Your Restaurant Is a Stage

As you begin to staff up your restaurant, think about this as if you are the producer and director and are casting people to perform in your movie or play. Think about the culture you want to create in your restaurant and how everyone will fit. This includes the wait staff, chef, cook, bus people, and others. You are creating an environment where people will want to share special occasions, make memories, and remember eating in your restaurant as part of their life experience that they talk about for years.

After reading the next paragraph, close your eyes. Envision how your restaurant is going to be operated. What is your flow? Imagine what the customer will experience when they open the door to your restaurant. Who will they see? What will be said?

I am imagining that I see a beautiful smile greeting the customer. The wait staff is talking to everybody, especially the seated patrons. Everyone knows the customers' names if they have eaten there before, and the staff introduce themselves to all the customers dining there for the first time. The server remembers a returning customer's favorite dish. The entire team is helping everybody and working together. If there is a rush, one server will take care of another's table by acknowledging the patrons sitting there. Everyone is pouring the drinks, clearing tables, and making sure the customers have the best dining experience ever.

Now close your eyes and use your imagination.

Do you envision what I have envisioned for many restaurateurs? Can you see it in your mind, touch it, feel it, smell it, and hear it?

Now Create That Vision as a Reality

When you start hiring, remember, you need to hire team players. This is not about team-building experiences; this is about being of service to the patrons and each other. Everyone needs to understand your mission and value offered in the restaurant, including being of service to everyone. Again, that means each other, not just the customers.

Your job is to bring the customers to the restaurant. The only way they're going to come back after the first time is when everybody is working together and being of service.

Sometimes a customer will complain to a server about something, and that server can handle the problem. Rather than make a big deal with that complaint and bring the manager or even owner over to the table—or, worse, ignore the problem—the server can smooth it over and create the best dining experience possible. That is true teamwork, and that is the attitude you are looking for when hiring your staff.

The Auditions

First you made the plate (food), created the set (dining room), and completed the kitchen (backstage). Close your eyes, think of “actors” and “actresses,” and this becomes the staffing. You're going to be casting your restaurant. Much like the opening scenes of a movie or the parting of the curtains, the greeter (formerly known as a hostess) will create the first human impression of your restaurant (the second is touching your menu).

Now you are casting your wait staff. Keep in mind that someone can perform as a great server at a French restaurant or a steak house and not at a hamburger place. Someone can sell a great meal but not know how to sell a great sandwich. First, you've got to think about what it is you're selling; because, in the end, it's all about sales. You need to understand the customer who is buying the food you are selling and hire servers who can sell it to the patron. You need wait staff and greeters who can really engage as well as sell menu items.

Make Sure Your Team Feels Like Partners

I don't call them employees. They are your partners, and they will be your face to the customers as well as your entire restaurant. They should feel that they are part of the ownership—not legally, but in terms of taking great pride in working in your restaurant. You are looking for staff whom other restaurateurs will try to poach or steal away, but the “partners” will say no because they love where they work. What a compliment to you when you hire people who feel that way about you and your restaurant.

One example is in a film starring Tom Hanks, That Thing You Do!, which takes place in 1964. The plot is about a band recording their first album in Los Angeles. The hotel where the group stays employs a person (then called a bellhop) who helps hotel patrons with luggage, transportation, and anything else that will make their stay at the hotel comfortable. The character takes great pride in his job, and his character always thanks everyone for coming to “his” hotel. If you need visualization, this movie should be streaming for you to watch, and I suggest paying attention to the hotel attendants and their attitudes. You want to hire staff with the same mindset.

When people are invested in their work, they show up early. Sometimes people don't own a car and take the bus to work. If someone is willing to take a bus to work, they're dedicated.

You've got to create a culture in which everyone feels they “own” a piece of the restaurant, and they want you to succeed as a matter of pride. I find that people like to have their own tables, and groups like to have a section that they call their own. This builds a sense of familiarity and ownership in your brand. The more pictures of your customers you put on the walls, the more frequently they will come back. When you find the right people to engage with these customers and other employees, you will have hired a dynamic staff.

Where Do You Find These Fantastic People?

So how do you find these incredible people? There are online classified ads and job search websites, and you might participate in job fairs and employment events. People who respond will tell you about their best qualities in glowing terms. Listen to your gut instinct. When you talk to someone on the phone or, better, meet with them, you know whether they're going to be a good fit or not. Remember, you are casting a role.

