. Every time something new is added to the family mealtime a staff member builds his or her base of knowledge and in turn becomes a stronger employee.
Chefs and managers are and should be educators. Their ability to attract, train and retain a great team is reflective not simply on pay scales, but even more importantly how they can help those employees build their base of knowledge. Knowledge is one of the best retention tools in an industry that is plagued by turnover. Just as great bread and exceptional coffee sends an important message to a guest about the quality of a meal and a restaurants commitment to doing things right, so too does the staff meal and the celebration of team send a message to current and future staff.
“I judge a restaurant by the bread and by the coffee.” –Burt Lancaster
Burt Lancaster views this through the eyes of the restaurant guest; the analogy does apply in the same fashion through the eyes of the employee.
I applaud the recent movement towards creating a family meal event in restaurants as evidenced by a growing number of excellent books on the topic. If you are interested in viewing your staff meal differently, I would strongly suggest that you take a look at these books and add them to your chef’s library.
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