With workplace culture getting some negative attention lately in the restaurant industry, operators are being challenged to make positive changes. But there’s no widespread guidebook or toolbox for creating and managing culture. “We’re constantly learning in that space,” says Donna Lee, founder of Brown Bag Seafood Co., a four-unit fast casual in Chicago. In the process of learning, Lee has come up with several innovative ways to nurture her 80 employees and foster a culture of caring. Here’s how she put five of these ideas into practice at Brown Bag Seafood.
1. Create a family tree
To remind team members that they are part of a work family, Lee created a family tree that hangs on the wall in each location. Attached to the tree’s branches are the names and photos of each employee. “It reinforces to the team that they’ll be treated like a family member … and is proof that we have their back,” she says. As a bonus, a new hire can immediately learn and put a face to co-workers’ names, Lee adds.
2. Schedule professional development training
Some of Brown Bag Seafood’s managers are only 23 years old, and have little or no experience managing relationships between team members, says Lee. To help with that and other management skills, she schedules monthly leadership training sessions, which she follows up on with professional development trackers. “The trackers are similar to performance reviews but more personal,” says Lee. “I ask questions such as ‘How well are you executing on team initiatives?’”
3. Publish a companywide magazine
To recognize employees’ personal and professional successes, Lee launched Brown Bag Mag—a printed publication that gets distributed to each location. Two of her staffers act as reporters, interviewing team members and writing up their stories. For example, one writeup featured Anna, an employee who used to hate running as exercise but completed the Chicago Marathon. “Brown Bag Mag helps employees at different locations get to know each other and is another way to promote the feeling of family,” says Lee.
5. Invest in people with good intentions
In this tight labor market, finding experienced team leaders and store managers is increasingly competitive. Lee uses her innate talent and past restaurant management experience as an “emotion detector” to tap people who may not have the leadership skills but do have supportive personalities. Being a “people person” is the most important trait of a leader, Lee believes. As a self-proclaimed “people person,” Lee works side by side with new hires to develop that trait and teach them hospitality by example. “Instead of looking for a lot of experience, I look for people with good intentions and invest in them, ” she says.