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Danny Meyer, who heads up the famously gratuity-free Union Square Hospitality Group, admitted in an interview with Forbes that it takes about a year to get the math right when you eliminate tips. That’s reason enough to scare many small businesses out of even considering trying a new compensation structure. His restaurants have stayed the course and stuck to the gratuity-free (plus benefits) model, but not everyone who tries it has been able to make it work.
We learned about the challenges of implementing this model as well as the joys of gratuity-free work, including stable income and benefits, the motivation of profit-sharing, and a smaller front- and back-of-house divide.
Gratuity-Free: a system where servers do not accept tips and are instead paid an hourly living wage, often plus benefits.
Profit-Sharing: a system where staff are given bonuses when the business does well. This method allows for a similar type of reward as tips, where if a person works hard, they are compensated extra.
Open-Book Management: a system where management shares the finances of a business with its employees, so they can see how their work contributes to increases in revenue.
How it Works at Juliet and Barcito
At Juliet in Somerville, Mass., “Everyone starts with a living-wage base pay. Right now the current base is $15. And then from there, we also do profit-sharing. Everyone is given a look into the business, [so] we're really aware of the amount of money the restaurant is making,” explains general manager Katie Rosengren. “From there, everyone gets a little bit of the profit that we make in the restaurant. It's every single person who works here, from dishwasher all the way up to the owners, because everyone is contributing to it.”
Because of this system, there’s virtually no front- and back-of-house divide at Juliet.
Rosengren also says that if people still tip (after having heard the explanation of why the restaurant is gratuity-free), they put the money towards staff development or staff parties.
Over at barcito in LA, “It's a hospitality-included, no-tipping model. We have basically baked the cost of doing business into our menu prices,” says owner Andrea Borgen “We revenue share with our front of house staff, so it's based on week-to-week sales as opposed to night-to-night tips.”
Lauren Leland, a bartender at barcito, explains that the revenue pot is split according to number of hours worked, which means that there’s no need to fight over busy shifts every week. “If I'm working different shifts than the other bartender, but we work the same amount of hours, we're seeing the same amount of money. So it feels a little more fair.”
At both Juliet and Barcito, a slow shift doesn’t mean a small paycheck. Both restaurants also offer health insurance, which is rare for the restaurant industry.
“A priority for me is to ensure that my staff is getting a certain number of hours per week and have really predictable take-home pay,” explains Borgen. To achieve this, she doesn’t cut servers on slow days, but rather gives them cleaning projects to do.
On slow days at Juliet, “we always have the option of whether or not we want the night off. We're never told we're going to get cut,” says Sam Mangino, a server at Juliet. “The option is we're going to do a lot of cleaning or, one of [us] can take the night off. And there are some days where I'm like, ‘I'm so tired. I do want this night off.’ So at least if I'm not getting a day's worth of pay, I get to make that choice on my own.”
Rosengren is the mother of a young son. Not only was her job at Juliet held for her while she went on maternity leave, but her income is stable without having to work every weekend.
“There are a lot of moms who work in restaurants that tip – they are amazing human beings, and I 100% support anybody who does this for a living and has a child because it is so hard. But having a gratuity free model allows it so that I don't have to work every Friday and Saturday night so that I can afford to feed my child or house my child,” said Rosengren. “It gives me a lot of flexibility, and it also keeps those people in the industry who are really talented, who are really capable but just can't make ends meet by working a Tuesday lunch.”
The Challenges of Going No-Tip
The switch from the standard tipping model to a no-gratuity model requires a lot of calculations; if you plan to do it, you’ll need to leverage as much sales data as you can to inform how you’ll shuffle around money. Typically, restaurants increase menu prices to be able to cover minimum wage (or higher) for all workers. This is a risk, because loyal customers may experience some sticker shock. According to Borgen from barcito:
“We anticipated the sticker shock risk, which I think certainly manifests itself in two kinds of different ways.Either guests see our menu prices, balk, and and don't walk in at all, or they come in and their ordering behavior changes based on the prices, so they go for the lower-ticket items, and check averages drop and you're not meeting what you need in order to sustain your business. I've realized that there is sort of a third risk that we certainly felt, [which] has to do with value perception. The example that I use a lot is this short rib dish … it used to be $13 and then it increased to $16, and that three-dollar difference made such a change in the way people reacted to that dish. Before, they were thrilled and they loved it and it was such a great deal. And once it was $16, it was too small, or too bland – nothing about it changed except the price tag.”
At Juliet, occasionally, a guest will say that they charge too much, but Rosengren says they often just aren’t thinking ahead to the fact that they really don’t have to tip at the end.
“There are a lot of places around that will charge $15 for a brunch plate and then you tip on top of that. So if we charge you $15 for a brunch plate and you don't tip on top of it, we're actually cheaper than that other place.”
The Downfalls of the Tipping System
Why bother shaking up the system that we’ve been running on for centuries?
Secondly, tipping makes for an unstable income for tipped workers. “You aren't able to say, ‘I'm definitely going to have enough money to pay my bills and pay my rent this month,’” says Rosengren.
Leland agrees: “I was working at a few other places before I came to barcito where I'd walk out with 30 bucks one night. I was like, ‘I can't predict my life.’”
Sam Mangino, who wrote her college thesis on tipping and has served for tips and without them, says tip size is only minimally influenced by quality of service. “Tipping habits don't change when someone walks into a restaurant, they already have those decided,” she says.
Rosengren experienced this back when she worked for tips. “You could have an off day, you could really mess up a table or feel like you really did a bad job and someone will still tip you 20% – which is great and wonderful – or you could be so on, do every single thing right, by the book done a perfect job, and still get a 12% tip, because it really doesn't matter. People know what they think is fair to tip and that's what they're going to tip regardless of what you do. And when you realize that as a server, it's pretty defeating,” she says.
Anyone who’s ever worked a service job likely has an opinion about the tipping system. It can be a fantastic way to make good money with or without a college education, but the system’s drawbacks are starting to be noticed by guests and servers alike.
However you feel about it, it’s always exciting to see restaurateurs trying to swim against the current and make changes towards equity in the American restaurant industry.
This year, 21 states and the District of Columbia saw increases in the minimum wage, according to Ballotpedia. The result: an abundance of restaurant closings, widespread job loss, and customer complaints about rising prices.
The restaurant industry has become synonymous with razor-thin margins, and, as anticipated, these adjustments hit our industry especially hard. A new study by Harri, a hospitality industry employee management platform, revealed that a whopping 71% of restaurants have responded to the recent minimum wage increases by raising menu prices. Only time will tell whether this will have a significant impact on consumers’ dining-out behaviors. FSR Magazine believes that these price increases are “a forgivable offense,” yet with more people choosing to eat at home, restaurants need to find creative solutions to counteract wage increases beyond passing costs on to diners.
The Harri Wage Inflation Survey asked about 4,000 restaurants and 112,000 employees throughout the U.S. about this issue and how they’re combating it. In addition to price increases (71%), reduced employee hours (64% of surveyed restaurants) and job eliminations (43%) were the most common reactions to wage inflation.
