Restaurants have never been as environmentally aware as they are today. Chefs and restaurateurs are feverishly counting food miles, forming closer connections with producers, and training their floor staff on the difference between grass- and grain-fed, farmed and line-caught, and organic and biodynamic. Sustainability is no longer a buzzword – it’s an expectation. But there’s another interpretation of sustainability that operators need to factor in to the way they do business. The sustainability of their team.
It’s common knowledge that the hospitality industry is hard work. It’s characterised by long, unsociable hours, the work is physical and the pressure is high. But the skills shortage is digging its heels in, and the tragic passings of Jeremy Strode and Darren Simpson have reignited conversations about mental health and the importance of having open and honest communication channels in the workplace. It’s never been more important for business owners to look at what they’re offering their employees, and consider how it can be improved.
Whether it’s the long hours, the close proximity in which they work or a bit of both, the relationship between boss and employee in the hospitality industry is not a traditionally professional one. A head chef often also takes on the role of parent, therapist, doctor, accountant and of course, friend.
Other industries might consider it to be inappropriate, but it’s the way it is in hospitality, and Jeff Bennett, co-owner of Three Blue Ducks, says having those close connections are essential in understanding how your staff are tracking.
“We care about our staff and we are a lot like a big family. We’re in our restaurants and we speak to our staff, so we keep an eye on them and sit down and chat to them when we think they need it.” He advises, “Take your staff out for dinner or a drink every now and then and chat … that’s a good start.”
Three Blue Ducks isn’t immune to the skills shortage or the industry’s high turnover rates, but Bennett says you can’t underestimate the value of a good workplace culture in solidifying your team.
“Treat them well, give them some freedom and don’t burn them out. Also, we don’t pretend to be experts; we have our retention issues like everyone else, but we’ve found the most successful we’ve been in keeping hold of them is when we’ve been able to make work fun with a good team that gets on well together. If you can hire like-minded staff that become mates, then they have a good time and stick around for that as much as anything.
“The issue is that when one leaves it can start a mass exodus, but that’s part of it. Really, it’s not rocket science, we all know what we want ourselves so give that some thought and create the sort of place that you’d want to work for yourself,” he said.
Establishing a sustainable workforce has its own challenges in regional Australia, where in the case of Danielle Gjestland’s Noosa restaurant, Wasabi, the challenge is more about finding key staff rather than keeping them (the average team member stays for two years).
Gjestland said restaurateurs need to continuously train and upskill their staff to drive engagement, but it’s no easy feat.
“The restaurant industry is one that involves a high degree of labour and one that, per investment dollar, can have a very low rate of return. As an industry, we rely heavily on our employees to deliver a seamless experience for our guests. We can be quite hard on a team member who falls short of our expectations, but we’re often guilty of not providing them with the proper skills and training to meet those expectations. More training can help them to not be set up to fail.
“However, I think the younger generations’ need for the new and interesting is an issue in trying to deliver that training consistently – the ‘swipe left’ mentality when a staff member is not entirely and completely fulfilled with their job doesn’t seem to have any real consequences. In our industry, it’s not difficult to find work. The industry is screaming for knowledgeable staff and often a person who hops from place to place is the only option you have, thus perpetuating the cycle,” she said.
At Wasabi, the proposition for workers is pretty attractive: full time positions in a seasonal town, with flexible working weeks and the whole team has the same two days off.
“This wont suit every business, and it definitely costs us more to carry the staff over the quieter period, but the team is secure in their position. I spend the down time on reassessing the business, improving our offer and training,” Gjestland said.
Gjestland’s also played a hand in establishing a Restaurant Collective in conjunction with Tourism Noosa, where a group of restaurateurs come together and plan training and educational incentives that involve other relevant business or stakeholders in the region (for example farmers, fisheries and other producers).
“We hope that the staff involved will find their jobs more interesting and fulfilling, allowing them to develop a social network with their peers in a healthy way. The indirect benefit for me is that I get a team member who’s excited to share the experience with the rest of the team or a guest in the restaurant. It’s important to increase their general knowledge on the region they call home. The goal is to retain, develop and attract like-minded individuals to participate in a healthy, sustainable restaurant community.”
