How to Motivate Your Staff and Build a Stronger Team

By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor

teamwork all hands.jpg

Ever wish you could clone those few employees you are lucky enough to have? The ones that show up on time consistently, with a smile on their face, work hard and then say, “What else?” Is it just luck? Do amazing employees just happen to come along every now and again with their seemingly endless work ethic and motivation? There is something dangerously overlooked by too many restaurant managers or owners when it comes to keeping employees at the top of their game: motivation. 

Stephen Throop, a veteran manager at leading San Diego establishment The Rabbit Hole, is a prime example of successful leadership. Known simply as “Throop” (silent “h”), he is the epitome of positivity that a successful concept needs.

“A motivated employee is an awesome employee,” says Throop. “Someone that comes ready to work, ready to tackle any challenges thrown their way… these are great people to be around.”

Motivate Your Team

Since when is a paycheck not enough? The short answer to this question is: often. Successful establishments go to great lengths to build a team. Once employees are hired and trained, too many managers are buried with everyday business and simply “expect the employee’s best.” That isn’t enough. Sure, it is expected that employees make guests feel like rock stars while on the clock but sometimes life gets in the way, even for the best employees. 

“The owners understand that the day-to-day grind can wear on management too,” says Throop. Understanding this should be expected of leadership. The key to breaking the grind can be as simple as listening closely. “Sure, they took the job because they want to pay their rent,” he says, but he adds that it is important to connect with employees. “Some will respond to you just asking about their pets or significant other.” 

Understand that despite the paychecks and tips, there may still be something missing that could potentially offset any lasting frustrations employees have with their job.

Throop and a staff employee at The Rabbit Hole  | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Throop and a staff employee at The Rabbit Hole | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Build a Positive Environment

"But there are so many others out there that would want this job!"

Should that be your philosophy, or the philosophy of your managers that rule with an iron fist, take note: your employees are not giving their best work if they are working “to not get fired.” Positive work continually getting overlooked will lead to a host of other issues that impact the bottom line.

Throop creates a culture that sets employees up for success, and reminds them he is on their team. “No Dishwasher? I fill in. I might step out on the floor to touch tables, and one of my servers has stepped into the dish room without me asking, just to help the night go smoothly. It is important they know that I will help them do whatever the team needs, and working together, the ship will not go down.” Throop is spot-on when he explains that his leading by example keeps employees motivated. “A motivated employee’s enthusiasm is contagious,” he says. 

Say “Please” and “Thank You”

When someone is performing well, they deserve to be thanked. That should become a habit. When is the last time you complimented your star server? When is the last time you complimented the cook that has been improving? Appropriate praise is an inexpensive and valuable tool. Throop balances showing employees they are valued when they do a great job and holding them accountable when they don’t. Too much on either side of that, and issues arise.

Credit: Instagram, @rabbitholesd

Credit: Instagram, @rabbitholesd

Budget for Happiness

Getting deeper with appreciation can be driven by budget but doesn’t need to be limited by it. The best concepts plan for this on varying levels while struggling concepts forget that even verbal praise can go a long way. Throop has a few simple methods that many managers could implement for immediate results.

“My entire career I have made it a point to fawn over an employee’s family, particularly their mother or father. Why? Because everyone should be able to show their family that they are important and valued.” Easy. 

“It is a very important aspect of our company to keep employees happy and motivated.” Some of the employee outings at The Rabbit Hole are budgeted for while some are simple gestures, says Throop, “like standing up and clapping as employees walk in the door to start their shift. Very quickly, the entire bar will start clapping without even knowing why!”

When a beer rep brings in a new product, Throop finds that employee that is really into the local beer scene and asks for their input on a product, showing them they are valued.

Understand the Trickle-Down Effects

Truly great managers are rare, and bring success in the form of happier employees, higher ticket averages, and an important hiring factor. “I do feel that our turnover is less than average,” says Throop. 

The Rabbit Hole is one of several different neighborhood establishments by owners Brendan Huffman, Mark Huber, David Schiffman, and Mina Desiderio. At The Rabbit Hole, the positive employee experience started well before the concept was even finalized. The tight-knit, historic community of Normal Heights was able to provide suggestions about the concept in an online forum through social media, and owners built from there. The name, brand, artwork and lighting are all inspired by the community and the input they have received. Ownership that cares at that level rarely stops when the doors open, and The Rabbit Hole and Throop are no exception. 


Look at your current situation and evaluate. Are your actions as a leader motivating your staff? It’s never too late to create or improve on a positive, motivational environment. Adjust carefully and thoughtfully and everyone will win.