There are many examples of love/hate relationships or classic feuds that are difficult to rationalize: the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s, Alexander Hamilton and Raymond Burr; Neil Young and Lynard Skynard, the Beatles and Yoko Ono, Democrats and Republicans, and, of course, Restaurant Servers and Cooks. What is the reason for these sometimes oil and vinegar…
Good, bad or indifferent, the reality for the holidays is that they mark some of the busiest days of the year for restaurants. To our guests it may simply reflect their desire to truly relax and avoid the hustle of pulling together their largest family meal of the year, it might reflect (another whole topic) their lack of skill or desire to cook, or it might simply be a interest in the local restaurant’s interpretation of a special meal. To the restaurant employee it becomes “another day” in a busy operation and one more instance where they are unable to spend time with their family. On the business side, this might be one of the few opportunities over the next two months to generate some sales since aside from those areas that are a shopping destination, people are somewhat reluctant to spend their discretionary income on dining out when there is a struggle to find the money to buy gifts.
The question is “how do we make something very positive out of this restaurant reality”? Restaurants live in a different climate today. Our role has sped past simply providing nourishment. We are now in the business of providing appropriate nutrition, looking out for guest health, accommodation of special dietary needs, a source of entertainment, a center for food education, a resource for rewarding guests when others outside the restaurant ignore their contributions to society, a place where individuals celebrate each other, and now a substitute for the family table. This is not a burden, it is a much broader role that allows restaurants to play an integral part in people’s lives and in turn create the chance for us to survive and occasionally thrive as a business. It behooves us to add this reality to the training that we offer employees – they need to be on-board and we need to create a reward system that recognizes their efforts and sacrifices.
It is now the role of restaurants to re-create that family table that was depicted in the Norman Rockwell painting of this American tradition. This cannot be simply another dinner out – it must be special and memorable. It must be our pleasure to provide this for every guest who chooses to share his or her family time with us. This may be cliché and seemingly unrealistic, but this is our role. So – how can we create this experience and feeling in our restaurants and do so with a real sense of caring?
A quote by: Sarah Henry in her novel: “A Cold and Lonely Place” sums up the answer to this question: “Sometimes home is where you’re at, and family is who you’re with.” Restaurant people, as I have previously mentioned, are some of the most thoughtful and caring people that I know – yet when asked what distresses them most about working in the business, the answer is almost always universal. What upsets them most goes beyond the hard physical work, beyond the hours that they must commit, even beyond the 5% of guests served who can be rude; the primary stressor is an employees inability to spend quality time with his or her family – especially during the holidays. As restaurateurs and chefs we cannot ignore this fact. The employee may be physically present but their hearts are miles away with their spouse, children, parents, siblings and friends. This feeling cannot be put aside, it is there and will, without a doubt, impact on the employees’ ability to put on a smiling face and provide that exceptional guest experience. So how can we take advantage of the wisdom in Sarah Henry’s quote?
The answer should be a focus of those in our human resource worlds, a topic of discussion and planning in manager meetings, and a commitment on the part of owners. We are, after all, in the service business. James Heskett from the Harvard Business School once said: “if you are not serving the guest directly you must serve those you are”. To provide that level of guest experience that fulfills our new business reality we must insure that our employees feel good about their role and feel that their time away from family is taken into account.
There are some excellent examples of ways that restaurants can, and in many cases have built on the premise of Sarah Henry’s quote. Re-creating opportunities for the “restaurant family” to break bread and celebrate each other with great food, comfortable family meal environments with all the trimmings, toasts to this and their biological families can go a long way. This should be built into the holiday schedule and focused on with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail that we put into the guest experience. Employee turkey’s and other products as a bonus for their families to enjoy at home is a small price to pay with a big return. Thank you cards from owners and managers and even in-kind donations to local charities and people in need that carry the names of your staff members will help them to sense the spirit of the season. Scheduling staff for shorter shifts on holidays so that they can spend time with their families is a considerate approach, especially for those with young children. I am sure that with a concerted effort, each restaurant can come up with their own ideas on how to turn lemons into lemonade.
On the guest side, building that environment of celebration will become real when an appreciated staff exudes the warmth of the holidays and a sincere approach towards service. Give it some thought this holiday season as we set the table for guests in our busy restaurants.
This picture was a perfect opening for some Labor Day musings. I am part of an industry that is interesting to many on the outside, challenging to those who own restaurants, exciting to those who find themselves in the grips of the service adrenaline rush, back breaking to those who have made it their life, unbearable to some and inspiring to many who become part of a close knit restaurant team. The restaurant business as portrayed by the new wave of reality shows, Food Network segments, Anthony Bourdain adventures, colorful coffee table cookbooks, and countless magazines on the art of cooking is really a far cry from what it is like.