When you are hiring restaurant staff, you are going to be bombarded by employment agencies. These agencies will charge you about 20% of the salary of the hired employee. I understand the value of agencies doing the vetting and marketing to find great people; however, at this point the cost is too high, and you need your cash.

The best and most dedicated employees I've ever had in my restaurants, in my experience, came from Goodwill Industries. This organization offers programs to train people and help them get their necessary licensing to work in the food and beverage industry. Many times, Goodwill will pay for the uniform if the employee has to provide one. I find that the people who work through Goodwill are very motivated and have become some of our best staff members.

I encourage you to read books about hiring and staffing. Here is where guidance from others can help to build the right staff. It is not about creating a softball team in the off hours but hiring people who want to be of service. You want to hire people who are on the same page and understand the culture, and they should want you and everyone else to thrive and succeed through their personal efforts. I always look for people who have good problem-solving skills, with great attention to detail and time management skills. Remember that your wait staff are your salespeople and should have a level of interpersonal skills including social perceptiveness, patience, and empathy. This will all add to a better customer experience. Your wait staff needs to be active listeners with great communication skills. Lifting trays and standing on their feet all day requires the physical ability to do the job. And please don't forget math skills.

However, keep your ego out of it. If you're opening a restaurant, you are probably an alpha person. You need other alpha people to run a successful restaurant. I've learned to be able to yield my alpha personality and decide if it is beneficial to hire this type of person. Alpha people really want to be winners and will not allow for failure, and these are the people you need on the team. It is up to you to determine whether they will work with you and if you can control both of your egos. You and the alpha people need to understand that it is to both of your benefits if the restaurant succeeds, and that each of you can yield and be of service to each other, the staff, the vendors, and the customers.

Hiring the Stars of the Show: Chefs, Cooks, and Managers

One of the main staff people to be hired is the chef or chef de cuisine. You may already have that person, and all of the staff hired will have to work with your chef as a team.

More importantly, you need to know the levels of experience of the people you hire to be your executive chef, general manager, and/or lead cook. Do they know the rules and regulations of the required health cards? Different states call these cards by different names, such as food handler card, food worker permit, or food handler certificate. Health cards are always required for anyone who works in a food establishment, including kitchen staff, servers, managers, and anyone who could come into contact with food, ice, beverages, and utensils. Many jurisdictions are changing the rules to mandate that all food handlers be required to get a food handler safety-training card instead of a health card. To obtain a food handler's card, participants must take a food safety training course and pass an examination from an accredited organization. However, it is still your responsibility to ensure that your staff has complied with the health department and other government agencies.

You might not need an executive chef, but then you will need a lead cook. You personally might fulfill the role of a general manager, or you may have to hire a general manager. It's called general for a reason: you're overseeing everything, including the back of the house and the front of the house.

Your chef, general manager, and/or lead cook will tell you what staff they need in the kitchen. This could include dishwashers, expediters, chef de cuisine, salad makers, and sauce makers. They're going to give you their wish list.

Remember, this is just their wish list. You don't have to hire all those people just because the chef wants them. You don't need to create and fill those positions. I didn't hire chefs to work in my hamburger places. I had chef friends help and guide me. I hired cooks, and then my chef friends taught them how to cook the burgers as well as how to prepare the French fries and toss them. Of course, I showed them how to make my chili recipe.

Most modern kitchen teams today are based on a French chef's kitchen brigade system. Chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier was commonly known as “the king of chefs and the chef of kings.” Escoffier's legacy lives on in the “brigade de cuisine” system. Having served in the French army, Escoffier transferred his experience with the clearly defined structure and duties of a military brigade into the kitchen, assigning over 20 specific cook positions throughout the kitchen. The purpose of the kitchen brigade was to ensure that every cook had a clear purpose and the kitchen could work to maximum efficiency. This system is obviously for a much larger restaurant but can be downsized for basic needs.

With that knowledge, you can see how you may need more than one cook, depending upon the concept, food style, and price point of the restaurant. A general rule of restaurant thumb is 6 to 7 back-of-house staff per 50 customers. If you have hired the correct lead cook or executive chef, that person should have the knowledge about what back-of-house staff are needed for your hours of operation. For additional staff, I have always found that you can reach out to trade schools, culinary schools, and college students. One important rule is that it has to be an accredited school. If there is an internship available, inquire about the requirements. Some states require that interns be paid, while other states allow for unpaid internships. Most schools do require students to participate and complete an internship program as part of their graduation requirements. Remember, these students are just learning to cook and are not experienced. However, they want to enter the culinary field and are motivated to become the best cooks possible, with many looking toward the future working as a chef.

