How to Successfully Team Build Your Restaurant Staff
Your effectiveness as a manager is directly related to your ability to relate to people, and the quality of your interactions with your staff.

While there's a prevailing notion that "anyone" can wait or bus tables, or be trained to cook, that notion should not be allowed to influence your hiring decisions at Chez Nous. It reinforces the unfortunate reality that food service work is low status and low paying. Federal reports reveal that food prep and service wages average $7.72 an hour, with 75 percent of workers earning less than $8.50 an hour. These were the lowest wages among the major occupational groups studied. It should not surprise anyone to learn there are perpetual shortages of service workers and a turnover rate of 250 percent for line staff. Beyond the wage gap, owners have traditionally ignored their employees' personal needs and created "factory" work environments with truly "dead-end" jobs. Caring only about the bottom line, paying workers bare minimums and still seeking to reduce costs may keep a restaurant's doors open, but caring about the "top line" -- what your restaurant actually provides for both its guests and employees -- is an actual investment in your business and the key to profit, growth, and a positive work environment.

While you may think you cannot afford to pay more, you already are. You're paying for it through expensive and repetitive recruiting and training campaigns, lost productivity, increased food costs, haphazard service, and larger overhead.

Before any recruiting campaigns -- before even placing your first classified advertisements -- consider your needs, and what you can provide in return. Focus on five areas:

1) Tasks the employees must accomplish

2) Skills and training the employees must possess

3) Training you must provide, or are willing to provide

4) The personality and attitude your guests will expect

5) Budget available for salary, taxes, and benefits.

Where tasks are concerned, calculate whether the employee needs to complete their tasks during a shift, week, month, or beyond. Then list the necessary actions the employee will be responsible for (reservations, hosting, cooking, acceptance of deliveries, etc.), when they will do it, how often they will do it, where they will do it, and who they will report and answer to. Once these are established, write them down in layman's terms. After a written job description is presented, there should be no confusion as to what is expected of them, and therefore no statements of "I didn't know," or "That's not my job."

When you're ready for new hires, you can naturally use classified advertisements, but you can also save costs by using employee and guest referrals. You can also use the Internet to full and cost-saving advantage. An in-store sign can also be useful. For jobs requiring a more skilled professional (executive chefs, for instance), you may wish to use a "headhunter" or an employment agency.

When receiving applications, consider the following:

1) Does this person have the proper experience?

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Restaurant Management course?

2) Is it neat, legible and filled out correctly? If an applicant's handwriting is poor, so will their ability to write orders, reservations, or recipes.

3) Why are they leaving their current position? In some cases, you may wish to get their last employer's version of events.

4) Do they change jobs often, within weeks or months? If so, they may do the same with you.

Before a formal interview, use a brief phone screening: What are the applicant's career goals, what income level do they expect, what interested them in your particular restaurant, what special skills to they bring to the table? If the answers are satisfactory, invite them in for an interview. If not, you may wish to imply that they would be happier in a different organization.Saying "We'll get back to you" may seem harmless enough, but can actually fill that applicant with false hopes that won't be realized, and have them calling you back over and over again until you decisively say they aren't right for your organization.

When scheduling interviews, set aside a space of time when you won't be disturbed. Set interview dates at least two days in advance, and offer a second time if the applicant can't be available for the first. Explain when, where, and approximately how long you expect the interview to be. Let them know if there will be any tests.

During the interview, make the applicant feel welcome, and offer a tour of the establishment. Observe if they showed up on time (if they were late to the interview, they may be late to work as well) and their appearance (restaurant employees will rarely wear suits and ties to interviews, but there is a discernible difference between being slovenly and merely dressing blue-collar). Give an overview of your establishment and what is expected of employees, then ask your questions. Ask all of your questions at once, and ask essay-style questions that can't be answered with a simple yes or no. Watch the interviewee and interpret their body language. If they fidget and shift constantly, it's a sign of repressed energy, which can be good in certain positions and detrimental in others. If they don't show interest or ask any questions during their tour, they're apt not to be very interested in their workplace either. If they're friendly to existing employees, that's one of the best signs of all.

In a larger corporate chain or franchise restaurant, CEOs may already provide you with set training standards, guidelines, and handbooks. You must ensure every new hire receives all the materials they need, but moreover you should observe how new employees respond to, and absorb, the material -- no organization is perfect, and there may be some glaring error or lack of necessary information that may cost you time, money and even employees. If there are no such set guidelines, you will need to create them.

New hires may be given a probationary period -- normally anywhere from 30 to 90 days -- to absorb and practice their training. Hopefully most applicants will have most, if not all, of the requisite skills necessary for the position. Even so, they will probably need some brief, basic training to adapt their skills to your particular work environment; for example, a diner waiter may be able to serve in a variety of places, but may not know proper wine service. In that case, they may simply need some supervised "follow" shifts, where they assist an existing employee who has already been trained and has experience in the same position. Trainers should follow up with written reports about how their following employees have performed, where they shine and where they need to improve

Other positions are, by nature, trainee jobs. Comprehensive job training may be necessary, and new hires with little or no work experience can become loyal, valuable professionals with enough training. However, the more additional training you can provide -- in the areas of life skills, work-study and in-house mentoring -- the more valuable your establishment becomes to the trainee, and incidents of employee turnover can be reduced dramatically.