According to the survey, 88% of restaurant operators gave a pay increase to non-minimum wage employees to close the gap, and 56% of non-minimum wage employees received increases of 5 to 15%.
Needless to say, this was a significant hit to an industry that’s already struggling with low margins, fickle customers, and high staff turnover.
How Real Restaurants Are Responding to Common Minimum Wage Increase Effects
John Banquil, CEO of Ling & Louie's Asian Bar and Grill, a four-location restaurant in three states, says, “We’ve had to take incremental menu price increases, worked with food and beverage distributors to secure better contract pricing, and adjusted our scheduling to be more efficient.”
Banquil believes that passing along costs to diners is not the only solution. In his 11 years of business experience, Banquil has seen the importance of employee satisfaction in driving business success. "We find it more important than ever to pay far above minimum wage for great employees. We need to maintain a great culture that ensures people love coming to work every day," he continued.
The Harri Survey revealed that 43% of restaurants are cutting jobs as a result of wage increases. Although some of these changes may result from streamlining operations, others are simply necessary for those restaurants to stay in business. Some states have been hit especially hard. New York City (where the minimum wage is $15) has experienced its sharpest decline in restaurant jobs in almost 20 years.
Making sudden or dramatic changes in staff roles or eliminating positions may result in short-term savings, but the Harri study indicates that these moves can result in increased employee turnover – by as much as 35%.
Restaurateurs are actively searching for an option that allows them to hold onto their best employees and cover the increased labor overhead without compromising the quality of their dining experience; so far, there isn’t a clear winner.
Three Alternatives to Increasing Menu Prices
Only 2% of the restaurants polled in the Harri study eliminated tipping as a means of dealing with minimum wage hikes. No-tipping policies have been adopted in markets like New York, where the minimum wage is up to $15, but, according to Grub Street, both diners and restaurant employees have balked at this new approach. Customers want to be able to reward high-quality service, and top-performing restaurant talent has grown accustomed to being acknowledged for their abilities.
Here’s where it gets interesting: When asked whether they support an increased minimum wage, 59% of respondents were in favor; 64% stated they would be willing to pay more as a result. However, when asked about the factors that may deter dining out in the year ahead, 49% said they were planning to put their money toward something other than going out to eat, and 30% believe meals at a restaurant are too expensive as is.
So, it seems, restaurant diners are in a bit of a catch 22: They believe front of house restaurant staff should be paid more for their hard work and, in theory, would support higher meal prices, but when the bill comes they aren’t comfortable with what they see, so much so that they may just stay home and save their pennies for something else.
Sadly, about 1 in 10 restaurants say that closing locations has been the only solution to wage increases.
Boston landmark Durgin Park (founded in 1827) cited labor costs as the reason for its closure, and a Harvard Business School study indicated that restaurants that were already experiencing service or popularity issues had a higher likelihood of going under if the minimum wage went up in their area.
Matias Pesce, CEO of the V & E Restaurant Group, oversees 60 restaurants in Miami, Mexico City, and Las Vegas. With 34 years of experience in the industry, he stressed that labor costs will ultimately have an impact on the customer experience – whether through increased menu prices or diminished service. He believes strongly that service quality and employee satisfaction are crucial in the face of wage increases.
Pesce asserts, “We have a great working relationship with our team members and a very good understanding of our guest count trends… We did not have to make adjustments to employee hours or price increases to offset the [minimum wage] impact. We understand a modest increase improves worker productivity and reduces employee turnover and absenteeism as well.”
How to Stay One Step Ahead of The Minimum Wage Increase Effects
Rising labor costs can be beyond your control, but taking a proactive approach and adjusting your response plan can help minimize their impact on your restaurant's health. Here are some ways restaurant owners can successfully offset labor overhead.
Be creative and mindful in your menu pricing. Your menu prices must balance customer spending habits and preferences, market research, and competitive intel, all while offsetting operational costs in your restaurant. Your menu's design and layout also has an impact on customer perception. If you're raising your prices, now is a good time to evaluate how you present your selections to customers. To get started on the journey to mastering menu pricing, check out these tools and sign up for Toast's free Menu Engineering Bootcamp.
Hire the Right People: If you employ workers with a can-do attitude and a range of skills, they'll be able to pick up the slack if you need to downsize your team. Knowing how to interview, cross-train, and build a strong culture are more important than ever. If you need to consolidate positions, do it mindfully and get feedback from your team throughout the process. Operating with fewer people means you need to be more selective in looking for talent. According to the Harri study, turnover increased by 35% when positions and hours were cut due to wage increases. If you're stuck in a hiring rut, take this interactive, five-chapter course – Hiring the Modern Restaurant Workforce – for in-depth insights and actionable advice related to the restaurant hiring cycle.
Stay closer-than-ever to staff and customer sentiment. Customer feedback is vital to the success of any business; this is especially true in the restaurant industry. Consistently solicit and collect feedback from your guests via all channels possible. Read Facebook and Instagram comments, keep close tabs on your Yelp or TripAdvisor page, and send out surveys periodically using your restaurant CRM platform. Restaurants that use Toast can now access customer feedback in real time using the guest feedback feature on their handheld point of sale technology. During the payment process, guests are prompted to rate their experience and leave comments for the staff; should a poor rating be recorded, restaurant management is instantly alerted via text message, giving them the opportunity to connect with guests and learn how their restaurant can improve for next time.
Invest in Technology: In recent years, restaurant technology has evolved to take the stress out of running a restaurant. Handheld point of sale technology, specifically, can be a big help for restaurants in a tough labor market. Teams that incorporate handheld payment products into their restaurant operations have found they increase server tips and decrease turnover, can onboard new staff members quickly with notes about menu items, ingredient info, and wine pairings, let servers run their own food during slower times with notifications every time one of their tables meals are ready, and can turn tables faster by cutting out the time spent walking between the table and the terminal, so you can staff fewer servers on busy nights.
Monitor local and national legislation that may impact your future costs and be proactive in finding solutions. These simple charts from the Department of Labor can help you monitor the minimum wage in your area and prepare for any upcoming increases. If you aren't already, becoming active in your local and national restaurant associations or attending industry events like Food for Thought will help you learn from others in the industry who are facing the same challenges.
The full results of the Harri Survey can be viewed here.
Odds are you got into the restaurant business because you love food. But most first-time restaurateurs learn quickly that most of opening and running a restaurant has little to do with the food and much more to do with the space in which you operate.
Some days may leave you feeling like more of a building manager than a restaurateur because the bulk of your time was spent dealing with utilities, maintenance, furnishings and fixtures. This is never more true than at the launch of a new restaurant: Selecting the right piece of real estate can make or break your business's success, not to mention your start-up budget.
While some business owners may prefer starting with a raw space that can serve as a blank canvas for their restaurant vision, others are embracing the benefits of upcycling. Recycling’s more glamorous cousin, upcycling is the act of repurposing an existing object or structure in a way that makes it even more appealing than its original state.
Upcycling has proven to be a a win-win trend for environmentalists who want to keep useful materials out of the waste stream, business owners looking for a cost-effective way to grow and scale, and finally, for consumers who love a new product or business with a quirky backstory.
