Bosses With Benefits

Here's what Colorado operators are offering in an attempt to lure quality employees.

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DiningOut isn't hiring—but everywhere else is.

Hiring is just one of the many banes of the operator’s existence right now—but it’s a big one. Everyone’s looking for staff, wages are skyrocketing, employee poaching is in full effect. McDonald’s is offering drive-through interviews in California, and a Florida franchise is paying $50 to folks who just show up for the interview; hiring bonuses are in the hundreds of dollars at other fast-food chains. How’s an independent to compete with that?

We talked to a couple of Colorado operators about what they’re offering workers to entice them on board. Here’s what they shared with us.

Bridge and Tunnel Restaurant Group (BTRG) comprises Lou’s Italian Specialities, Famous Original J’s Pizza, Sherry’s Soda Shoppe (all in Denver), plus Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen (with stores in Denver, Aurora, and soon Boulder). It offers the following benefit package to new hires:

  • Robust training program.
  • Employer match on health insurance.
  • Free gym and yoga membership.
  • Free concert tickets.
  • 401(k) for salaried employees .
  • Internal referral program: Current employees receive $100 if they refer applicants who remain employed after 90 days.

BTRG owner and founder Joshua Pollack states the group is also hoping to roll out a 401(k) plan and paid time off for hourly employees. Depending on experience, hourly employees start $13 to $17 per hour. Add in tips, and “they can come out at $25 an hour to schmear bagels.” But Pollack notes that he doesn’t think hiring and retention are new challenges. “This has always been a Colorado restaurant problem,” he says. “Pre-pandemic was the worst I’ve ever seen it. I’d have five Rosenberg’s if staffing wasn’t an issue.”

“Head hunting for the hourly employee could be a lucrative business.”

Joshua Pollack, Bridge and Tunnel Restaurant Group

Pollack says he’s had to be creative about his hiring practices for a while now, and has taken advantage of employment programs like Center for Employment Opportunities, a transitional employment program for people who have been released from prison, as well as programs in Aurora working to place refugees from African and Middle Eastern countries (he admits those programs come with challenges, especially when language barriers are involved). He’s also utilized headhunters to hire for administrative positions like comptroller, and notes that while it was “insanely expensive,” he might consider using such services in the future when bringing on AGMs or GMs. (Fellow entrepreneurs, take note: “Head hunting for the hourly employee could be a lucrative business.”)

One of the BTRG’s biggest drivers of effective hiring and retention, says Pollack, is the company’s training program: “We’ve seen far less turnover since we launched training.” The program started coming together three years ago, but really hit its stride during the pandemic, once online sales were well-established. A line cook’s training includes two weeks for basic job duties (a full week on cold and a full week on hot), then an additional three months in which employees are expected to master details about the complete menu, sourcing, and how to train for their own position. “It gives a clear line for advancement,” Pollack says. “Lead, trainer, AGM, GM. We want to put that career path forward.”

Kayvan Khalatbari, co-founder of Sexy Pizza, which has four Denver stores and a location set to open in Trinidad this summer, has long offered generous benefits. In 2020, the chain offered:

  • Fully paid health and dental insurance.
  • PTO accruals for all employees, regardless of hours.
  • 401(k) match up to 4 percent.
  • Employee stock plan and profit sharing for all employees working at least 20 hours per week.
  • Additional profit sharing for all managers and assistant managers based on benchmarks related to COGS, labor, etc.
  • Free meal plan.

Since then, it’s added the following:

  • Four weeks paid parental leave.
  • Free vision insurance.
  • Free mental health services in partnership with Khesed Wellness.
  • Free RTD EcoPasses for all employees.
  • Home down payment assistance.

Khalatbari says all line cooks (including the ones at the forthcoming Trindad location) start at Denver’s non-tipped minimum wage, (currently $14.77) plus an even split of the in-house tip pool, which results in an starting hourly rate of around $19. (Delivery drivers are Sexy Pizza’s only tipped employees and start at Denver’s tipped minimum wage of $11.75, plus tips.) The value of the benefits packages adds another $4 to $5 per hour to total compensation.

“We’ve heard of stories about employers taking half of employees’ credit card tips.”

Kayvan Khalatbari, Sexy Pizza

“We’ve kept pretty steady [in terms of turnover],” he says. “We’ve had some with the new store, but that’s to be expected and doesn’t have anything to do with the pandemic.” Co-owner Kyle Peters also says the brand isn’t seeing a noticeable change in the quality of his applicants, as many operators are. “We’ll see people from food service and restaurants. A big part of that is people from the cannabis industry.”

Khalatbari says Sexy Pizza is definitely benefiting from expanding into southern Colorado while continuing to offer Denver wages. “Some of the excitement we’re getting down there, is because there’s less competition for labor. We’ve heard of stories about employers taking half of employees’ credit card tips. [Sexy Pizza] is going to be in pretty stark contrast.”

If all else fails when it comes to getting fully staffed? There’s always the time-honored (though mostly hush-hush) art of employee poaching. “My higher-ups get requests weekly,” says Pollack. So keep in mind that whatever you do to get the right people on the job, you’ll still have to work to keep them there.

Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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