HR Issues

April 12, 2010

Written by: Greg McGuire

Inc. Magazine did an article recently about pizza and pub owner Nick Sarillo, a restaurateur with blue collar roots based in the Chicago area. Sarillo has built his business based upon a corporate culture that emphasizes customer service and employee development.

Sarillo’s Nick’s Pizza & Pub is another example of how the labor environment in food service is changing. Progressive restaurants are starting to place a high value on employee retention in an industry that has traditionally had extremely high turnover. Those that do invest in their employees enjoy a level of customer service that helps them stand out from the competition.

Let’s face it: a pizza and pub joint isn’t the most original concept out there. The difference between Nick’s and the next pizza place are the intangibles his customer perceives as added value. Nick’s people make his pizza place different from the rest, and that’s why he’s succeeded where others have failed.

What are some of his secrets? For a full interview, check out the Inc. article. Here’s a quick summary, with some great food for thought if you’re looking for ways to add value to your restaurant:

Take the time to hire right. The interview process at Nick’s involves at least two separate interviews and at least three managers. Nick’s takes hiring very seriously and they don’t take anything less than top notch candidates.

I don’t know about you, but when I worked in food service the most I was ever screened was a cursory 5 minute interview. Restaurants often scramble to hire help because positions need to be filled very quickly in order to maintain continuity. Unfortunately, customer service is usually the thing that suffers the most.

Of course, the other things on this list that Nick’s does to retain staff allows them to be more selective when hiring. It can be a vicious cycle for some restaurants: trouble retaining employees means new ones must be hired quickly just to stay open.

Reward employee development. Nick’s has several levels of additional training that are completely voluntary once an employee is hired. Those who choose to take the extra training courses are rewarded with automatic raises once certain levels are completed, and those that attain the highest level get the honor of training newer employees.

A transparent, open, and fair process for employee development not only rewards those who work hard without playing favorites, it allows management to identify the go-getters.

Spread responsibility around. The traditional hierarchy in any restaurant (and most businesses) place responsibility on managers, who in turn boss employees in an effort to make sure all responsibilities are accomplished. This system has the advantage of narrowing the responsible parties when blame needs to go around. The downside is that there is no incentive for employees to work at anything outside their narrow job descriptions.

Nick’s approach is to create checklists in different areas of the restaurant for which all employees are responsible. Once a checklist is completed, it is checked and crossed off by the manager. Spreading the responsibility around means staff accomplish tasks more efficiently because they can react to specific situations and set their own goals and methods for getting things done.

Encourage feedback – and actually listen to it. Guaranteed every single employee in your restaurant has an opinion about how things could be done better and a gripe about how things are done currently. The problem is, most management systems don’t allow a time and place where employees can feel safe giving feedback without suffering consequences.

Nick’s has a designated area for employees to give feedback. They can call the management, all the way up to Nick himself, into this “safe” area whenever they feel the need. In turn, Nick’s management listens carefully to that feedback and takes a proactive attitude toward resolving any issues that are brought up.

The rules in the food service industry are changing as customers define their dining experience based on intangibles like customer service rather than price alone. This trend has been magnified even more as the price wars of the last year have forced every restaurant to become price competitive.

Creating a corporate culture that reduces turnover and encourages excellence in service is the way to make your restaurant stand out from the competition. You’re already competitive on price. Now you need to win on service. That starts with the environment you create for your employees. If your staff wants to come into work every day, then you’ve found a formula that will help your restaurant succeed where others fail.

Greg McGuire manages The Back Burner blog for eTundra.com, a restaurant equipment, supplies, and equipment parts website dedicated to the food service industry.


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