After being out of use for more than fifty years, a former public toilet in London was renovated into a chic artisanal coffee shop. Rather than gutting the space, the sustainability-minded owners kept the original green and white tile-work and lovingly restored a bank of porcelain urinals into a charming seating area. Called The Attendant, even its name is a subtle nod to its restroom roots.
A post shared by Attendant (@attendant_uk) on Jun 27, 2017 at 1:46am PDT
Upcycled restaurants exist in all types of repurposed real estate. Train cars reimagined as diners are a classic example that can be found all across the globe. Gas station garages, with their high ceilings and retractable doors, are easily reinvented into airy cafes with names like The Fillin Station, offering guests semi-al fresco dining on a pleasant day.
A landmark firehouse in Egg Harbor City, NJ was reborn as The Leatherhead Pub, a restaurant that retains much of the building’s original brickwork and ceilings which meant a lot to locals who felt attached to the old structure.
Some new restaurant owners simply repurpose an old restaurant, taking the best elements of a dated establishment – like a row of cherry red, mid century bar stools or a glorious art deco back bar – and breathe new life into the business through a radical new menu or marketing approach.
The upcycling movement has made its way into the pop-up and mobile food service markets as well. Shipping containers, for example, are being used like human-scale LEGOs to build both temporary and permanent dining venues that require a minimal amount of construction; their durable design and modularity allow for endless possibilities. Slumbrew, a Somerville, MA based brewery, recently unveiled a beer garden made of repurposed shipping containers that took only two months to construct.
Meanwhile, the food truck craze has largely been supplied by former delivery step vans – the kind favored by the postal service and FedEx – outfitted with power generators, water tanks, and full kitchens. The relatively low cost of re-engineering an old truck has made them a popular choice for food entrepreneurs just starting out.
If you're opening a new restaurant or considering expanding into new locations, upcycling an existing space offers a sustainable way to stand out from the fold and drive repeat customers with a unique concept.
Working with existing materials and fixtures is not only a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and show your business’ commitment to sustainability, but it’s also a great way to reduce building expenses.
Find an odd venue that’s being sold at a discount because of its quirks and turn that lemon into lemonade. Secondhand furniture and fixtures can also save your business money while adding to the charm and appeal of your restaurant. A well-curated collection of mismatched dishes sourced from a thrift store can look positively shabby chic, and salvaged church pews can make for excellent bench seating for large group tables or in place of banquettes.
Each vintage item, and the walls that house them, have a story to tell: do a little sleuthing and share the history behind the space and the pieces you've incorporated to make your vision come to life. The team at Ledger Restaurant & Bar in Salem, MA does this exceptionally well. Housed in a former bank built circa 1818, Ledger seamlessly weaves the history of their space through every element of their dining experience, including the menu: "Traditional 19th-century dishes, cocktails, and techniques will be elevated with 21st-century resources", their website reads.
Of course you’ll soon have people talking about your food, but you need to get them in the door first. What better way to attract new customers than with a unique space that has an interesting history?
An upcycled restaurant instantly sparks curiosity. The local press will enjoy documenting the evolution of the building while guests will be drawn to the conversation piece that your restaurant’s heritage offers. For example, the upscale cocktail bar, Alibi, housed in the old “drunk tank” of what was Boston’s historic Charles Street Jail, playfully embraces the history of their space by hanging the mugshots of prominent figures and celebrities, from Jay-Z, to Justin Bieber, to Frank Sinatra, to Lindsay Lohan.
As any bargain hunter or antique shopper knows: buyer beware.
Old buildings and secondhand materials have stood the test of time, but they also may be rough around the edges and have a few hidden surprises. It’s smart to work with an experienced commercial building inspector before signing a lease or mortgage and with a contractor who can help navigate any curveballs your new space might throw your way.
Be especially careful taking on a new venture in a registered historic landmark building. While great for attracting tourists and history buffs, you will have to abide by strict regulations around how you alter original elements of the building or impact the facade. This can be tricky when also trying to abide by department of health standards for installing a commercial kitchen.
Shipping container construction is also a bit of a wild west in many communities. There may not be existing guidelines for how to bring a shipping container building up to code which could leave your project in permitting limbo with the local authorities.
Repurposing an old building or building materials for your new restaurant is not without its challenges, but for creative restaurateurs looking to open a space that’s truly unique and honors a less wasteful lifestyle, the rewards are many.
The restaurant industry attracts immigrants from all over the world for many reasons, but the ability to work while learning English – instead of having to wait to find a job until you’re completely proficient – is a big draw.
Bilingual people all know the feeling of getting stuck between words. You’re chugging along, speaking your second, third, or maybe fourth language, when suddenly everything comes to a halt and your mind draws a blank as you search for the right word. When you’re among friends or family, it can feel embarrassing, but if you’re at work, you may feel even worse.
Now imagine feeling that discomfort hundreds of times a day, with it magnified by being fluent only in your native language. This is how many Spanish-speaking restaurant staff members feel.
26.2% of food prep workers, cafeteria attendants, and barbacks
25.9% of chefs and head cooks
16.8% of management (“first-line supervisors of food preparation and serving workers”)
According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of Latinos in the U.S. speak English or are bilingual. They also reported that Spanish is the most widely spoken non-English language in the US, with over 60 million people speaking it across the country.
Working in back of house doesn’t require fluent English, so as long as you can take directions and cook or clean, you can make a living and build a career as you rise through the ranks. In some cities, it’s also perfectly possible to work front of house without speaking much English, but for obvious reasons, it’s more of a challenge.
The famous front and back of house divide that stems, in large part, from pay discrepancies, a difference in skill sets, and the traditional personality types you see working in one restaurant position over another, can be further exacerbated by language barriers. If your front of house staff only speaks English and your back of house communicates in Spanish and Spanglish, there’s a much lower chance that friendships will form naturally across teams. Miscommunications, incorrect orders, and other day-to-day issues in a restaurant can also be caused by staff members being unable to communicate comfortably.
The solution? Teach your English-speaking staff some Spanish, and teach your Spanish-speaking staff some English, says Henry Patterson, Senior Partner of restaurant consulting firm Rethink Restaurants. Start by pushing yourself and the other members of your restaurant’s management to use common Spanish phrases or phrases that would be the most helpful to Spanish-speaking staff members.
Learning a language is tough, but if management is willing to be vulnerable and try to improve their Spanish, it makes the environment more friendly to language errors. “Our attempt to speak Spanish, which in my case is pretty feeble, is entertaining to our Spanish speakers – and more than that, I think it gives them permission to struggle with English,” says Patterson.
How to Create An Inclusive Environment for Bilingual Restaurant Staff 1. Build Bilingualism Into Your Training
You can train your staff to understand all sides of the business, including customer service, leadership skills, anti-harassment training, health codes and best practices, and even food or wine tastings all contribute to staff happiness and fulfilmentHowever, if you’re training your whole staff but only half of them are getting the full picture as a result of a language barrier that’s easily overcome, there’s more work to be done.
