A free meal or share of the tips might be a great incentive for your wait staff, but is it enough for a senior manager or chef? Rewarding your people properly could boost more than just retention
When Northern Territory restaurateur Tim Hayward took his 12 staff to Las Vegas for a holiday last year, other business owners in the industry might have suspected they were up to something. In a way, they were right. “If you reward good staff, they stay with you,” he explained to local newspapers when news of his particularly generous staff bonuses broke. “They come to work when everybody else is off enjoying themselves. I like to reward that.”
While the gesture seems over-the-top, Hayward’s approach to the hard task of attracting and retaining employees in the backpacker-rich city of Darwin seems to work. The permanent staff in his humble Top End steakhouse have been there for an average of five years, Hayward reports. One has stuck around for 10.
“That’s unheard of in our industry,” he explains. “Some restaurants are happy if they keep staff a few months.”
Indeed, the constant challenge of keeping restaurant staff adequately incentivised to stay in the job is not a new one for Australia’s food service industry. And most business owners report it’s an even bigger hurdle in the case of managers. R&C President Peter Doyle says the need for fair rewards is at the heart of the industry’s retention issues. “It’s always important to reward staff for good work,” he says.
“I never consider that wait staff are less important than managers, because everyone is important in a food service situation.”
But Doyle admits that the very nature of food service means senior staff such as front-of-house managers and head chefs end up working longer hours and in more stressful situations, which means the stakes often need to be raised when it comes to keeping them in the heat of the kitchen.
“Management staff usually bear the brunt of the busy times,” he says, speaking from the kitchen of his Sydney harbourside dining room, Peter Doyle @ The Quay. “For that reason, it makes sense to reward them with a financial bonus or other kind of incentive at least once a year.”
Flexible working hours and conditions can also be a tempting carrot for restaurant managers or chefs, considering the number of weekends and late nights they likely had to do to get there.
It’s an approach that the owner of Aqua Dining in Milsons Point, Bill Drakopoulos, has adopted with the restaurant managers across his stable of Ripples dining rooms in Sydney.
“For me, flexible working hours are a big incentive,” said one of Drakopoulos’s managers, who works at Aqua Dining. “It’s something that I’ve been successfully negotiating with Bill for a long time.”
“As long as we’re here when we’re needed and can do the big shifts, most of the managers in the group can organise pretty flexible conditions, which is a valuable thing in this industry.”
Indeed, the imposing hours of most food service jobs can be just as limiting for employers as it is for the staff themselves.
But Jonn Close, chief executive of food service business consultancy Close Encounters, warns against the instinctive solution adopted by many restaurateurs of simply offering more money to attract good staff.
“One thing about our industry is that we usually have very low profit margins, which is a big problem and means it’s often difficult to get good people,” he says. “Try to avoid using any kind of incentive scheme just to get them on board. It fills people with false hope and promise, because most of the time you can’t afford to follow through.”
Instead, Close says, look at incentives that have real value for both parties and actual meaning for the manager involved. “The most important thing with any incentive is the particular individual. Find out what they want, what makes them tick and where they want to be in the future.
“While a lot of people naturally want money, cash bonuses very quickly get frittered away and eaten up in things like tax. If you give a manager a bonus of a grand once a year, for example, a lot of it will be eaten up long before it is even in their pocket.”
Overseas research backs up his experience, with research by US-based consultant and restaurateur Jim Sullivan indicating that the emotional buzz felt by a staff member from a cash bonus lasts just 12 to 15 seconds.
“It then disappears into the wallet and is quickly forgotten,” Sullivan claimed. Back home, Close says the answer lies in getting to know your managers. “The best way to excite them is to make their rewards meaningful,” he explains. “If you really want to keep people, you need to think about them. It’s easy to give them money, but that’s usually the thing restaurateurs can least afford. A gift voucher to their favourite store is actually much better than cash.
r you could take them to a nice restaurant or café and spend time with them. Whatever you do, the idea is to make them feel special.”
For loyal managers who have been on staff for a while, Close says the incentives involved in keeping them interested also need to be suitably ramped up. Buy-in opportunities are a perfect incentive, he claims, because it gives them a personal and financial reason to see
the business succeed.
“This kind of incentive works particularly well for chefs, who are historically pretty quick to move on from a job if they perceive they’re not being appreciated,” he explains.
“If they have a financial incentive to stay in the restaurant and drive the business’s success, they will usually stick around much longer.”
Share buy-ins can also deliver long-term succession benefits for restaurateurs. “You should always get financial advice before promising anything, but this approach can become your exit strategy after a while,” Close explains. “In the case of senior staff, tying them into the business makes a lot of sense.”
And there was method in Tim Hayward’s madness of taking his entire staff on that overseas trip, he says.
“Providing future travel or training opportunities can incentivise managers by building on their education and experience, and it’s completely tax deductable for the restaurateur,” Close says.
“So if you had a new chef, you could tell them that you wanted to send them to a special patisserie course in Paris after 12 months. It’s something exciting and tangible for them to work towards, and it will reap plenty of rewards for the business, too.”
Another new incentive trend turning up in some international food service businesses is the gift of an ‘experience’, where vouchers for unique activities like ski lessons, golf days, spa retreats or car racing are used to make managers feel appreciated.
Like the concepts behind travel incentives, retail vouchers and buy-in opportunities, the idea here is to excite managers about something outside of work, while boosting their loyalty to the job at the same time.
Whatever rewards you choose, it seems simply thanking managers without providing them with meaningful rewards just isn’t good enough. “Because, don’t forget,” says Jim Sullivan, “a pat on the back is just a few vertebrae up from a kick in the arse”.
And that won’t make your chef excited about working next Sunday.