The Dedes Waterfront Group has put a lot of time and thought into what it means to be a sustainable workplace in 2017, and according to chief executive officer Lisa Hobbs, work environments that do the following are ahead of the curve:
Some of the initiatives the company has introduced include a Values Council, which acts as the voice and moral compass of the business; as well as a focus on Emotional Intelligence within the business.
“For example, we use a technique called ‘Life above the Line’ which is a model that provides anyone with the ability to recognise and respond effectively to negative behaviours. The cornerstone of living ‘Life above the Line’ is the willingness to accept responsibility for how we think, feel and act. Accepting responsibility creates personal effectiveness and when we hold ourselves accountable and responsible for who we are and what we do it is easier for us to hold others accountable and responsible,” Hobbs said.
Dedes also provides its managers with ample training on work/life balance, where they’re encouraged to think broadly about desired outcomes rather than being locked into traditional staffing configurations and work hours. They’re also made aware of the signs of burnout and are encouraged to assess how flexible they’re being in their management of team members.
Hobbs believes that the old ‘push on’ mentality is still alive and well in the hospitality industry, but hopes that with the growing awareness around mental health it’ll soon become a thing of the past.
“[Cooking] is an incredibly creative, passionate, all-consuming craft within an industry which is hugely competitive and becoming more so within Australia. We need to spend more time working on newer ways of achieving success within our kitchens and on encouraging our chefs to achieve balance in their lives. We also need to be realistic about what is possible and what is not, and not place the pressure of the business within the kitchen,” she said.
Offering a sustainable workforce and ensuring the wellbeing of your team members requires a top-down approach. The business leaders need to be committed to continuously reassessing how their workplace operates, and employees need to see that their boss is not only approachable but also genuinely invested in building a team that is happy, both personally and professionally.
This is something that Hobbs herself has taken very seriously. “I personally have pursued learning in the area of counselling and psychotherapy to assist me to be a better, more connected leader. My interest and passion is in maximising people’s potential and in doing so I can not only provide support to staff where they need it, but the recognition it gives individuals makes the world of difference and in turn assists the business,” she said.
Dedes isn’t the only foodservice business reaping the benefits of delving into the world of psychology – the best restaurant in the world has its own psychologist on the books, and according to Joan Roca, chef and co-owner of El Celler de Can Roca in Spain’s Girona, the benefits have been outstanding.
The restaurant, recently crowned the world’s best at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants gala event in Melbourne, hired Imma Puig, also the Barcelona football team’s psychologist, to speak with the restaurant’s team members once a week.
“We thought maybe she’d be able to help us with the team, so that we could better our emotional understanding and connection,” Roca said.
“In a fine dining restaurant there’s a lot of tension and so it’s a good way to improve the relationships between the teams: the cooking teams, the waiting staff and the sommeliers, and the staff out the front.”
Puig speaks with individuals and with teams, discussing everything other than the restaurant’s food.
According to Roca, both staff morale and performance has improved. “The environment is much better, and the atmosphere … If we want our clients to be happy then we have to try to make our team happy too. So what’s improved is that many of the little problems – we now know that they exist. If we didn’t know that, then we wouldn’t be able to solve them,” he said.
There are a number of other steps the restaurant takes to keep staff motivated and performing at their best. The team does a lot of travelling, seeking inspiration from other restaurants, cultures and cuisines. The restaurant is also looking into how it can best retain its female chefs after they start families – an on-site crèche is not out of the question, Roca said.
“We also decided to close on Tuesdays at midday to be able to have these sessions with our psychologist and also for creativity purposes – to incorporate the team into the projects we’re running, and to just share and speak with our team,” Roca said.
Of course not every restaurant is in a position to hire a psychologist, but the value that Roca places on the wellbeing of his staff, and the direct correlation he sees between their happiness and that of his diners is something we should all take note of.