When Patterson introduced an open-book management model to his staff, he realized that in order to have every staff member completely understand the financial side of the business, a workshop in English wouldn’t cut it. They hired an external person to come in and give the training in Spanish as well.
He said the Spanish-speaking staff were thrilled. “It was crazy. They were so much more avid students than the Anglo group. … The fact that we did the whole thing in Spanish was a really clear [sign of] respect to them.”
Besides conducting on-the-job training in both English and Spanish, consider teaching your English-speaking staff some basic Spanish, and your Spanish-speaking staff basic English. Encourage a language exchange where you pair up staff members who want to learn each other’s languages. This approach promotes an inclusive work environment where all are respected, validated, and heard – regardless of their native tongue. By having your English-speaking and Spanish-speaking staff work together, you can help team members forge stronger bonds, helping your staff work together as a cohesive unit when delivering memorable dining experiences night after night.
If your budget is tight and you can’t hire anyone externally to give workshops in Spanish, consider asking a bilingual staff member to help out with a training you’re giving and reward them with an employee benefit like overtime pay, PTO (paid time off), the section of their choosing for the next month, or no sidework.
2. Hang Informative Posters in Both Languages
You probably already have labor law compliance posters hanging in your restaurant’s office kitchen and locker room – if not, getting them should jump to the top of your to-do list, because in many states, it’s required by law to display them.
Workplace compliance posters serve many important purposes, from highlighting common ways to avoid cross-contamination to informing workers of their rights. It’s crucial that every employee – regardless of their native language – understands every word on these posters.
Many states provide Spanish and English versions of workplace compliance posters – look through the state by state list here.
You can find additional workplace safety posters here that pertain to different areas of the business, from refrigeration regulations to prevention of communicable diseases in the kitchen; many are available in both English and Spanish.
Here’s another link where you can find posters in English and Spanish specifically related to allergies — scroll about halfway down the page to the Free FARE Educational Resources section.
While you’re at it, Dot-It advises if you use weekday stickers for labelling prepped food for the fridge, get bilingual ones.
Above all, respect is the most important part of bilingual workplace training. Mocking another team member’s accent should not be tolerated; if you’re unsure of how to say something, respectfully ask instead of just assuming.
If you’re wondering about pronunciation: In Spanish, the emphasis is almost always on the second last syllable of a word, unless there’s an accent that indicates otherwise. For example: cuidado is pronounced cui-DA-do, filoso is pronounced fi-LO-so, resbaloso is pronounced res-ba-LO-so, but lácteos is pronounced LÁC-te-os. Note that typically, “io” ends up counting as one syllable, so sucio is pronounced “SU-cio”.
Here are 75 key restaurant terms in Spanish:
Cuidado - Careful, be careful
Caliente - Hot
Resbaloso - Slippery
Listo - Ready
Filoso - Sharp
Aqui - Here, can be used like “behind”
Atras de ti - I’m behind you
Rapido - Quickly
Limpio - Clean
Sucio - Dirty
La alergia - Allergy
La cena - Dinner
El almuerzo/lunch - Lunch
El desayuno - Breakfast
La botana - Appetizer
El plato principal/plato fuerte - Entrée, main dish
El res/buey - Beef
El pollo - Chicken
El cerdo - Pork
El pescado - Fish
Los mariscos - Seafood
Las verduras/vegetales - Vegetables
La pasta - Pasta
La harina - Flour
El trigo - Wheat
Los productos lácteos - Dairy products
La leche - Milk
La crema - Cream
El queso - Cheese
Las nueces - Nuts
Los cacahuates - Peanuts
Las semillas - Seeds
La soya - Soy
Los huevos - Eggs
La salsa - Sauce
La masa - Dough or batter
La levadura - Yeast
La cocina - Kitchen
El baño - Bathroom
El comedor - Dining room
El closet - Closet
El casillero - Locker
El candado - Padlock
La oficina - Office
El refrigerador - Refrigerator
El congelador - Freezer
La despensa - Pantry/dry storage
El cuchillo - Knife
El plato - Plate
El horno - Oven
La parilla - Griddle/grill
La toalla - Towel
La cuchara - Spoon
La cucharadita/cucharilla (regional) - Teaspoon
La cucharada - Tablespoon
El tenedor - Fork
La lana / la plata / el dinero - Money
El efectivo - Cash
Corta - Cut
Rebana - Slice
Lava - Wash
Prepara - Prepare
Limpia - Clean
Guarda - Put away
Coce - Cook (as in cook it until medium-well)
Fichar / marcar tarjeta - Clock in or out
Un momento - Hold on a second, wait a moment
Donde está ____ - Where is ____
Pásame ____ - Pass me ___
Se acabo ____ - We’re out of ____
Puedo ____ - Can I
Perdon - Sorry
Ahí te va - It’s coming
Espera - Wait
Me tengo que ir - I have to leave
Empathy is Everything
In a recent interview for The Garnish, a podcast for restaurant people by Toast, Danny Meyer said
“How in the world can you possibly be in a business that is about making people feel better, when there could be people in your own company that don't feel good about coming to work, or feel that there are double standards, or feel that there are different sets of rules for different people based on power, gender, race, etc.”
Having and showing empathy for everyone on your staff will inevitably lead to a happier, more cohesive team, contributing to a stronger workplace culture overall, and a more successful restaurant. A big way that you can show you care is by making an effort to speak the languages of your employees and making them feel comfortable in practicing their English at work. Creating a bilingual environment where diversity in languages is welcomed will make your restaurant an even better place to work.
I firmly believe that if every American were required to work at least one year in a front of house restaurant position, it would fundamentally improve how we engage with one another, especially strangers.
Behind teachers and nurses, restaurant servers rank high on my list of the professional positions I respect and empathize with the most, mainly because I walked in their non-slip shoes once upon a time.
During any given shift, you are required to be equal parts party host, mind reader, sales representative, glassware balancing acrobat, customer service representative, and a palate-pleasing encyclopedia. If I were to compare restaurant servers to an animal, it would have to be a duck: both are calm, cool, and collected on the surface, with the jets firing at full throttle under the water. The hustle never stops, and neither does the grind, but boy oh boy it is fun to be the gatekeeper of a good time.
Though on paper front of house staff earn less than salaried positions, the paper in their pocket at the end of a double shift tells a different story.
In the majority of American restaurants, servers and bartenders are considered tipped wage workers, meaning their wages are largely funded by tips and gratuity from their customers, as opposed to their employers. Though servers are paid a lesser minimum wage than non-tipped wage workers, it is legally required under the Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA) for employers to pay the difference should a server leave their shift with less than they would have made if paid the hourly minimum wage rate that non-tipped wage workers receive.
One of the most unique things about the server pay structure is that they can physically see the fruits of their labor in hand at the end of a shift. Tipping culture can be very lucrative, but it’s also important to note that recent studies have shown race and gender biases do, in fact, impact the size of a front of house staff member’s tip.
Whether you’re new to the apron or a veteran of the game, you should always be finding ways to improve and hone your server skills. Let’s dive into some proven ways how you can be a better server and bring home some thick–cut bacon in the process.