Front-of-house wait staff should generally include a server for every three to four tables per shift per 50 customers as a good ratio. Remember that in addition to the wait staff, you may also need bussers, cleaners, greeters, and possibly a cashier. Study your budget, and you can determine any positions you can pick up to save the salary, or whether the wait staff can also greet and take care of the cashier position.

Do I Really Need to Touch That?

Everybody hired must be willing to “touch the table.” What this means is that everybody fills the water glasses and clears plates. This is the kind of engagement that is required for success. You need to hire servers who, while serving their own tables, see that a teammate's table is full of dirty dishes and voluntarily clear the table. Anyone you hire who does not do that on their own as part of the team will hinder your success.

Everyone needs to work in unity. This is not about ego. This is about being of service. Don't hire people who won't perform other duties because they think they are too good or too special. I don't care how well a server can sell a meal. It will drive customers away if they are sitting at a table with no drinks or dirty dishes and they feel ignored. These patrons will notice if there are servers walking around and nobody notices that they are sitting at their table with no water in the glass. Every server should fill those water glasses regardless of whether it is their table.

Customers can see if a server is servicing someone else's table, walks by their table, and doesn't ask if the customers need anything. They know if someone is walking about with a coffee pot and doesn't come by their table to fill their cups. This changes the entire dining experience and does not build up loyalty, no matter how much the patrons might like the food.

I hire people with the understanding that no job is too low for anybody, including the greeter. Everybody has to help everyone else, and more importantly, wants to help everyone on the team. If you as the owner are willing to wash dishes and scrub the floors, then everyone hired to work there should be willing to perform the same duties as well.

Did I Just Hear a “No” from Someone I Want to Hire?

Yes, you will make some mistakes when it comes to hiring people. However, if you offer a job and someone turns you down, do not assume it was because of you and the restaurant.

This is neither the time nor the place to make assumptions and take anything personally. While you might think they are a perfect fit, the potential job candidate might feel differently. What if it is difficult for them to commute to your place? What if they were offered another job at the same time that paid more or had better benefits? What if they are struggling with addiction and decide to work in a place that does not sell alcohol? What if they are just uncomfortable with the culture and need to find one that fits them better?

If they don't accept the job, it's okay. It's all good and not a personal thing. I always tell potential staff members who don't accept a job offer to please give me a call if they change their mind. Remember, I liked them enough to offer them a job. You should feel the same way.

You should not dislike someone because they did not accept a job offer. What kind of a person does that? That's an ego thing, and it can hurt your success.

The food and beverage industry is like a roller coaster ride. People working in the industry are up and down and moving from place to place. Sometimes they never work for you. Sometimes they work for you, then leave, and never return. Sometimes people work for you, leave, and then come back. I welcome these people with open arms, and you should as well.

Training Your Staff

After hiring, it is time to train the staff properly to be a cohesive team. You should already have taken out your yellow pad or digital device and made a list of all the tasks. Try to be as complete as possible, since you are paying the staff to train, so squeeze a lot into a short time. Also, this will aid in writing an employee manual, which should be completed soon.

When hiring the new employees, including the restaurant managers and the cooks, you want to hire people with at least a few years of experience so you don't have to spend too much time training. They should be ready to fill the position effectively after the training period.

The first step in employee training is always orientation. This helps employees become familiarized with your restaurant and learn your best practices, facility, history, and culture.

When training, remember to always state the positive instead of the negative. It is better to say, “We serve butter already sliced,” instead of “Never bring unsliced butter to the table.” This will lend itself to a more positive experience for everyone.