While the probationary period should be enough time for new hires to absorb their initial training, training itself should not be viewed as a practice that takes place once. Where possible, training should be an ongoing process. A competent dishwasher might not want to be a dishwasher forever; see if they would like the opportunity to become a cook! Similarly, your best server may perform even better as a bartender or a maitre d'. If your employees are expected to hold the same positions forever, with no opportunity for change or growth, they may become bored or frustrated and seek opportunities elsewhere.

During the initial training period, it is important to remember that your new hires did not emerge from a vacuum. They may have school requirements, other jobs, or bills to pay. It behooves you to set your training sessions before or after what would constitute a typical school day or workday.

An employee's personality and attitude are very important factors, and a lot of those factors depend on the employees themselves, but their workplaces can often be a huge influence. It is easy to write a sign saying "A Smile Is Part of Your Uniform," but managers must lead by example. If you come to work grouchy and irritable, your staff will tend to imitate you. If you're upbeat and friendly, your attitude will rub off on your staff. If you dress sloppily, you cannot expect to hold your employees to a higher standard of dressing impeccably. If you ramble on or give lectures when answering questions or giving directions, your employees will miss the point you need to make.

It's also important that you don't disobey your own established standards. If you pour doubles for your own friends at the bar, your bartenders will start pouring doubles for their own friends. If you pile on extra portions for yourself or favored guests, your food costs will skyrocket since your cooks will stop measuring as well. The "do as I say, not as I do" attitude will cripple the morale of a restaurant.

Your budget will certainly have a definitive impact on what employees you can attract, and who you can retain. Paying minimum wage is an unfortunate industry standard; it keeps some costs low, but increases others by perpetuating high turnover and employee dissatisfaction. A comedian claimed to have worked at a fast-food restaurant, and remarked with disgust about minimum wage: "Do you know what they're trying to tell you by paying you minimum wage? They're trying to tell you, "If I could pay you less, I would. But it'd be against the law'."

If budgetary restrictions force you to pay workers minimum wage, remember that you will certainly not attract the brightest and the best potential workers. One relatively new restaurant chain is paying its employees well above minimum wage; it not only has a competitively-priced menu, but is growing and expanding venues at an impressive rate, and has a waiting list of employees ready to work for them.

Some restaurants pay minimum wage, but compromise by offering different fringe benefits: profit-sharing, 401k plans, tuition reimbursement, flexible work hours, vacations or paid time off (jury duty, voting and military leave are normally required by law and should not be deemed a "benefit"), family leave, and free or discounted meals for employees and their families. The most desired benefit for applicants is health insurance, which can be costly for employers, but shared-cost plans can make this benefit affordable for everyone.

Many food service jobs are considered low-status, but as a manager you can and should change that. Remind every employee that no matter what position they have, they are a necessary part of a larger organization and are part of its success -- not a mere cog in a wheel. Where possible, refer to employees as "associates" --which they are--instead of 'dishwashers' or 'bussers'. Listen to them and compliment them on jobs well done; recognize their birthdays. Many restaurants offer prizes only to their top salespeople; this does not mean than nobody else is deserving of an award. Respect is not only earned, it's also free.

Tip sharing, which is common in full-service restaurants, can result in more motivated workers (i.e., the harder the support staff works, the more money the servers make, and thus the more tips they can share). A rule of thumb in one popular restaurant is that servers share two percent of their tips with the bus staff, one percent of their tips with the bar staff, and a minimum of $2.00 per food runner. Those are minimum figures, but with 30 servers per shift, the amounts can be substantial. Also, trainers should receive above average salaries while they are training.

Under current IRS rules, Tipped employees must report their tips as income, even though tips are technically gifts. Tipped employees should be held responsible for reporting tip income by signing a document that explains the tipping rules of your company. Encourage employees to accurately report their tips, as it is in both your best interests; neither you or the employee would enjoy an IRS audit. Also, while underreporting tips may have a short-term benefit in reducing immediate taxes, it has a long-term negative effect on an employee's credit score (since potential creditors prefer customers with higher incomes than lower ones).

Remember that both the Front and the Back of the house are TEAMS, and both must be considered to be on the same team for your restaurant to succeed. During the training process every new hire should be given a thorough tour of the facility and introduced to as many staff members as possible, so they can understand what everyone does, how it will affect them, and vice versa. Encourage your employees to get to know each other, as this will minimize the "us vs. them" mentality. Sponsor a sports team (The "Chez Nous All Stars") or throw a barbecue, when possible; your team's morale is in your hands.

While you can, and should, allow employees to fraternize -- they will anyway -- it's normally for the best if there is a policy that management does not fraternize (or date) non-management employees. While it seems like a non-issue, claims of favoritism or harassment never improve a workplace.