Everyone seems to be free with advice on how to find and push the magic button creating a successful restaurant. There are certainly standard answers (ho hum) like location, product, atmosphere and service. These are certainly critical pieces of the puzzle, but very few experts get to the heart of the matter, the real keys to success.

You have all heard the statement that your employees are your most valuable assets, yet very few operators (not exclusive to restaurants) take this to heart and build a strategy around these assets. Every operator I work with complains about the inability to find, attract, hire and retain great employees, yet very few actually sit down and determine what it would take to reach these goals. A recent article in the Vermont newspaper, Seven Days, asked the question: “Where are all the line cooks.” This was a piece of investigative journalism defining the effects, but not clearly defining the problem. Allow me to provide my own opinion on the topic.

What do employees and employers truly want? What must be in place for great teams to form, work effectively together, and stay together? Here are my thoughts for a successful restaurant staffing strategy:


Employees want to find a business, in this case a restaurant, where the owners and managers are trustworthy; what they say is what they do. They want to work in an environment where what is thought is said and not cloaked in deception. Employees want to trust that as long as they do their job with a high level of commitment and professionalism and focus on the financial needs of the business, their job will be secure. Employers want the same things from employees. They want to know, once instructed, the employee will perform at a consistent level of excellence. They want to know once scheduled and assigned, the task will be performed and the person will be there physically and mentally, until it is done. Fellow co-workers want to trust that every other member of the team is focused on the results of the whole, not simply the benefit of the individual.


My feeling is loyalty went out the window when professional sports went the route of free agency. Gone are the days when people committed to a team, or a business organization without intent of constantly looking for the highest bidder. Employees want to work for a company that respects their loyalty and where management goes out of their way to treat them with respect. They want management to stick up for them when they are right and help them through problem situations when they are wrong. Employers want staff members who are true to the organization and proud to say it. They need employees who will stay with them if they are treated fairly and with respect.


A restaurant’s employees are people first and employees second. Staff members want to work for a company sincerely interested in them and empathetic to their issues. Employees will never be loyal to a company that treats them like pawns on a chessboard. Employers want staff members who are interested in and concerned about the health of the business and who will do what is necessary to help the operation reach its goals.

I will always remember visiting a company in Wheeling, IL (The J.W. Allen Company). They were a manufacturer and supplier of ingredients for bakeries. The plant was fairly large with, I would guess, more than 100 employees. Mr. Allen took us on a tour of the plant and each time he walked into another room the employees would smile. John Allen would walk up to them, address them by name and begin to talk on a personal level, about things in their lives not directly related to work. He knew and cared about his employees and the business was successful as a result.


The employees in a restaurant have a lot to offer. They are closer to the guest than management will ever be, they are closer to the product than management will ever be, and they see more opportunity for improvement than management will ever realize. Listen to them, solicit their opinion, make them part of the solution, not just the recipient of management directives. Give them credit when credit is due. This does not always need to be monetary (although that helps); it might simply be a “thank you”, pat on the back, or public announcement of their contribution. Can you imagine how great a line cook would feel if his or her name was on your menu? Do you understand that placing the bartenders name next to his or her drink invention means a lot?


Staff members respond well to a restaurant’s training initiatives. Whatever the operation can do to improve their skill sets, understanding, or personal brand will be well received. That same investment will allow the operation to constantly improve their level of service, the product they produce and the financial performance of the business. Bringing in an outside trainer is always a way to demonstrate the restaurant’s commitment to staff.


Employees respond well to managers, chefs and owners who walk the talk. “Do what I say, not what I do,” does not fly if you want to attract and retain a great staff. Chef’s who work side-by-side with all employees, and restaurant managers who bus tables and pour coffee, are always looked upon with admiration. Roll up your sleeves in an effort to build a great team.


Be honest with your staff. Let them know how the business is doing. Share the challenges you are facing and solicit their thoughts on how to solve problems. Let them know what you are thinking and what the future plans are for the business. If you want them to be part of the team then treat them like they are.

A friend of mine works for a natural foods coop. It is a fairly large, and very successful business with a heart. What is most impressive is that all of the business numbers and analytics are posted openly for every employee to see, study and comment on. This is such a simple, yet effective way to create ownership among employees and draw them into problem solving, yet a tool very few organizations add to their toolbox.

If you believe your employees are the greatest assets your business has, then build a strategy around that understanding. If you want to attract, hire and retain the best possible employees, make them information partners in your business. A successful restaurant is not based on the size of the kitchen or the equipment that you choose to buy. It is not based solely on location, product or service standards. A successful restaurant has those things in place, but they also have a dedicated team of professionals who feel part of the business and part of its formula for success.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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