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Let them eat cake

We think we're doing our employees a great favor by offering them free meals during their shift. But ask yourself... could I get excited about production leftovers, day-old menu items or a random assortment of low-cost like spaghetti or hamburgers?

It's no surprise that foodservice employees often view the "benefit" of these free meals with a bit of skepticism. They feel, and justifiably so, that management is just trying to fulfill the free meal commitment as inexpensively as possible.

The result?

Employees tend to snack and nibble during their shift, or even sneak food out the back door.

It doesn't have to be this way. A good employee meal policy can reap many benefits: improved employee morale, a greater sense of teamwork, lower food costs, and reduced employee benefits expenses.

I've got a slightly different take on the issue. I recommend implementing a system that charges employees for meals. You can also use your state's allowable meal credit toward fulfillment of your minimum wage obligation. If your state laws don't allow this, you can deduct an approximate cost of the meals from the employee's paycheck. Ask your employees what they think of this plan. I bet you'll get very positive responses. Here's how it works.

Let your employees order off the regular menu, including daily specials. Even if you don't recover all of your base cost, this is an excellent way to get the most mileage out of your benefit dollars. At my restaurant we excluded two high cost items — prime rib and lobster. The employees understood the logic behind our thinking.

This system makes life in the kitchen simple

It also is the best way to familiarize your employees with your full menu. They'll be able to provide comprehensive descriptions and make confident recommendations to your guests.

Your employee meal system also works as an informal research and development opportunity. Test market new specials or menu items with your employees and listen to their opinions. You can use the Server Feedback Card to gather the feedback. Take a look at "Are you leaving money on the table" for more details and a downloadable feedback card.

An accounting note: In order to preserve a direct correlation between menu prices and costs, you should distinguish between employee meals and guest meals. Unfortunately, this can become very complicated. Some restaurants offer employee meals free of cost, others at discounted or special menu prices, or a combination of two or more programs. You can offer free meals to key salaried employees regardless of how you charge hourly employees.

Our downloadable Special Report on Employee Meals, available in our product catalog, outlines many of the ways you can "do the numbers" efficiently and accurately.

"There's no such thing as a free lunch" may be true in most of the world, but here's one area restaurant employers can get a leg up on the competition for outstanding employees. We all know the price of groceries and the time it takes to prep, serve and clean up after a meal. Present this employee benefit correctly, and your employees will feel they're getting a bargain at meal credit prices.

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