Any server will tell you that they have at least 1,000,000,000 things running through their mind at any given moment during a shift. Though it can be hard to manage so many competing tasks, priority numero uno always has been, and always will be, delivering a memorable dining experience to every guest.
This means you cannot revert to robot status by just taking, entering, and fulfilling your guests’ orders. Making the effort to connect with guests can have a drastic impact on your tips, your sales, and your restaurant’s overall performance. You don’t have to divulge your life story every time, it can be as simple as introducing yourself – a 2009 study found that servers who introduced themselves by name to their tables saw a 23% increase in their tip – or writing a quick “thank you” on the check – a 1996 study found that writing a simple “thank you” on guests checks increased tips to servers by 13%.
Nothing quite tops off a fun night out to eat like a good laugh: Another study found that telling a joke to your guests increases tips by a whopping 40%. This also may help them remember you for future visits, creating a regular customer, and a regular stream of income for you.
2. Upsell an experience, not an item.
Upselling is a strategy front of house staff use to recommend a higher-priced item based on conversations they have with guests about likes, wants, and preferences. To upsell effectively, you need to ask discovery questions (questions that teach you more about the guest), genuinely listen to their answers, and respond with a relevant recommendation based on the information they gave you.
Instead of selling a thing - like a glass of wine, appetizer, or dessert – upselling an experience can often be more effective. Here are some examples:
DON’T: “Would you like some wine with your meal?”
DO: “The Malbec would pair perfectly with your steak; it will seriously enhance the flavor and texture of the filet. Should I bring a glass out with your meal, or would you like me to bring a taste now?”
Why this example works: You’re adding value to their entree by recommending a wine that enhances the tastes and textures they will experience when dining.
DON’T: “Would you like to start with some appetizers?”
DO: “The frisée salad is my favorite way to start the meal, it’s light but complex with the mix of quinoa and roasted pumpkin seeds, but it won’t fill you up before your entree. I ordered the roasted tomato soup for lunch today and it was delicious –, our Chef has been tweaking it for weeks. Can I bring you a taste of either?”
Why this example works: Sharing a personal experience with a menu item can encourage guests to also give it a try. Today’s restaurant goers check reviews before trying a restaurant or a specific menu item; consider this your in-person Yelp review.
If you have yet to try a certain menu item, see if another member of your team has and is willing to give you their opinion to pass off as your own. Coming from a vegetarian who sold an impressive amount of wings while working in a sports bar, it can be done – and done well.
Never assume your guests know their order until it’s entered in your point of sale. As my 10th grade Geometry teacher Mr.McGowan used to say, “Don’t assume – it makes an ass out of you and me”. The man even made this into a poster.
Even the pickiest of eaters will be curious to hear about your specials, new menu items, your favorite dishes, and any other recommendations you can offer them that would enhance their dining experience. Remember: You know your restaurant’s menu better than they do, even if they’re a loyal customer. You have plenty of time between the moment they sit down and the moment they place their order to upsell them or convince them to give a certain menu item a try.
You’ll notice that in the suggestions above, the upsell ends with an assumption that an appetizer or wine will be ordered. The more “typical” something seems, the more likely your guests will go along with it. Not only that, but the more items servers can add to their dining experience, the more delighted the guests will be, the bigger the check will be, and the higher potential you have to take home a larger tip.
Some members of a group may not order anything at all, or just water, but by talking through the options and learning about what their interests are, you create a lasting connection that could parlay into a repeat visit, a great online review about the quality of service, or even a visit from a friend or family member of theirs who heard them raving about their experience.
4. Speed Does Not Equal Efficiency
If you’re not already familiar with the steps of service, start studying. The steps of service are the 12 most common interactions restaurant staff and guests experience during a meal; set against your restaurant’s average table turn time, the steps turn into a checklist where each interaction must be completed within a certain time after the table has been seated.
Though the specifics will vary from restaurant to restaurant, here’s an example of what the steps of service may look like:
90 seconds seated: Table is greeted and drink order taken.
4/5 minutes seated: Drinks are delivered and meal order taken.
9 minutes seated: Condiments, cutlery, napkins, and other supplementary items are dropped off; check and see if refills are needed.
*Food delivered* and customers asked “is there anything else I can bring you?”
2-4 minutes after food delivered: Check in on quality of food; ask about refills.
Turning tables is key to making more money, but there’s a fine line between turning tables and rushing guests in a full service establishment; this is where the steps of service will help you the most. Following the steps of service will help you stay on par with your restaurant’s average table turn time and keep with the flow of customers going, ensuring you’re not losing out on tables and their potential gratuity.
Pro tip: The best servers know to never go from one place to another empty-handed. There is always something that needs to be carried from the kitchen to the floor, from the bar to the dishpit, from the bar to the patio, etc. Though you have your own assigned section and side-work for the shift, helping others who may be in the weeds, bussing tables, or restocking server stations is a great way to play as a team and build camaraderie with your fellow front of house staff members.
5. Handle Campers with Care
Campers, squatters, whatever you call ‘em, they’re the bane of every restaurant server’s existence. A camper is a guest who chooses to stay at their table for a long period of time after the payment process is completed.
Though it’s great to see guests having such a good time that they want to stay and continue their conversation, they are unknowingly throwing off the flow of new guests being seated. While Server A may be stuck waiting for a table to pack up and head home, Server B may be double-seated, sending them into a frenzy while an even longer line starts to form at the door.
Campers are frustrating mainly because they cost the restaurant and the server money. As a result, servers may – either inadvertently or explicitly – try to encourage the guest to leave. This can be awkward and sometimes perceived as rude.
You don’t want all of that hard work you put toward showing hospitality and cultivating connections to be for naught because they wouldn’t leave. Maybe you did your job a little too well!
Everyone has a different way of handling campers, so you’ll need to figure out which one works best for you, your personality, and your relationship with your guests. Honesty has worked pretty well for me in the past, something like “hey folks, I’ve loved having you here but I need this table for another waiting party.”
As the fearless leader on the floor, restaurant managers are responsible to help their team be successful. Here are a few ways restaurant managers can teach staff how to be better servers.
1. Give a little, get a lot!
Handing out simple tokens of appreciation (a mint, a fortune cookie, etc.) is a very simple way to increase tips.
The below video (start at 1:48) is about a study where servers were instructed to give diners a mint at the end of their meal.
Science Of Persuasion - YouTube
When one mint per diner was given, tips increased about 3%.
When two mints per diner were given, tips increased about 14%.
When a server gave one mint, started to walk away, then said "For you nice people, here's an extra mint," tips increased about 23%.
What's noteworthy is just how much they increase server tips; it's clear that the personalized connection between server and guest cannot be overstated. Providing a bag of mints each shift isn't much of an expense, and if they can satisfy staff with more tips, that's even better!
Toast, for example, has an “item detail” feature that comes in handy. Allergy considerations, ingredients, or even suggested wine pairings can be available at the touch of a button. Use those valuable seconds that would be spent running back and forth to the kitchen for such questions to fill up waters and ensure tables have what they need.
