Thomas Keller. Anthony Bourdain. Hugo Ortega. Dishwashers who go on to become successful restaurateurs is the industry’s take on a familiar rags-to-riches story. But these tales of meteoric rises are the exception, not the norm. About 43% of Americans raised in the lowest income strata remain there as adults, and 70% never move into the middle class, according to 2013 research from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Some restaurants are working to make these boot-strapping narratives more of a reality with policies that quickly move dishwashers up the restaurant hierarchy.
Check out how operators are showing love to the heart of their kitchens and getting a more engaged staff in return.
Be an open book
Boston’s Bar Mezzana is transitioning to open-book management, a business practice that seeks to stimulate workforce engagement by sharing the financial and operational innerworkings of the restaurant. “On a Friday night, our dishwashers might see a ton of dirty dishes piling up, so they think, ‘This place must be earning a ton of money,’” says Jefferson Macklin, business manager and partner for the coastal Italian restaurant. “They only see revenue; they don’t see expenses.” By giving employees access to financial information and the decision-making process, Macklin hopes his dishwashers and the rest of his crew feel more invested in the business.
But first, Bar Mezzana’s staff need a crash course in business management. The restaurant starts by educating its managers during their weekly meetings. Managers in the back of house don’t always know about spreadsheets or P&L statements, Macklin says, so the first step is explaining why they should care about those processes. Once the whole team is brought into the fold, the entire group will help choose the business metrics they want to track to gauge success.
Give more responsibility
Some restaurants are redefining the dishwasher role entirely. This spring, the dishwasher at famous Copenhagen restaurant Noma became a co-owner, splitting a 10% stake in the restaurant’s parent company with two other managers, according to The New York Times. At French Laundry and other Thomas Keller Restaurant Group concepts, the position of dishwasher is rolled up into a kitchen porter or steward, who supports the operations team more broadly. At hotel-casino SLS Las Vegas, kitchen stewards not only clean dishes, but maintain equipment, stock kitchen lines and perform other general kitchen duties when necessary.
Take time to forecast talent
For celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, creating advancement opportunities for his dishwashers starts with getting supervisors on the same page. Four times a year, the restaurateur meets with his management team to brainstorm advancement opportunities for employees. From there, he creates a customized path for his team. “The dishwasher is often the very beginning point for a young cook,” Samuelsson says. “It’s important that you meet your team where they are, because they are going to be at very different points depending on age and experience in the industry.”
While Bar Mezzana transitions to its new management style, leaders are helping team members at all levels feel confident through inclusive meetings. The front-of-house staff starts each pre-shift meeting with ice breakers, during which every team member must say something. And at the end of each service, back-of-house team members go around and share how they felt the night went.