How to Keep Restaurant Staff Motivated and Satisfied

With front of the house servers and back of the house cooks, effectively managing restaurant staff can be a difficult juggling act even at t
October 29, 2010

With front of the house servers and back of the house cooks, effectively managing restaurant staff can be a difficult juggling act even at the best of times. Yet in the hospitality business, the happiness and satisfaction of your employees translates directly into the satisfaction of your customers, and eventually the bottom line. SeriousEats talked with some of our favorite hospitality experts around the country on how to keep your staff motivated and your customers happy. Here's what they had to say:


It's All in the Delivery

Communicating with your staff is important, but how, when and where you offer criticism is just as important as what you say. Tony Maws, chef-proprieter of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass. says compliments carry more impact if you dole them out right away. "[If I] catch people doing things right, I'll offer them immediate praise."


Criticisms, on the other hand, are more sensitive. A person is much more receptive to constructive criticism if they aren't already on the defensive. When Tony offers critiques, he'll make sure to "sandwich it between two compliments" to temper the blow and demonstrate that he's addressing the issue with a level head.


Some managers let the customers do the talking. At Maialino in New York, Nick Anderer makes sure to share positive feedback from customer comment cards at the end of every night out loud to his staff. He adds that an end-of-shift drink for the crew goes a long way to keeping up morale—"Who doesn't like a cold beer at the end of service?"


Lead by Example

Nick Kokonas, managing partner of Chicago's Alinea says that the only way to expect strong performance from your staff is to start with strong leadership. "Chef [Grant] Achatz and Joe Catterson, our General Manager are workaholics who always do the right thing instead of the easy thing." Their uncompromising eye to quality trickles down. "Everyone can see the example they set," and become better employees for it.


Chef Ken Oringer of Boston's Clio concurs. Strong leaders "remind them that they are part of an elite team [and] give them a sense of pride that they have a job that many people in the industry would covet."


Defining Goals

If there's one thing that everyone agrees on, it's that nobody can be expected to do their job properly if they aren't even sure what their job entails. Strictly defining all roles and expected growth from each position—manager down to bus-boy—is essential for smooth operations. At Porter House in New York, Chef Michael Lomonaco stresses the importance of "train[ing] staff to perform their jobs to meet [specific] expectations," adding that just as important is to acknowledge when these expectations are adequately met or exceeded.


At Alinea, Joe Catterson leads "a daily front of house staff meeting to go over the previous night and set expectations for the night ahead." They've been holding them every day since their opening in 2005. Getting feedback on reasonable goals from the staff is key to these meetings. "We seek input [from our staff] on how to make incremental improvements."


Role Reversal

Critiquing the performance of staff is a manager's job, but sometimes having the staff critique the restaurant and management is equally effective. At Maialino, the staff plays a game called "bottom three" in their weekly meeting. "We pick our three least favorite dishes on the menu and dissect what it is about them that we don't like," says Chef Anderer. "And you have to pick, even if you love them all!" he adds, saying that it's the best way to ensure that their menu is constantly changing and improving.


The front of the house employs a similar tactic, with each member required to list three things that could be improved with how service is run. Being brought into the managerial fold gives staff a sense of ownership of the restaurant, giving them reason to want to improve. "We each walk out of each of these meetings looking for a solution to either rectify or eliminate problems."


Unique Solutions

Sometimes the best inspiration is found outside the place of business. Tory Miller of L'Etoile in Madison, a restaurant focused on farm-to-table cuisine takes his staff, both front of the house and back on field trips to the farms that grow their food. "Connecting them directly to the amazing people that provide our food produces results that are undeniable," he says. Cooks and servers alike find new respect for the ingredients they are working with, which in turn results in better food and more enthusiastic service.


Clio General Manager Ian Louisignau recently adopted the policy of seating guests with wine lists and cocktail menus only, delaying the delivery of food menus until the customer is ready. "It gives us a great ability to control table times and how orders go into the kitchen," he explains. Everyone from the guests to the servers to the cooks feel more relaxed, and "those few extra minutes can really ease service during crunch times."