Some of the tasks you should include for the front of the house are as follows:

  • Training your greeters on proper ways to greet guests, monitor table rotation, take reservations, and escort guests to tables. All of this is to prepare the guest with a great start to their meal.
  • Bussing tables: how to remove dirty items, what a table setup needs, and how to make sure diners aren't left without silverware, napkins, or condiments
  • Taking orders: instructions on how to take orders, how to upsell, and how to use the POS system if one will be used or submit an order if another method is used.
  • Menu knowledge: learning which dishes the customer could have allergies to, item substitutes, food preparation details, and which dishes are vegetarian, vegan, kosher, or gluten-free.
  • Drink pairings: If you are serving wine or spirits, what wine or cocktail pairs with each dish and why the chef made that suggestion. If no beer, wine, or spirits will be served, what brand of soda, ice tea flavors, and other beverages are offered.
  • Training on the proper way to run the food and carry food trays to and from the tables, how to serve hot food without getting burned, how to properly dispense wine and other beverages.
  • Instructions on how to close out a ticket on the POS system and how to handle money and credit card payments. You should have decided what you are going to use for POS.
  • Then, of course, the lessons you learned while hiring: using their interpersonal skills, such as dealing with demanding customers, problem-solving, and handling complaints.

Some of the tasks you should include for the back of the house are as follows:

  • Walk through all the tasks needed in the kitchen.
  • Teach your cooking preparations and process for each menu item.
  • Walk through your expediting process with the wait staff.
  • Give detailed instructions on how to operate the kitchen equipment safely, including grills, ovens, and dishwashers. Your cooks and chef will already know most of this information and can help develop a plan with you. But foremost is safety and accident prevention, especially from burns and knife injuries.

Speaking of Taste

Some of the most fabulous restaurants I know implement an excellent training program for the servers when it comes to setup, order taking, and serving the actual meal. However, many of them don't include tasting the menu, which is just as important as other aspects of working in the restaurant.

All of the staff (partners) need to be educated on the menu, try the various items, and really understand what your food is all about with its history, flavor profiles, concept, and mission. A staff member who doesn't know the menu and flavors is like an actor who doesn't know his lines. It leaves a bad taste (pun intended) in the patron's mouth.

How was the restaurant founded? Who is the owner? Why did they open the restaurant? What's in the food? Why is this dish on the menu?

For example, what if your restaurant started with an Italian sauce that comes from a 300-year-old recipe from the family of the owner's grandmother? The sauce that the restaurateur tops on the pasta has a history. Your staff needs to know this to tell the customers so they will want to try it.

Another example is fish and chips made with a recipe that came directly from the United Kingdom. Maybe the owner's great grandmother used to go out, fish for cod, and make her own fermented beer as an ingredient for the batter.

If you, as the owner, have not invited the entire staff (including greeters, bus people, and dishwashers) for a day of tasting, that is a big mistake on your part. You need to have the staff taste every single dish and see how it is plated. You can serve family-style, putting two to three plates down for five people. But they need to know what they are selling by tasting it, and they should know the overall mission of the restaurant. They need to have the chef explain the dishes to them, including ingredients. Some of the most celebrated restaurants started with very few resources but still made sure the entire staff knew the menu by tasting everything so that they understood its concept.

Another mistake many owners make is hiring a staff member who will not try certain dishes. Of course, if there is an allergy or dietary restriction, I am not saying don't hire them. In fact, they will probably be more empathetic to customers dealing with allergies and restrictions. But if the server doesn't at least try something, that is not a person I would hire.

A good example is Brussels sprouts, those miniature cabbage-like vegetables. They are full of vitamins and minerals and have fiber, but I knew very few people who liked eating the vegetables, especially since they were usually prepared boiled and soaked in butter. One casino actually offered Brussels sprouts as a vegetable choice years ago, but only the diehard fans would order it.

Then something happened with this forgotten vegetable. Young chefs discovered it and became innovative with its preparation. Suddenly, Brussels sprouts were roasted, charred, and sautéed, becoming a new discovery with foodies.

You want to hire people who will at least try something new. They don't have to like it and eat it again, but those people who are willing to expand their palate and tastes make the best servers.

I have dined in restaurants and asked my server what their favorite dish is. If they answer that they haven't tried everything on the menu, the restaurant has just lost an excellent opportunity to create a returning customer. If a server has chosen not to try everything on the menu, and it is not due to allergies or dietary restrictions, you need to find someone else or plan to lose sales and customers.

How Can I Serve You?

There are a variety of ways to serve a meal, including hand-carried, tray, family-style, and cart service. I recall the stereotype of the waitress in a diner carrying six plates balanced on her arm. Some national chains with the diner vibe are still serving this way.

Remember, it is about your concept and what atmosphere you want to create with your restaurant. Whether it is a meal on the go, like my hamburger places, or a long European-style meal, it is part of the experience you are creating.

Delete the Word “Versus”!

