There is no issue more pressing, and no task more important than building a kitchen team and establishing a culture of retention. Yes, I do mean a culture of retention. A chef may be talented, have a great resume, be noted for his or her pronounced taste in food, and even be established as a person who understands how to earn a profit, but if a chef is unable to pull together a great team of focused cooks, build an environment of professional camaraderie, and determine ways to keep that team intact – then all else is irrelevant. It is the team behind the chef that makes a successful restaurant; it is the team that executes the chef’s vision; and it is the team’s focus that allows the chef’s cost consciousness to result in a financially successful operation.
In all of my years in the food business, I have never seen a time like now when these issues of team building and retention were more challenged. Every restaurant, of every level is finding it increasingly difficult to build a team with lasting power. It is easy to blame money, non-traditional work hours, unrealistic training in culinary schools, and the younger generation as a whole – but even if we (the industry as a whole) were able to snap our fingers and fix these issues, it is likely that team building and retention would still be challenging. Some chefs have made the news, as of late, for their bold approach towards shorter workweeks and even month long vacations, but there is no evidence that this alone will reverse the troubling staffing trend that plagues restaurants around the world.
My observation is that the solution, if one is to be found, is far more complex than just paying attention to the effects – it must be a comprehensive approach towards dealing with the cause. I have no scientific data to support my observation and theory, but watching those specific operations that are able to defy the common problem of staffing, I have built a model that may just be one effective solution.
BUILD A TEAM – KEEP A TEAM
This is the chef’s most important job – hands down.
- STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE
Every successful chef, and every successful restaurant must begin with well-defined standards that are never compromised. These standards must be second nature to everyone in the organization and must always be the performance measurement consistently executed in every aspect of the operation from how a cook’s knives are maintained, how vegetables are cut, how cooking methods are adhered to, how the cleanliness of the operation is maintained, and how all products are respected and handled. People respond well to excellence.
- BE CONSISTENT
Trust comes from consistent behavior whether it is how those standards of excellence are adhered to, how each employee interacts, or how the chef exhibits professional behavior. Without consistency – trust will erode.
A culture of retention exists in a business where EVERYONE is treated with respect. This does not infer that expectations are ever put aside – it simply means that regardless of size, age, gender, race, ethnicity, or level of experience – every employee is viewed as a valuable person first. When this is not the case, then employees will always be looking for an opportunity to escape and find a position elsewhere.
“RESPECT is how to treat everyone, not just those you want to impress.”
- CRITIQUE, DON’T CRITICIZE
Kitchens have a long reputation for harboring a culture where criticism is the common approach. Pointing out what an employee does incorrectly can be positive if it is reinforced with training to correct the problem. Additionally, the chef must always be careful to critique in private so that the employee is positioned to listen and learn and not feel embarrassed in front of his or her peers.
- INVEST IN THEIR PERSONAL GROWTH
A culture of retention is greatly enhanced when the chef is always interested in helping an employee improve his or her skill set and base of knowledge.
“TRAIN people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”
- LISTEN AND LEARN
Chefs may hear their employees – but how often do they truly LISTEN? Listening is an active process of giving the person speaking your full attention, working to understand what their issues or ideas are, assimilating what is offered, thanking them for their thoughts, and taking some form of action – even if it is to disagree or turn down their ideas. When an employee feels that the opportunity for expression is present – then they will feel engaged and appreciated.
“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”
-Bryant H. McGill
- MEASURE, REWARD, AND CELEBRATE
What gets measured gets done. Employees are typically not opposed to being measured – they simply want to know what is expected and how that measurement will take place. Measure against your standards of excellence, make sure the employee understands what they are, work with them to have the skills necessary to live up to those standards, reward them simply when they move in that direction (a simply thank you, or pat on the back is typically all that is required), and celebrate your team when that measurement results in a level of success.
- HOLD PEOPLE TO THE HIGHEST STANDARDS
Have very high expectations of your staff. Assume that they can and will exceed expectations and strive to always improve. You may just be surprised how they will rise to the occasion when excellence is what is expected of everyone – always!
- TEACH AND TRAIN
The chef, if he or she understands the role of team builder, knows that a portion of his or her time must be invested in teaching and training. The chef must also seek out those “teaching moments” whenever they arise. It might be as simple as calling everyone off their station for 15 seconds to taste a sauce reduction, or see a delivery of fresh whole fish, or have line cooks during a short lull in activity spend 5 minutes helping a dishwasher get through an onslaught of dirty dishes.
- BUILD PRIDE
Building pride in team is a foundational requirement of leadership and coaching. Pride in the restaurant, pride in the uniform that cooks wear, pride in a clean kitchen, pride in the quality of food produced, pride in the level of service offered, and pride in the financial success of the business will go a long way toward building that culture of retention.
- YES- PAY THEM FAIRLY AND CREATE A BENEFIT PROGRAM
Of course – I haven’t ignored the need for better compensation. The need is there for an assessment of fairness and worth, but at the same time the operation must figure out ways to make the business more profitable so that the operation can comfortably afford to increase compensation. This can be an incentive program that engages the employees in helping the restaurant reach its goals through efficiency, waste reduction, and a unified approach towards being entrepreneurial.
12. EMPATHETIC SCHEDULING
It may just be unrealistic to expect restaurants to move towards an 8-hour workday or a 40-hour week, but chefs and restaurants can certainly understand that kitchen staff members have a life outside of the restaurant and that inconsistent schedules make it very difficult to manage families and friendships. Working towards some level of consistency and being cognizant of important dates and events in a cook’s life will go a long way toward creating retention loyalty.
- HAVE THEIR BACK
Supporting your team members and letting them know what your position is with this is critical. As long as they don’t cross that line in the sand that you establish then they should be able to trust that you will be there for them.
- BE THEIR EXAMPLE
Most importantly, you need to portray that beacon of professionalism that they want to follow. Never subscribe to “do what I say, not what I do”, because it never works. Walk the talk!
- COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE
Engage your employees – let them know what is going on, what your plans are, how the restaurant is performing, and what challenges lie ahead. You can never communicate too much – show them that you trust them with this information and you will go a long way towards building retention loyalty.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
*Cover photo – Thanks to Chef Eamon Lee