When Peter Waters, managing partner at Boulder’s T|aco, opened the eatery in 2012, he thought he had cracked the hiring code. “I had business consultant friends tell me about this assessment. There’s a list of five strengths and we had people rank them for themselves,” he explains. He’d give applicants a list of five positive characteristics (such as creativity and accountability) and ask them to rank how strongly they embodied those personality traits. Applicants had to rank them one through five, in descending order—no duplicate rankings, no ones across the board.
“I thought I was a genius for bringing this to the restaurant world,” Waters laughs. The idea? Hiring employees with different strengths makes for a well-rounded, functional team. “We tried to get balance and we did this for six months,” he notes. “Then August rolled around and I realized what I had done was hire nothing but Leos.”
No hiring process is foolproof. Spending your entire annual shift drink budget on birthday shots between July 23 and August 22 could be relatively harmless. But for Waters, the experience underlined how “ridiculous” that particular attempt to diversify hiring ultimately was.
So he’s since switched to a less measurable, more instinctive approach to hiring for front-of-house employees. “Likeable is forgiveable” is his philosophy.
“We see about 2,000 guests per week. Even at a 99 percent success rate, we see 20 mistakes a week. I can’t expect things to run 100 percent successfully 52 weeks a year,” Waters acknowledges. “We’ll miss a substitution or something goes amok in the kitchen, but we can show up and present our most likable selves 100 percent of the time. Guests are more inclined to forgive someone who’s likable than who’s not. We’ve all experienced that as guests.” So likability has become Waters’ primary concern when hiring.
Of course, there’s no universal standard for likeability (as decades of iconic music videos attest). Waters admits he operates very much from gut instinct. “I can tell within five seconds [who will be a good fit],” he notes, saying he’s developed those a nose for it over the past nine years. “For me, it’s very obvious.” The first interview question is asked when someone drops off a résumé: What’s your favorite thing on the menu? If they can’t answer that, it’s a deal breaker; Waters tells them to come back after they’ve eaten at the restaurant and have a solid idea of the guest experience T|aco is aiming for.
If an applicant navigates that question successfully (the correct answer is not “margarita”), it’s on to a 30 minute interview. And despite the staffing shortage, T|aco still has front-of-house applicants do a three-hour stage, at which point the restaurant is “very, very particular.” The process seems to work. Waters notes that while FOH turnover is around 25 percent, it’s for “all the good reasons”; employees leave Boulder or change industries completely (which is to be expected in a college town). The remaining 75 percent of staff, he says, have been there for over four years—over half of T|aco’s life span.
When asked how he integrates diversity in hiring with hiring for an established culture, Waters admits it’s not easy. “That’s definitely something that’s important to us. It’s why I used that forced ranking questionnaire. I did mine first and wanted to hire people who made up for my shortcomings, and make sure we had diversity and complete operational coverage. It’s a real challenge because you don’t want to ask someone their sexual preference or to reveal things just for the sake of putting them in a box.”
“We hire people for their individuality and want them to bring that to work,” he continues. “One of the things that makes us more unique is we don’t have a uniform—we barely have a dress code. It sounds very simple, but I think clothing and appearance is one of the easiest ways to show identity to a group of strangers. People go to great lengths to represent themselves through appearance, clothing, and hair.”
In the same vein, staff don’t have to recite any script. Waters thinks it makes his customers feel like they are being welcomed into an employee’s home.
“People are excited to come back because the food tastes the same but the experience can be very, very different depending on a the different host, busser, or server. I think it’s why we see so many regulars.”