With employee turnover at an all-time high, according to research firm TDn2K, some restaurants are tugging at workers’ heart strings—making it harder for them to say goodbye. Beyond retention, helping staff form ties to the operation can also improve guest experience. For Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Detroit, staff’s emotional investment helps deliver on a brand promise for genuine hospitality. “If they aren't invested, guests feel it,” says owner Sandy Levine. “When people come into our restaurant, the atmosphere and mood of the staff are meant to improve and elevate the guest’s mood—if staff doesn't like being here, neither will the guest.”
Here’s how Levine and other operators are baking camaraderie into their culture.
1. Cut out drama
Sometimes staff need a reminder that the front of house, back of house and management are all on the same team, especially when something goes wrong, Levine says. Those reminders can be as simple as word choice. “We use the word ‘we’ much more often than ‘I’ or ‘you,’” he says.
Although Levine says drinks after work can help build on-the-job friendships, he cautions that it can also create a toxic environment, where everyone complains about work. “Ultimately what matters is that coworkers respect and genuinely care for one another,” he says. “The most essential element of our staff being a positive and cohesive unit is the fact that we always have one another's back,” he says.
2. Hire openly and honestly
Cafe Juanita, in Kirkland, Wash., has created a transparent hiring process to ensure candidates fit the culture of the Northern Italy-inspired eatery. Applicants shadow team members for part of a service, which provides ample opportunities to mingle with the crew. “This is a two-sided process, and we are careful to be sure candidates really understand who we are,” says chef-owner Holly Smith.
After team members have had a chance to meet with the potential hire, she encourages them to share their recommendations with her. “Respect and an ability to affect change are two big things that retain employees,” she says. “My staff knows I will listen and that I am open to change.”
3. Invest in the space
Creating a venue where staff enjoy spending time also helps them form a connection with the operation, Austin Polley, general manager at lakeside restaurant Westward in Seattle, says. “You have to make sure [the space] is functional and makes sense,” Polley says. “It needs to be fluid and they need to have all the tools they need to be successful. When the sun’s out, the umbrellas are up and the staff is enjoying each other, it helps.”
4. Hang out during the day
Coming together around healthy, off-site activities helps Hitchcock, a microseasonal restaurant in Bainbridge Island, Wash., form employee bonds. Brendan McGill, chef-owner of Hitchcock Restaurant Group, encourages staff to go kayaking or hiking together. “Getting some exercise, breathing fresh air, and getting out of the context of work can allow people to speak honestly about their lives and relationships,” McGill says. “The healthy endorphin rush is something that everybody enjoys.”
5. Shake up social groups
To prevent workers from feeling isolated on the job, McGill gets everyone together to work on one task, separate from their daily roles. Farm parties at the company’s Shady Acres Farm help workers see each other as individuals beyond job titles, he says. “Not only does it connect the staff with the food we harvest for the restaurant, but everyone breaks a sweat together in the sunshine, then can look at all those pretty rows, neatly weeded, and feel a communal sense of pride,” he says.