Right Track

The hospitality industry's dirty laundry has been aired over the past year. But it's not all toxic. Lifers talk about what restaurants are doing right.

Restaurant dining room with blurry servers and customers moving around. Low lighting, white tablecloths and wine glasses on tables. Windows look out onto busy street at dusk.
It's not all doom and gloom for restaurant workers. Here are a few restaurants taking care of their employees. / Courtesy Frasca Food and Wine

If 2020 was the year the hospitality industry couldn’t stop talking about COVID, 2021 is the year staffing is at center stage. Capacity caps and distancing requirements are mostly gone, but many restaurants are now limiting their operations because they can’t find enough employees. The pervasive narrative from owners and operators is that the federal government’s enhanced unemployment benefits are the reason. (Let’s not ignore the ugly underpinning of that argument: that “lazy” employees are to blame for not wanting to return to high-stress, high-risk jobs in the middle of a pandemic that’s killed nearly 600,000 Americans.)

Still, there are spots that have managed to retain their employees—and perhaps more importantly—their loyalty). We talked to confirmed lifers, people who have decades working in restaurants and bars, about what restaurants are doing right.

The Bad, the Bad and the Ugly

It’s worth a step back to look at the some of the truly reprehensible goings-on in restaurants. (If you’ve ever worked in the industry, these won’t surprise you; if you haven’t, go get a string of pearls and be prepared to clutch them.)

There’s the harassment. “Do you like to fuck on the first date?” a group of men once asked Christi Felkins, currently a server at Chef Zorba’s and Super Mega Bien (both in Denver), after she lined up shots for them.

There’s the expectation to work while physically ill. “I only know of a handful of places who sent people home from work while they were sick,” says Felkins of her 26-year career in the industry. She cites just three restaurants she’s worked for that have provided health insurance as a benefit.

There’s the adherence to the maxim, “The customer is always right,” no matter the impact on staff. Stacy Zacarias, a server at Aurora’s Annette with over a decade working in restaurants, recalls an experience working as a host in a New Orleans restaurant attached to a hotel: “The host would take the order and deliver it to expo, who would take it to the hotel room. Expo forgot to bring up butter. The guest called the host stand, which is me, and they proceeded to curse at me and yell at me. The restaurant decided to discount the meal despite the fact I’m in tears over literally butter.”

There’s the volatile work environment. “I grew up in a very firm chef culture,” says Rose Votta diplomatically (the general manager at Frasca Food and Wine started her career at Aspen’s Little Nell 25 years ago). “Things went on in all regards: yelling, throwing, sexual harassment.”

None of these experiences are unique or uncommon. And operators can’t control guests’ bad behavior. (Side note to readers who yell, swear, complain about butter, ask servers to take off their masks, and engage in other bad behavior: Quit it. You’re gross.) So what can restaurants do ?

Businesses With Benefits

A recurring theme: Provide benefits for staff, if you can. Super Mega Bien pays a portion of medical, dental and vision insurance for all employees, and is set to offer a 401(k) soon; Felkins says it’s the first restaurant she’s ever worked at to offer paid health insurance, and it’s huge for her.

Votta notes Frasca has always provided health insurance and retirement plans to staff. “We want people to be able to provide insurance for their families,” she says. “More than ever [recently], I’ve hired people with kids. That used to not be the norm, but I feel like people really value that. [They know] if I put in my time, I’ll get to the top salary, but in the meantime I can work on my 401(k).” Frasca also zeros in on mental health and wellness with free therapy sessions as part of its employee assistance program.

We’re fragile at the end of the day. We’re human.

Christi Felkins

Annette’s Zacarias would love to see staff health made a priority industry-wide. She cites the well-known substance abuse problems among restaurant employeees.

Zacarias doesn’t get have health insurance through Annette, although the restaurant has offered it. “Annette would foot half the bill,” says Zacarias, “but I looked through the cost and I would pay the same amount as insurance I get through the government, so I might as well make the government pay for it. I know for small places it’s hard to pay for insurance,” she continues. “It’s something I think the government should be better about doing so it doesn’t fall on businesses.” Still, she doesn’t think it’s unrealistic for business owners—especially those who have multiple stores—to provide health benefits: “It blows my mind that’s something that’s being put onto employees.”