It is not a competition between the front-of-house and back-of-house staff. Everyone needs to be on the same team, be of service, and work together. Everybody has to be on the same page.

I once witnessed a customer ordering a burger with blue cheese on it. The server put in the order, and the cook complained very loudly that it was too much work to add blue cheese to a burger. Yes, blue cheese is messy, the grill has to be cleaned after the order, and it is extra work. However, if blue cheese is available, the customer should be accommodated.

I have also witnessed a customer sending back a bowl of soup for being too salty. When the server brought back the soup, the chef swore and said there was nothing wrong with the soup, and why should he (the chef) be bothered for such a small order? The server was in the middle of the chef and customer, and it reflected on the environment of the restaurant.

Another instance I personally experienced was when I took my daughter to a restaurant that I love (including the owner and the food). The servers and cashier were busy, and one of the staff members from the back of the house cashed out our order. The cashier disagreed with the way the server wrote up an order and began complaining about this out loud in front of my daughter and me, as well as all the other customers and she made some negative comments. My daughter mentioned that she wasn't very nice, and no father wants that experience in a restaurant.

These are just three examples of what should not happen in your restaurant. If a server only orders a soup that retails for $5.95 and the customer complains about something, the size of the order should not matter. All customers should be treated like VIPs, with the mindset in your restaurant being that no order is too small. This should also be the attitude when customers order something special that can be accommodated. And no one should ever complain about another staff member in front of customers.

If your team doesn't function this way, it is a huge loss for you and your restaurant. This is a big part of the hiring process. Yes, skills, experience, and reliability are critical. But most importantly, you need a team that can work together and is engaged with each other to create a successful restaurant.

We all know that people make mistakes, have egos, and may lose their cool. There are a few simple steps to prevent this from creating any animosity to each other in the restaurant. When hiring and training staff, make sure everyone knows their role in the restaurant. When problems do arise, be sure the staff feels comfortable coming to you, and communicate effectively. You need to focus on the why rather than the who: that will decrease the blame. Enforce the fact that you are all on the same team, and make them accountable to each other.

Why Would Anyone Want to Leave Me?

I have witnessed many restaurant owners disassociate themselves from the staff and almost make themselves unapproachable. This is a wrong stance to take, since as we already discussed, your staff are a big part of creating the dining experience for your customers and are the face of your restaurant.

The biggest priority in your restaurant is that everyone needs to be on the same page. When you accomplish that, you will have a team that will make other business owners envious. You want people—including your competition—to say, “I want that person working for me.” However, you need to be part of the equation for everyone to get along. Some people will be more dedicated than others at different times, and you need to understand that dynamic.

According to the National Restaurant Association, employee turnover across the entire restaurant industry is about 61%, and that percentage is almost twice as high for front-line workers. The shocking truth is that restaurants on average lose somewhere around $150,000 a year due to employee turnover alone. How can you make sure you are prepared for this? How do you avoid employee turnover? The answer is simple: hire right the first time.

Many things about that statistic are not under the control of restaurant owners. Let's focus on what you can control. Staff members always want more money and more hours. The lack of ability to make enough money in tips or other wages is a major reason employees leave jobs, especially in the restaurant industry. As we discussed, sometimes staff and management disagree. Other times, staff disagree among themselves. If this is not resolved, employees will quit. If a restaurant employee does not see an opportunity to advance, they are likely to leave. Most of these issues require periodic individual check-ins with your staff. If you can effectively plan with this in mind, you will decrease your restaurant's turnover rate.

There will be arguments among the staff, but do your best to keep them private and to a minimum. It is not about taking sides. It is about being of service; and you, as an owner, are of service to your employees just as much as your employees and your wait staff are of service to you and your patrons. It doesn't mean things aren't going on in people's lives, and life gets in the way. It's okay as long as you, as an owner, recognize that and remain the glue to keep everyone together.

In the End

When it comes to hiring the right people, analyze all the information and also listen to your gut (or intuition). Then make your decisions—because, in the end, it all circles into being of service. You have spent money to build this place. You have put your blood, sweat, and tears into opening this restaurant, and you are ready to create a place of partnerships, teamwork, and a chance for everyone to shine while customers enjoy a great meal. You know you have the most fantastic staff when a customer comes in and asks for a table for one because they are that comfortable.

It is all about repeat performances, long runs, and becoming a classic show (or in this case, a restaurant) where people will want to bring their children and grandchildren for years to come.

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