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Staffing secrets of top operations

Setting the right tone for employees is the key to success.
manager staff meeting

Every year, Doug Sohn would ask himself if he had another year in him. His restaurant—the Chicago sausage-serving institution, Hot Doug’s—took an annual break from Christmas to New Year’s, and that was his refresh and evaluation time. At the end of 2013, he had a gut feeling: “I wasn’t burnt out, but I didn’t want to get there. I had a little tingle, and I didn’t want to get to where it would have been a horrible job,” he says.

For him, it was time to close. “I’ve had jobs I’ve dreaded,” he says—and he didn’t want to create that kind of environment for his staff.

We’ve all been in those restaurants, retail shops and even our own offices where it seems like everyone is pissed off. Staffers are unhappy, disengaged and whiny. And when that’s the case, there’s no hiding it. In restaurants, it rubs off, all the way down to guests—and makes those guests not want to come back.

So whose job is it to keep that poison out, especially when it has the potential to impact the bottom line?

If you ask me—a onetime server—it’s on the manager. Chain or independent, the people interacting with hourly staff on a daily basis—the ones singing praises, creating contests and laying down the law—can set the tone for the entire operation.

In RB’s annual Top 100 Independents feature, we asked some of the leading concepts how they manage to stay on top. Their answer, unsurprisingly, was their people. But it wasn’t just the people: It was finding and grooming the right people, and treating them well so they’ll stick around.

Granted, being treated well as an employee looks different to different folks. Yes, most want fair pay and good benefits, but it’s more than that. Top employees—the ones who could rise up and be an asset to an organization—want to feel valued. I recently sat through a speech about creating a culture of managers, a notion I think more employers should think about. The speaker, Daren Martin, said that only one-third of the current U.S. workforce is fully engaged in their jobs. These Top 100 operators have managed to create a positive work environment and retain their staff—even in if this rough labor climate—by making their employees feel important to the organization and empowering them to develop their skills, make decisions and, importantly, enjoy what they’re doing.

Managers at the most crowded restaurants can get stressed while in the weeds or have a bad day, but it’s up to them to keep that under wraps and put out a positive, encouraging vibe as they lead their staff. The manager who screams and swears during peak hours might get the most plates out, but he probably also has the most people walk out during his shifts. The results of keeping that attitude in check are evident in the staff morale—and happy, knowledgeable servers often mean happy guests.

For Sohn, during the meeting to tell his staff he was shutting his doors, his biggest question was whether or not they’d stick around for the six final months of operation. All along, he maintained the fun, positive attitude and showed his staffers that they mattered to him. “They all stayed right to the end.”

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