Dear Staff, Be Well: How to Care for Your Employees

BY Allyson Reedy


Dear Staff, Be Well: How to Care for Your Employees

A checklist for restaurants of all sizes on how to implement wellness programs.

Just how taxing is working in restaurants? Of all the industries surveyed by Mental Health America, food and beverage placed in the bottom three for workplace mental health. The long hours; abuse from customers; hard-driving, sometimes toxic work culture; and lower-than-average pay and benefits compared to other fields can make for unhappy at best—and dangerously struggling at worst—workers. It’s no wonder so many hospitality employees took the pandemic pause as an opportunity to find other work. 

Clearly, industry-wide change is needed, and it starts with restaurants and bars prioritizing employees’ mental and physical health. Creating wellness programs and services may seem daunting (and expensive!), but those who’ve done it say it’s worth the time, effort, and money. 

“I firmly believe that any time or money we spend on our team returns that investment back to us and our guests exponentially,” says Nicole Mattson, co-owner of Denver’s Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club and Noble Riot. “When you have a team that’s fully built and functioning and happy, that’s going to pay dividends with guest satisfaction. You get more people coming through the doors and average tickets go up. It all helps financially.”

And just how can you keep employees happy? Besides paying competitive wages, providing health insurance and mental health care is essential. (And with only 30 percent of restaurants offering health insurance, that’s a big perk for workers.) Finally, employers who are increasingly flexible when it comes to scheduling; who allow for more time off; who do things to prevent burnout; and who nudge the post-shift culture towards healthier habits can improve life substantially for their workers.

“It takes a leap of faith and baby steps to prove [these sorts of benefits’] value…It’s definitely helped our bottom line. We’ve only seen our revenue and bottom line increase since offering these.”

—Kayvan Khalatbari, Sexy Pizza

“Employees take better care of themselves when they’re paid better, have a job they care for, things of that nature,” says Kayvan Khalatbari, co-founder of Sexy Pizza. He and his partners offer many progressive benefits, including full health care, free mental health services, and employee ownership. “It takes a leap of faith and baby steps to prove [these sorts of benefits’] value…It’s definitely helped our bottom line. We’ve only seen our revenue and bottom line increase since offering these. We’re approaching seven million dollars in revenue this year selling $25 pizzas.”

Mattson agrees that investing in employees via forward-looking health and wellness programs can be economically sustainable, even profitable, for owners. It helps attract and retain employees in a tight labor market, saving money on recruitment and turnover. “When you think about all those costs for recruitment—just the basics, not even my time for doing a hundred phone interviews and personal interviews—plus the time to train someone new, taking someone off the floor to train them, that all adds up to be very expensive for a little restaurant,” she says. 

Sexy Pizza’s wellness benefits and incentives have helped the Colorado chain reduce turnover as well. “Our turnover rate is in the twenty percentages, one-quarter of what you see for similar fast casuals,” Khalatbari notes. That said, he understands that having multiple stores, and therefore multiple sources of revenue, makes it easier to offer these kinds of benefits, and that it may not be as feasible for single-restaurant owners. 

We spoke with Khalatbari, Mattson, and other restaurant owners—from single operators to empires in the making—about the wellness programs and services they’re offering to promote healthier, happier workers. Here’s what they had to say. 

“Get them on the path of waking up in the morning, going to the gym.”

—Nicole Mattson, Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club and Noble Riot

Wellness programs for single restaurants

  • A few years back, Mattson overheard Nocturne kitchen staff talking about wanting to get to the gym but not being able to afford a membership. It dawned on her that she could help via $30 monthly wellness credits added to paychecks to be used for gym memberships, yoga classes, rock-climbing gyms, or whatever kept staff healthy and happy—and it would probably benefit the business, too. “I thought this was a better option than some of the other extracurricular activities that can happen in the industry,” Mattson explains. “Get them on the path of waking up in the morning, going to the gym, or doing something that keeps them healthy. That keeps them from going out until 4 a.m. after a shift. It was a no-brainer.” 
  • This May, Nocturne will roll out a matching 401(k) program. Mattson says more than half of her staff said they wanted to learn more about starting a retirement plan. 
  • For the culinary team, Nocturne implemented a revenue share bonus to reward employees based on the volume of business. The kitchen staff splits three percent of total food revenue each night, which Mattson says equates to an extra $3 to $5 per hour, per employee. 
  • Of course, having fun is important, too. Each year, Mattson organizes some sort of employee appreciation event, whether it’s a party, a nice dinner out, or even a trip. To thank everyone for toughing it out through 2020 and 2021, Nocturne coordinated a group trip to Portland and its surrounding wine region. Employees paid for their own airfare, but the business covered food and lodging. “I thought maybe half of the employees would sign up, but it ended up being 95 percent of them,” Mattson says. 
  • At Sullivan Scrap Kitchen in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood, owners Terence Rogers and Holly Adinoff offer a $150 health care contribution toward premiums each month for full-time employees. Adinoff used an insurance broker via Colorado’s health insurance marketplace to find an affordable health insurance plan designed for small businesses. 
  • A no-cost way to keep employees happy? Work-life balance. Rogers and Adinoff try to keep full-time employees to 40 hours a week to prevent burnout.

