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For more than a year we (those in the food industry) have debated the dilemma of kitchen staffing. Restaurants have been crying about their inability to find enough cooks and chefs and keep them employed. We have discussed numerous ways in which this might be addressed – from investment in training to creating a more encouraging environment for culinary staff to work in, and from adjusting schedules to focus on better quality of life to aligning restaurants with the philosophical food views of a changing audience of cooks. The issue that remains as the underlying common denominator is compensation. Although I have never been a supporter of pay as being the long-term motivational platform for any worker, I do thoroughly understand the need for fair compensation. The question is – what does “fair” mean?

Should “fair” be determined solely on what any person needs to pay their bills, or should fair include an assessment of performance and “value added”? Is “fair” simply an industry norm rate of pay for a particular position (This is what everyone else pays for a line cook, prep cook, or sous chef) or should pay scale norms be established as if they were unique to every individual restaurant? As Abraham Maslow pointed out in his Hierarchy of Needs – Survival is the entry-level tool that determines a person’s ability to self-motivate. If an employee is unable to survive (provide for food, shelter, and clothing) on the wages offered, then how could a restaurant expect a cook to perform at the highest level and stay working for that operation? On the other hand – how much is a particular skill set worth and how can a restaurant afford to pay beyond an established “norm”?

There is little doubt that the most significant asset of any business, in this case a restaurant, is the employee – especially one who has the skills and attitude that drive success. So, shouldn’t we take a hard look at alternative ways of addressing the staff pay challenge and protect our most valuable assets?

I would pose an idea that I think is worth discussion. It is not new to all business, but probably new to the restaurant segment. Could the answer be to create a democracy in the restaurant rather than the traditional autocratic dictatorship – a system of fair assessment and pay scale determination that engages all players in the operation? There will always be a need for central decision-making in a restaurant, but might we consider some democratic solutions to specific challenges, such as merit? Here is an idea that might be worth chewing on at your next operations meeting:



Currently, the position that a cook holds in a kitchen is based on the chef’s assessment of technical skill and the quality of that person’s resume. Whether the person fits in as a line cook, prep cook, roundsman, or sous chef is more often than not, a very limited assessment of his or her ability to be successful as a member of the kitchen team. There are other factors, aside from technical skill, that come into play such as temperament, communication skills, ability to problem solve, and how that person might contribute to the overall success of the kitchen. The result of the current model is sometimes acceptable, but oftentimes disastrous. In a different model, a person’s position would be determined by assessing all of these factors and most importantly determining how well he or she might truly “fit”.


To borrow some thinking from companies like Whole Foods – why shouldn’t other key people in your kitchen and dining room have a say in how the department makes decisions regarding staff? In a more democratic kitchen – certain established employees would help to assess that “fit”, and as I will show in a minute – provide feedback that would lead to pay scale determination.


One of the advantages of productive seniority in a restaurant could and maybe should allow for more active involvement in restaurant decision-making. This productive seniority would not be limited to individuals with typical management titles, but rather those who have demonstrated their commitment to the long-term success of the business. So, a line cook who has proven him or herself to be extremely valuable as well as a senior member of the service staff would share some decision-making responsibility with the chef, sous chef, and manager of the operation. In relation to staff decisions (hiring, promotion, pay scales, etc.) – these employees would be allowed to offer specific input.


This is the carrot that might differentiate your restaurant from others and as a result make the operation more attractive to the best employees and more likely able to retain those same stellar team members. Those who were part of the assessment team would score staff members at the time of hire and annual review, using the following criteria:

  • Dependability
  • Quality of work
  • Speed
  • Temperament
  • Teamwork
  • Moving the bar of excellence
  • Grace under fire
  • Professionalism
  • Decision-making
  • Being an ambassador of the brand
  • Growth – self-investment

Although the chef and the manager may have a more significant role in making final decisions (especially when budgetary constraints are involved), all assessment team members would have a solid voice. This “stake in the game” would truly be unique and would tend to lead to better team decisions that impact everybody in the restaurant.


This scorecard would be used for not only pay scale and/or bonus distribution, but would lead to decisions on promotion and position within the restaurant. All of these decisions would be made on the basis of merit as defined by the team rather than a single person in the organization.


The two key advantages to such a program are first that everyone knows that his or her destiny is dependent on how well they address the key points in the scorecard, and second – how well they work together with the overall team.   Knowing that results are important and that the process of “getting ahead” is reviewed on an equal playing field is a great way to create loyalty.


Finally, maintaining a portfolio of scorecard assessment criteria can serve to build an individual employees personal brand. This is something they can carry with them if they choose to move on to another operation, or at the very least use the assessment synopsis to learn and improve.

The thought is that employees who are fully engaged, fairly treated, and assessed based on their full value will help to drive new ideas for generating sales, controlling costs, and making room in a restaurant budget for fair and appropriate compensation.

This ideation is not time tested, but might very well be worth creating a beta try as one potential solution to the dilemma of pay, opportunity, and retention. Let me know what you think.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

*Photo from left to right:

Walter Zuromski, George Higgins, Joe Faria, Charles Carroll, Paul Sorgule, Tony Flory, Michael Beriau (The Dream Team).  Missing:  Lars Johansson, Danny Varano, Roland Czekelius, Neil Connolly.