Show Me the Money

Even if a business doesn’t have the resources to provide health insurance, there are other ways it can support staff. Equitable compensation between front and back of house does wonders for morale; admittedly, that looks different for every operator. Super Mega Bien “tips the bucket” with a voluntary tip pool between FOH and BOH; when servers contribute $500 to the bucket, the house matches it and the funds are shared among BOH. All staff makes at least non-tipped minimum wage. Felkins also says the eatery’s staff is kept small to accommodate employees’ hours and scheduling requests.

After much research last year, Frasca introduced a new model this January: based on longevity, cross-training and skill level, all staff are assigned a number of points. Every week, all tips are distributed to employees based on their number of hours worked points they have accumulated. An employee with six points (the current max) earns $45 to $47, according to Votta. “It was a pain point,” she admitted. “We thought we’d lose people, but they’ve been pretty happy with it.”

Wage inequality is a very big part of the story.

Rose Votta

Zorba’s is fine-dining Frasca’s opposite in many ways (the most expensive single item on its menu is $17.95), but the decades-old diner has also been tweaking its compensation model. Every employee starts at the same rate (above full minimum wage) and tips are shared between front and back of house. “Everyone’s making much more consistent money,” says Felkins, “and we all like each other and want to hang out with each other.” Zorba’s is also paying a cash retention bonus of for workers who stay on between Memorial and Labor days.

Annette pays all employees at least full minimum wage and pools tips with FOH and BOH. “I love that our dishwashers make just as much as I do,” says Zacarias, “especially during the pandemic when they were washing all those dishes from people who hadn’t been vaccinated.”

She adds, “I would love to love to see places move away from the tipping system. Relying on others to make the right decision is…” There’s a long pause. “…Very tough.” But, in a move she calls “”is unheard of in the service industry,” Annette actually offered Zacarias a raise after some time on the floor. “It was amazing.”

Being Nice: Not Just for Customers

As we spoke to Votta, she mentioned an upcoming management coaching meeting she was attending. “I think it will help to be a better listener and be able to mentor the team,” she says. “I’m twice their age…the work environment I learned in was very different.” She recalls managers and chefs over the years screaming and throwing things, and says, “We’ve had a lot of sitdowns to say, ‘You can’t raise your voice. Watch your tone.’ You have to be nice.”

The not-so-revolutionary concept of treating your workers like human beings extends to having staff’s backs, especially when dinner service can be a minefield of politics, entitlement, and excessive familiarity. Felkins credits Zobrba’s management for taking her on-the-job safety concerns seriously.

“How are you going to ask a little old lady to wear a mask when she’s on oxygen and has been eating there for 43 years?” she acknowledges. “But how about her son sitting next to her not wearing a mask? Management tightened it up within their abilities. They were very responsive.” She also recalls a time when her GM stepped in to tell a guest to knock it off after repeated attempts to get Felkins to remove her face mask. “Because it’s a health issue, it’s nice to have owners who support me in that.”

Why the Staffing Shortage?

Obviously, there are restaurants doing it right. So why are those spots still having a hard time hiring? Everyone we spoke to for this story took a deep breath, a long pause, and then said, “It’s so complicated.”

“I think everyone has done a lot of resetting in the past year in both our industry and out of it,” says Felkins. “A lot of us are realizing that while the industry is fun and addictive, it’s brutal. It makes a lot of promises it can’t keep. Working until 4 a.m. isn’t as fun when you’re 35. A chef will tell you you’ll make so much money but then you never do.”

Votta notes this has long been problem in rarefied fine dining. She recalls, “Long before…the pandemic, there was a piece in The Wall Street Journal about people leaving the CIA, paying $40,000 a year for the education, and then working at Jean-Georges or Per Se and making barely $30,000.” And while she encourages hospitality workers to consider a return to the industry before September when the federal government’s enhanced unemployment benefits run out (“They might be surprised to find a lot of people looking for a job then,” she says), Votta understands the lack of interest in returning to a job staff wasn’t thriving in pre-pandemic.

Felkins and Zacarias don’t believe that additional unemployment benefits (which total $1,200 per month max—not enough to cover one month’s average rent in Denver) are to blame. “I think that’s too simple of an idea. People underestimate how hard it is to be a server in the industry,” states Zacarias.

“I don’t know a single person who’s sitting at home waiting for that government check to come in,” says Felkins. “I feel strongly that operators who say that are disconnected from their employees and have forgotten how hard we’ve been willing to work for them. I think they’ll probably not be able to keep their staff.”

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



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