“People in the restaurant industry aren’t used to getting a lot of benefits offered to them.”

—Kayvan Khalatbari

Wellness programs for small to mid-sized restaurant chains

  • Khalatbari, who recently opened the fifth Sexy Pizza in Trinidad, has offered employee benefits since the beginning. But as the restaurant has scaled up, so have the benefits. Sexy Pizza now pays 100 percent of health insurance premiums for employees, a rare benefit in the industry, and something Khalatbari says took some getting used to for workers. “People in the restaurant industry aren’t used to getting a lot of benefits offered to them,” he says. “There was a lot of disbelief. The more we educate and intentionally talk to staff about the benefits we offer, the more we’ve seen those adoption rates rise.”
  • One of the most unique benefits Sexy Pizza offers is employee ownership. Over the past year, it divvied up stock to employees who worked 20 or more hours per week. “Our goal is to continue awarding [stock] every single year, and hopefully 10 years from now, we’re a 100 percent employee-owned company,” Khalatbari says. 
  • For many of the wellness programs it offers, Sexy Pizza went directly to employees to ask what they needed. One of the ways the company achieves this is through surveys attached to a monthly employee newsletter, from which Khalatbari can gauge how people are feeling about different benefits. Via an anonymous survey, a vast majority of employees said they wouldn’t have access to mental health services if Sexy Pizza didn’t cover them. Khalatbari says 15 to 20 percent of workers participate in the free mental health services the business offers through Khesed Wellness
  • Basic things like flexibility are important as well. Sexy Pizza tries to be fair with personal time, providing PTO, paid maternity and paternity leave, and extended time off when life happens. 

Wellness programs for larger restaurant groups

  • Mental health services are critical for the larger restaurant groups, too. “When COVID hit, wellness became about mental health. That’s been our sole focus,” says Juan Padró, CEO of Culinary Creative restaurant group, which counts 500 workers across all its concepts. All employees are eligible for up to 12 mental health sessions a year at Khesed Wellness. Culinary Creative also works with Nurture (which describes itself as a “wellness marketplace”) on mental health initiatives. 
  • Padró says providing physical therapy when workers are hurt is also a priority. This can come via health insurance (Culinary Creative offers partial reimbursement for premiums), but also through more structured programs. The company sends injured workers to a master bodyworker for sports therapy and acupuncture, and it pays for the sessions. 
  • Instead of thinking about how employees fit into your shifts, make your shifts work for your employees. Padró’s Highland Tap & Burger used to be open until 2 a.m., but that was creating overworked, burned-out employees. “Now we close earlier to get our kids out of there,” he says. Similarly, Phil Dumontet, who has five Whole Sol locations in Denver and Boulder (plus two in the works), structures shifts based on location. In Boulder, for example, where the workforce is mostly students, Whole Sol runs shorter shifts to accommodate school schedules. At the Denver stores, Dumontet has more full-time employees working longer shifts. 
  • To determine what kinds of programs employees are most interested in, Dumontet sends out surveys to Whole Sol’s 80 employees. The monthly $50 health and wellness stipend is always tops. The stipend can be used for anything related to physical and mental health, from massages to gym memberships to therapy. “We always saw it as a recruitment and retention strategy,” Dumontet says of the stipends. “Everything from ads on Craigslist to time spent with managers to training, [hiring a new employee] comes out to be $500 to $800 depending on the employee’s level. When you look at that cost to acquire a great employee and compare it to $50 a month, the numbers definitely make sense.”
  • This past February, Whole Sol added a 401(k) program with a four percent employer match for employees working 30 hours or more per week. The opt-in rate has been high, and Dumontet says he’s gotten lots of positive feedback. “These are benefits typically reserved for a different kind of employer,” he says. “We’re a health and wellness concept, so it’s our duty to walk the walk.”

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Allyson Reedy

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