3 Ways to Promote a Better Culture

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Restaurants have this stigma that it’s not a real job. It’s a means to an end until you finally grow up and do what it is that you want to do. But that’s what I absolutely love about the industry. You have the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, from all stages of life and you get to meet some pretty interesting people.

I will admit that working in restaurants for over 14 years, the first eight of those years were of that mindset. This was a way to pay the bills and as soon as I could, I’d leave for my grown-up job. Interestingly enough, I joined a company that was a small mom-and-pop restaurant and because of their culture and the way that they treated their teams, I ended up falling back in love with the industry. I knew that it was the industry I wanted to be a part of indefinitely.

When you think about culture, it’s hard to pinpoint what that even means. It’s this term that is being thrown around by leaders in various industries. The best way to describe culture is that it’s basically the personality of the company. It encompasses the values, the goals, the mission, the work environment, the way we communicate with staff and each other, etc.

As we know, some personalities are louder than others, some personalities clash with each other and some personalities instantly click. That’s what we’re looking for when it comes to potential employees, personalities that instantly click and they become energized by each other.

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in my career— large and small —but it was because of the culture of the restaurants that I was a part of that turned those mistakes into meaningful lessons.

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1. Let Your Employees Make Mistakes

I was speaking at a conference early last year after the release of my book and the whole room looked at me like I was crazy. One person in the front even had their jaw ajar and didn’t blink for what felt like an eternity but it was only a few good seconds.

Apparently, a lot of restaurant owners cringe at the idea that of their employees making mistakes. After an open dialogue, I found out that they spend time, energy, and money to train people on every type of scenario and situation so the employees won’t have to make a mistake.

Let me get this out of the way and say in a utopian world, that would be ideal but we are all humans and we are bound to make mistakes from time to time. I’ve seen people make incredibly costly mistakes that set restaurants back $5k-$15k because an employee took it upon themselves to do something they weren’t trained on.

Yes, this amount could be a reason a restaurant closes, especially with incredibly slim margins. But, I’m not talking about costly mistakes. I’m talking about the mistakes where your employees are empowered due to your culture and might have missed the mark.

One of my first days as a server, the manager scheduled me for a busy brunch Sunday. They said here’s how to hold a tray and carry multiple plates at once. Then, I was given a section and it was my job to get through the day.

The manager loaded up eight large (heavy) plates and had me walk to my party of 10 sitting in the far back corner of the restaurant. A little kid from that party drops their bottle and it falls under my foot as I’m stepping so this whole tray comes crashing down onto the floor.

I sprinted back to get the broom and dustpan and cleaned up the mess while the manager fires off the order. We got it out in another 10 minutes (luckily), but I was screamed at because of the incident. I learned that the manager didn’t know how to be a leader and I found a new position quickly.

Another restaurant that I worked at as a new manager, I helped open a new location and ended up making a lot of mistakes. Instead of getting yelled at, the owners of the restaurant coached me through the different scenarios I was facing. They spent time teaching me why I got that result, what shifts they would make if they were in that position and why they would make those decisions.

That taught me the value of a mistake. Restaurant owners that allow their top performers and leaders to act fast and break things will go further with their restaurant than ones who try to make sure that their teams never make a mistake.

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2. Supply Learning & Growth Opportunities

If this is your first time reading an article of mine, you should know that I’m a huge advocate for training and development. Your employees will not become high-performing superstars without the proper training to get them assimilated into your business and culture nor will they grow to become better without growth and development opportunities.

The first thing that development and growth opportunities offer your employees is a forward-moving career— even if there are not growth opportunities as in being promoted to a higher position at this time. Growth opportunities aren’t secluded to promotion, so let’s toss that idea to the side for now.

When you promote a learning culture, you are showing your staff that there’s always room to grow in their position. It starts with the leaders and their understanding that they do not know everything and when there’s open transparency with this, they won’t be afraid to say that they don’t know something.

That’s one of the biggest reasons why companies get frustrated with their teams because the employees are too afraid to make mistakes, but the employers are wondering why their teams never step up and go above or beyond for the company. It starts with communication and being the leader (as the employer) to say it’s okay if you don’t know something.

My last boss would always say “it’s okay if you don’t know something just don’t pretend like you do and make something up.” She ended up becoming a mentor of mine over my career and a great friend, but she was always the first one to admit that she didn’t know. I never thought any less of her or never thought she wasn’t fit to lead. It was that transparency that caught my eye and loyalty to the company at that time.

Most restaurant owners look at growth opportunities as a promotion or job advancement when that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s an aspect of growth, but if you don’t have that opportunity available, you should know that by being able to send your employees to conferences or to workshops where they could find a mentor... that’s enough of a growth opportunity to make an impact in your business.

Get them to come back and have a strategy session with them on what they learned, how we can all implement the learnings into the business and that person gets to make a positive impact on the company they work for. That’s what most people want these days from a job anyway— to be able to make an impact and see the results.

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3. It Starts With Belonging

People that feel secluded or feel like they aren’t part of the team will hinder their learning in the onboarding process in any restaurant. They feel uncomfortable going to work and it’s not an enjoyable experience to not be able to enjoy yourself at work. We spend more time at work than we do at home or with friends and family, so it’s important that we at least enjoy the people that we work with to make the time go by quicker.

This starts with the top. This starts with the employers creating an environment of inclusion. Restaurant employees come from all over the world, all walks of life and they all have stories to share. It’s one of the reasons why I absolutely love the restaurant community because it doesn’t matter what school you went to or what your background is— we are all tied together by being a part of the restaurant’s story.

It’s so important that your employees feel safe in your restaurant. When your employees feel safe in your restaurant, they’ll be able to be themselves. They’ll be able to learn things quicker and they’ll feel like when everything else isn’t going right in their life, they have one thing to hold onto.

I remember having an employee come in and I never knew she was having her whole life crumble in front of her. She never said anything because she knew that the restaurant was the one place that was her “normal” routine and had friends she could count on to joke around throughout the shift.

She ended up pulling me and the owners into the office to tell me what was happening and just thanked us for providing a safe work environment that she could count on. She ended up being the manager when I left and she’s still there to this day making sure that everyone that walks into the building feels safe while they’re there.

Culture isn’t just about nap pods, ping pong tables, open workspaces or even a list of benefits that keep people interested in your company. What keeps people interested is who you are, what your story is and if it’s something that they can believe in. When they feel safe to make mistakes, when they feel like they belong and when there are opportunities to grow personally and professionally— that’s how you’ll attract the best talent.

That feeling that you get when someone resigns from their post to go on and do things beyond their wildest dreams— just know that it’s because of you that they had the courage to step up and chase their dreams. That’s why culture matters.

By Andrew Carlson, Industry Expert