Another way restaurant technology can help maintain the hum of service is by adding counts to items to help servers avoid ordering something that is out of stock, then spending time returning to the table to disappoint a guest with bad news, and waiting for the customer to choose something else. BONUS: The back of house will be grateful for the lack of disruptions in service!
3. Train, train, train!
Adopt and promote a philosophy of lifelong learning in your restaurant. Staff training cannot be a one or two time thing if you want your staff to give your guests the best experience possible every time. This applies to information about your menu as well as on-the-job skills training.
Wine tastings, menu item tastings, and education on how to pair is essential; so is training about improving table turn time, how to properly greet a table, how to handle rude customers, and how to artfully encourage campers to leave (see above). Consider inviting guest speakers to your upcoming pre-shift meals, require your staff complete an online hospitality skills course on Typsy, or encourage your team to attend a food show or industry event like Toast’s Food for Thought.
4. Keep track of your strongest servers and be willing to help.
Track each server’s sales performance using your restaurant point of sale's reporting. This will help you identify who your strongest team members are, who could use a little help, and who could benefit from some additional hands-on training.
By tracking this data over time, you will be able to see how your staff is improving, or identify specific areas where a team member may be lacking. For example, the data may tell you that server A is having difficulty selling craft beers, while server B tends to ease up on upselling after 9 PM.
Employee incentives are a wildly effective tool to motivate your staff to perform better on the job. There’s nothing better than a little friendly competition to get the momentum going. Check out our post about how to start an employee incentive program in your restaurant, complete with 11 incentives to try.
Becoming a Better Restaurant Server
Ready to become a better waiter or waitress? Download our free list of 30 Ways to Become a Better Restaurant Server below to start earning more tips from your guests.
Content warning: This article contains discussions about addiction, substance use disorders, alcoholism, and drug use.
While substance use disorders affect people in every line of work, they are particularly prevalent in the restaurant world.
In 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that the food service and hospitality industry had the highest rate of substance use disorders of all employment sectors, with nearly 12% of restaurant workers engaging in heavy alcohol use – defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in under two hours for five consecutive days – and 19.1% having used illicit drugs in the past month. The impact of the nationwide opioid crisis has also been felt in kitchens and dining rooms across the country.
It’s worth noting these numbers are self-reported, so it’s likely that the numbers are much higher.
To put this in perspective, if you have a staff of 20 people, it's likely that at least two of your employees are being affected by these issues right now.
On our latest episode of The Garnish, we spoke with three individuals who each have different experiences with addiction in the restaurant industry. During these conversations, we learned about the barriers and stigmatization restaurant workers face when trying to get treatment and live a sober lifestyle.
We also got some perspectives on what restaurant owners and managers can do to create safer environments and help employees struggling with addiction.
Alcohol is Everywhere, but It’s Not for Everyone
The restaurant industry poses a unique challenge for people trying to get sober or cut back on drinking. Alcohol is everywhere — it’s a big part of the workplace — and the restaurant industry is one of the only ones where drinking on the job probably won’t get you instantly fired. The level of stress that restaurant workers experience daily is also conducive to drinking.
Brandi Estrada runs the NGO Bar Harm, and she’s worked in restaurants and bars for the last 17 years. She says that our industry needs to re-evaluate what is considered okay when it comes to drinking. “A lot of us drink too much, and there’s a very high rate of substance use, so it’s kind of normalized,” says Estrada. “It makes it hard for people because they have a difficult time recognizing when it becomes a problem.”
Shaaren Pine, of the NGO Restaurant Recovery, agrees. “It’s very seductive, and we can be kind of counter-culture-y,” says Pine. “When you're working a shift and you get your ass kicked, there is nothing that bonds people together [more]. You’re working really hard in a restaurant, and then you're so pumped, and the habit is ‘let's go relax and party. It's just very easy to kind of get into that.”
Upon realizing that the restaurant she was managing was enabling patterns of unhealthy alcohol use, she decided they needed to make a big change: they got rid of shift drinks, and stopped allowing people to work while drunk. “It was really hard. We lost a lot of people, and got accused by many people that were going to ruin our restaurant,” said Pine, “but not surprisingly, we ended up with a much stronger team when we found people who wanted to work for us, for us, and not just because they could get shift drinks.”
In 2016, 39-year-old Carrie Neal Walden was injured while waiting tables and was sent to the hospital. She was immediately transferred to a liver doctor, who gave her an ultimatum: stop drinking or you won’t make it to 40. She was on the brink of cirrhosis after seven years of heavy drinking while working as a server in various restaurants.
Today, she’s 42, and a chapter leader and media coordinator for Ben’s Friends, an organization that helps restaurant workers get sober and stay sober.
She says that the culture in restaurants needs an overhaul. “I think it's really important, the example that the owners and managers lead,” said Walden. “Are they doing shots with customers? I've worked at a place where that was encouraged, for all the staff… some of us can't handle that.”
Walden is often upset and surprised by the opinions that the general public still hold about alcoholism. “It doesn’t discriminate. It's not the brown paper bag person. It's the carpool mom who is drunk when she picks up her kids or it's the high-powered lawyer with names on buildings, just like it's somebody who spent time in jail.”
Estrada, Pine, and Walden all say that one thing that everyone can do to improve our industry’s culture is talk more openly about this issue because stigmatization is still a huge barrier to restaurant people getting help. “Every time there's a piece about someone very famous, whether it's Andrew Zimmern, or any of the other folks that are willing to speak out from a high level, it trickles down,” says Walden.
Earlier this year, Bon Appetit ran an essay written by David MacMillan, owner and executive chef of Joe Beef in Montreal, Canada about how his bacchanalian restaurant has changed since he decided to get sober.
“As I started taking care of myself, the staff started mimicking me. All of these young cooks who came to cook at Joe Beef, who look up to me and Fred [Morin], saw, well, David’s not drinking anymore, and he’s going to bed early, and he’s talking about what’s cool on Netflix. Then my staff was going to bed early and watching Netflix. My comptroller said staff drinking is down like crazy. We have the numbers. We used to give out 30 or 40 glasses of wine at the end of the shift, and it’s down to 10, and half the staff is drinking kombucha.”
The Opioid Crisis in Restaurants
Brandi Estrada started training restaurant staff about substance abuse and how to administer Narcan (Naloxone) – the overdose-reversal nasal spray– after a regular guest fatally overdosed in her restaurant.
The demand for this kind of training in restaurants has been overwhelming. Estrada said every owner or manager she spoke to about this had had an experience like hers, whether it was with a staff member, a guest, or someone hanging around near the restaurant. “What we see a lot of, unfortunately, in restaurants and bars now is what I would call an accidental overdose. There's been a spike in cocaine use in the last couple of years, and so much of cocaine has fentanyl or Carfentanil in it,” says Estrada. “I don't know too many people whose lives haven't been touched by the opioid crisis.”
After every training that Estrada gives, she says that people approach her to ask more questions or confide in her about a personal situation. Because of this, her training has grown to cover more expansive and in-depth information about substance abuse. “Someone always stays back to ask questions… How do you do an intervention? How do you help someone without being accusatory? What’s the best way to get someone help?”