On Labor Day we celebrate those who work hard every day to support their families, provide for others and make this country great. It is only fitting that I spend some time paying homage to those who work in OUR industry, the industry of food and service.
Allow me the privilege of telling the truth about the day-to-day. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up, just like those who begin their career in either the front or back of the house. The dishwasher is one of the most important employees in a kitchen. If you don’t understand this statement, realize this: if a cook doesn’t show up everyone rallies to cover the station, if the chef is out sick (unheard of) the cooks would quietly cheer, if the manager doesn’t make it in the restaurant will likely not lose a step, if the dishwasher doesn’t show the place falls apart. Why? This is oftentimes a thankless job that involves standing on your feet for an entire shift, working around heat and steam, cleaning everyone’s dirty plates, lugging out tons of garbage, bending at the waist scouring greasy pots and pans, handing scalding hot plates as they end their cycle, lifting and pushing heavy racks of dishes and doing this to the din of demanding cooks and service staff. The dishwasher has no one to delegate to, yet he or she manages the single most expensive piece of machinery in the kitchen as well as thousands of dollars of china, glassware and flatware. An entree improperly cooked can be forgiven and re-fired, a dirty plate on which that food is placed is inexcusable and not correctable if it makes it to the guest.
Cooks come to restaurants with all sorts of baggage. My favorite people in the world are cooks. Some are vagabonds searching for a place to fit, others are introverts who need an opportunity to work with their hands without the pressure of interacting with others aside from the person standing next to them. A number are what we call “pirates” who are tough, crusty, oftentimes a bit obscene, full of pent up anger, but content working over a 700 degree char-grill; and a few are those culinary school interns or graduates who came to make their mark, learn the trade, build their chops, and aspire to become a chef. All-in-all, as tough as many of them seem, they usually love food and take pride in what they do. Snap at them and beware, tell them their food is not very good and you may need to reach for tissues to help fight back their tears and broken confidence.
Chefs, are always there. Even when they are not physically there (which is rare), they are still mentally there. A chef can expect to work 70 or more hours per week and should plan on being in the restaurant from mid-morning until the last few dinners hit the window. If they have developed a name for themselves, the guest will expect to see them there. Guests have no concept of a day off or of the effort that a chef must put in. The chef started as a person who loved to cook, but in his/her current role they are a business manager. They plan menus, hire and train staff, order food and negotiate with vendors, monitor the sanitation and safety of the restaurant, help to market the image of the place, set the tone for the kitchen and ensure that the quality remains consistent, interact with guests and guest special requests, serve as the mentor for those fragile egos in the kitchen, and oftentimes serve as a fill-in person when a station is in the weeds or a cook or even dishwasher fails to show or bails. This can be exciting and fun, but trust me, it is not as glamorous as TV would have you believe.
Servers and back waits are always on the firing line. What guests do not realize is that most service staff are paid sub-minimum wage (allowed by law) because their wages are typically supplemented by gratuities. Servers and their support are entrepreneurs who have been given the opportunity to set up shop in a restaurant. They certainly must represent the restaurant, but in essence are working solely for the guest. The guest, in turn, is expected to reward them with a gratuity that reflects the level of service provided. The vast majority of guests are nice, reasonable, polite and respectful, however, there is a smaller percentage who view service staff as subservient and fail to recognize them as people with feelings. As a chef I have spent many an hour consoling servers who have been verbally abused and offended by that 5% of guests who enjoy being abusive. People should not treat other human beings this way, but it is, unfortunately expected. To add insult to injury, some kitchens dish out the abuse to service staff making the whole experience of working the front of the house anything but enjoyable. Shame on the chef who allows this to happen.
Managers, like chefs, are married to the restaurant. They have the same responsibilities in the front as chefs do in the back with the added pressure of financial management. True the chef is responsible for food and labor cost, but the manager is ultimately responsible to keep the restaurant afloat. What guests do not realize is that the average restaurant only makes a net profit of about 5% if they do everything right. Many restaurants simply hope that cash flow is positive and ignore the fact that eventually the bills will catch up. Running a restaurant is very difficult and very expensive. Guests are fickle and rarely as loyal as you would like them to be, so the manager must always be on his/her toes. Just as the chef is responsible for the temperament and vibe in the kitchen, the manager must be on stage and insure that whatever may be going wrong is not evident to the guest.
The picture of screaming and yawning feet at the beginning of this article was a vivid symbol of the cycle of life in a kitchen. Restaurant people are always on the edge and one never knows how today will turn out. All this being said, I love this business as do many of my dearest friends and associates. My hat goes off to all who call restaurants their home on this day.
Happy Labor Day!