Estrada hopes to make the difficult process of helping a loved one or employee get help a little bit easier. “I tell everyone: If someone does come to you and they want to get help, that's a huge display of respect to that person. But also it tends to be a pretty short window when people want to get help.” That’s why Estrada distributes resource lists to as many people as possible, so they can sit down with someone who needs help right away and make some phone calls together.
Restaurant people rarely get the opportunity to hang out as an industry — it's impossible to leave a busy restaurant — but one of those times is here.
The National Restaurant Association Show is a four-day gathering of more than 65,000 people from the restaurant world, where we explore the trends that are changing the way we own and operate this industry, both now and in the future. This year's event will be hosted in Chicago between May 18 and May 21.
The focus of this year's National Restaurant Association Show is on how we're innovating as an industry while continuing to create amazing dining experiences for our guests. Chefs and mixologists will share their culinary secrets and battle it out on stage. Industry leaders and experts will educate us with insights and predictions on the challenges and opportunities ahead. Suppliers, producers, consultants, and startups will show us what's new in restaurant tech and equipment. And then there are the celebrations — it's the 100th annual show, so this event is a big deal.
If you're heading to the show this year, awesome. We'll be there, too. Say hi and stop by the booth to be featured in our live video series.
If you can't leave your restaurant, no problem. We'll be there on your behalf to share the latest information, trends, and insights with our community of restaurateurs.
This live blog is your place for all 2019 National Restaurant Show coverage. Toast reporters will be hitting the show floor — attending workshops, competitions, talks, and events — to bring you everything you need to know about this year's show. Before, throughout, and after the four days, this page will transform with predictions, real-time coverage, and summaries of the biggest trends we see this year.
Within Toast's coverage, you'll see images, video, and social feeds. You'll read exclusive interviews and analysis on who's talking about what and why — and what it all means for you.
Here are some of the big themes we expect to see:
Conversations about how the environment and the economy are impacting, and being impacted by, the restaurant industry.
Innovations in the foodservice supply chain and the steps the industry is taking to improve operations, cost, and quality.
Discussions on hiring, training, and retaining restaurant staff, and the steps the industry is taking to make sure the next generation of leadership is trained and prepared for a future in the foodservice industry.
Innovations in technology that support profitability and operations.
New culinary trends and techniques to test and market.
Trending products that address diners’ concerns about nutrition, packaging, and sustainability.
Cutting-edge equipment that improves operations through automation, efficiency, safety improvements, sustainability, and waste solutions.
And all the industry personalities — celebrity chefs of the future and how they're growing their skills and making names for themselves.
It's a lot to cover, but we'll get through it together (and have fun along the way). See the detailed agenda here for more.
Tune in and take note — we'll update this page with predictions leading up to the show, and you can check back hourly between May 18 and May 21 to read about what we're seeing, hearing, and tasting at one of the biggest restaurant industry events of the year.
You don’t have a restaurant without your employees, which is why it’s important to pay them on time, pay them fairly (and well, if you can), and keep them happy with as consistent a shift schedule as possible. But the cost of labor is constantly rising, and it can be hard to keep up while staying within your restaurant’s operating cost.
If you’re not keeping an eye on your restaurant staff scheduling practices, things can get out of hand quickly.
When you think of food cost, buying a little too much food isn't usually an issue. As long as it’s not spoiled, wasted, or stolen, you can use that food at a later point. But if you bring in too many employees and the shift is slower than you expected, you can’t tell those employees the hours they worked don’t count.
This makes it vital to have controls in place to manage your restaurant's labor costs. Here are three changes you can make in your restaurant to control your labor costs and maximize your profitability this year, while keeping your staff’s needs in mind.
1. Schedule Less
There’s a myth in the restaurant and hospitality industry that bringing in more staff gives your guests better service.
You want to give your guests a great dining experience with incomparable customer service. To plan for this, you may think to bring in more servers or additional cooks for faster ticket times. But when you have too many people working and not enough work to be done, employees may wind up getting bored or distracted and ultimately giving less than great customer service. Their tips will suffer, too, says Rewards Network.
There’s a fine balance to strike here: Scheduling too few staff members leaves your employees vulnerable to getting slammed with too many customers and eventually burning out. Too many and you’re stuck paying employees to stand around.
In my eyes, your restaurant's guests get the best experience when you’re staffed to a level where you think you might be able to use one more person on the floor, where there’s enough of a sense of urgency to keep everyone moving, and where staff only have time to stay focused on the guests. The end result is happy customers, higher sales, more tips per server, and lower labor costs.
Now, I'm not saying to overwork your employees and under-schedule your loyal staff – you should feel like maybe one more worker would make things easier, not three. If your scheduling has been off a few times in the past month and you’ve been left scrambling, it’s time to think about sales forecasting – more on that below. If your staff is chronically overworked, they won’t be sticking around very long.
The bottom line here is you should ignore the impulse to dish out extra shifts to staff when you have a feeling they won’t be needed.
2. Track Labor Cost Daily and Watch Your Weekly Average
This sounds tedious, but you have the tools you need as long as you have a restaurant point-of-sale (POS) system. All you need to do is run a daily report in your POS system each day to see how much you’re paying your employees who worked that day and divide that number by the day's gross sales. This will give you your labor cost.
Then, as each day goes by, add the labor costs together and the sales together and divide. This will give you your restaurant's running labor cost.
The hard part about this process is understanding that your labor target is different each day. For example, let’s say you’re aiming for a total 30% labor cost for all hourly employees, before taxes, benefits, insurance, and not including salaried management. You use that percentage goal to adjust your schedule to be on budget. What you’ll find is that your labor cost — based on how you scheduled — may be at 33% on Monday after a busy weekend due to the extra prep that needs to be done at the beginning of the week, and since Monday is your slowest sales day.
Take a look at weekly averages as your guiding light. If you’re hitting 30% over the course of a full week, balancing slow days and line-out-the-door days, you’re on target.
3. Schedule Based on a Sales Forecast
Don’t just rely on your gut feeling when it comes to restaurant scheduling. It’s extremely common for restaurants to schedule "like they always do," even when their sales are lower than expected or when they’re coming out of a high season. The truth is this practice can rob you of your profits faster than anything else in your business.
Changing this habit starts with one step: By the 20th of the current month, make your best guess of what your Monday-Sunday gross sales will be next month. This enables you to adjust your schedules to take care of the needs of your guests and your business without losing money.
Having a labor cost target to shoot for helps immensely. You can simply multiply your forecasted sales by your labor cost percentage target to know how much money you can spend on labor next week. Subtract salaried management and, like magic, you know what you can spend on hourly employees to stay on budget. Now, adjust your schedule to match. This allows you to go into the week on budget instead of bringing people in and praying you’re busy enough to pay for them.
It also helps to check your weather forecast every day. No one likes getting a shift cancelled, but if it’s going to be a thunderstorm-filled Saturday, you’ll likely need half the staff you’d planned for. Make cuts as needed, and make it up to your cancelled staff the following week to keep things fair.
The Bottom Line
When you prevent having excess staff members working a slow shift, schedule based on a budget, and track your labor on a daily basis, you are putting your restaurant's management team in a strong position. You’ll not only control your labor costs and make the business more profitable but also gain the benefit of happier customers and a management team who controls the business, not the other way around.
Content warning: This post contains discussions of sexual harassment.
In 2010, attorney Erin Wade found herself craving mac and cheese after a long day at work. After throwing together her dad’s recipe, she had an “ah-ha” moment: She was ready to leave behind her law career, and her next move would be to open a restaurant centered around mac and cheese.
A year later, Homeroom was born. But, as any restaurateur could guess, the path to opening was bumpier than Wade expected.
Finding the Finances
The hurdles Wade faced were largely financial. “I had gone to banks to try to get a loan, and, at least at the time, following the financial crisis, there was no bank that would loan money to me. And I was someone with an almost perfect credit score,” she said. “But it's because it's such a volatile industry, and such a risky one to enter, banks just will not loan to people that don't at the very least have experience. But generally, they just won't loan to first-time restaurateurs, period.”
Wade was shocked at the level of risk required in opening a restaurant – she ended up using her life savings and taking on a lot of credit card debt. “It’s a really scary way to finance a restaurant, because if you go under, you're going to at some point get hit with pretty gigantic amounts of interest.”
And even though Wade and her husband built chairs, chandeliers, and anything else they could build instead of buying, Homeroom still opened with only two weeks of operating expenses in its bank account. “If it had not immediately been successful, it would have immediately failed,” said Wade.
Luckily, the restaurant, located in Oakland, CA, was a hit – turns out that serving everyone’s favorite comfort food made to order is a pretty great business model. But it wasn’t enough for Wade to open a restaurant that just served world-class mac and cheese. She also wanted it to be a safe, enjoyable place to work for people from all walks of life.
Hiring for Inclusion
Homeroom’s commitment to building an inclusive restaurant starts at the beginning of the hiring process – starting with where they look for employees. “We seek out people with diverse life experiences. And I'm not talking just in terms of race or gender. We also work with organizations that place refugees, we hire people who are formerly incarcerated, and former foster youth. We're really looking to have a company that's as diverse as [Oakland, CA], the city that we live in, which is one of the most diverse cities in America.”
Once a new employee is hired, they’re given a two-hour cultural orientation, run by Wade herself, to emphasize the company’s commitment to inclusion and to teach it as a core value. “We talk about it, and we train for it, and then we really try to try to live it. I mean, more than 70% of our leadership team are women and people of color. We just feel like that's really important. We work in an industry where honestly, women and people of color comprise most of who is in the lowest paid positions in the industry. But once you started going up that power ladder, you start seeing a lot less women, a lot less people of color.” said Wade. “So we feel really committed to honestly just saying that that's important to us, so lots of different people raise their hands whenever we have leadership positions open up. We promote from within pretty much exclusively.”
One of the ways Homeroom is changing the status quo is by creating a more democratic work environment that strays from the traditional, hierarchical parent-child, boss-employee relationship. For example, when issues of customer harassment started popping up, staff turned to Wade to report it, but she gave them the agency to develop an anti-harassment system themselves.
“I know I've written a lot about our anti-harassment program, but our staff developed it,” said Wade. “Unfortunately, almost four years ago, a number of female staff members emailed me with the topic saying ‘Harassment.’ And I was like, ‘Oh God, what is going on?’ And you know, it turned out that we weren't having internal harassment, which I know has been in the press a lot lately. But actually what they were experiencing was harassment from customers. And you know, pretty much every woman who worked for us had a story, which was super sad. I had no idea. I was shocked. It was the first time anyone had ever reported it. So it was like, gosh, this is a pretty big deal – let's get together and have a problem-solving session. And so we did. Maybe 15 to 20 women on our staff showed up for that meeting and came up with this system that we use to this day to deal with harassment.”
The system is simple but extremely effective. “What we came up with is this color-coded system where a yellow refers to behavior that is nothing more than a vibe, just a creepy vibe that you get. An orange is creepy vibe plus ambiguous language. Something, for example, like ‘I like your shirt’ – depending on how someone says it, it could be super gross or completely benign, right? And then a red is overtly sexual language – ‘You look sexy in that shirt’ – or touching.”
During a shift, the affected staff member reports the color to their manager — they don’t have to explain what happened right away. “In the case of a yellow or an orange, the manager just goes in and takes over the table. And in the case of a red, and the manager goes in, takes over the table, and asks the guests to leave.”
It’s an approach that cuts off harassment at the source, blocking it from escalating. “What's been so amazing is that we came up with it as a way of dealing with the problem, but what it's actually done is really help curb the problem,” explained Wade. “No one really walks into a restaurant and sticks their hand up someone's shirt, which is the incident that set this off. But what they do do is they start by checking that person out. And then they lob low-level inappropriate comments at them. They're testing the waters. So when you change the power dynamic at that [point], it tends to stop it from escalating into a bad situation.”
Implementing the system has shown a marked reduction in incidents of harassment in the restaurant. “When we first held that meeting, sadly, every woman had a red story,” said Wade. “Now, they're happening maybe once a year. It's really uncommon. And it's a really elegant system ‘cause it's super easy to use. It's not complicated. You can use it on the floor of a busy restaurant. And, most importantly, it doesn't rely on managerial judgment of ‘is this harassment/is this not.’”
Wade wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about this system, believing that by getting it out there and showing how to implement it, she could immediately help solve the problem in other restaurants. However, she realized that the implicit trust she has in her staff is not present everywhere, and this level of trust is a crucial ingredient in the system working. She’s working on a training piece for other restaurants to help them get there. “We do just generally believe our staff, you know, and the system is set up to do that, and a lot of restaurants are not really based on a model of trust and transparency. But I want to get restaurants that maybe aren't based on that model to still use this, because I think it can make a huge, huge change our industry if more restaurants picked it up.”
The framework is also applied internally, said Wade, for identifying internal harassment issues, though it’s not as easy to manage because you can’t kick out an employee in the same way that a customer can be asked to leave. That being said, Wade explains “it's still a helpful framework for putting people's behavior into buckets, but what a company wants to do with behavior in each of those buckets is very individual to each organization.”
Keeping Staff Happy
When it comes to compensation, Homeroom also goes beyond industry norms to make sure staff feel appreciated. There’s a weekly meeting where management discusses the restaurant’s finances with the staff, but that’s only the beginning. “We're a mission-driven company that talks about our values and our purpose at work, because that's really what makes work interesting and exciting every day. But I think that we also check some of the other boxes – we pay really well,” said Wade. “Our starting wage is close to $17 an hour. If they’re here for more than a year, we do annual bonuses based on our profit – it's a form of profit sharing.”
High-level positions are filled from within, which is a great way to keep turnover low and signal to new staff they have a reason to stick around. “If you know that you're working somewhere that you’re valued, where you have a future, that has a purpose and a mission, you know, I think you’ll always have great employees, no matter what the market looks like.”
In this low-margin, high-stress business, it can be tough to decide to do things differently when it comes to restaurant management and all it encompasses – from hiring to compensation to training and beyond. But learning about restaurants like Homeroom is a great first step.