Labor of Love

Or, why does labor hate me

I became a restaurant manager when I was 21. I just turned 64 and I have spent most of my life working with employees, and I want to tell you something you already know: Labor is the single most difficult part of being in business.

Over the years I have tried everything to motivate employees. I’ve used gold stars, bonuses, games and contests, employee suggestions and feedback, rotating shift leaders, even employee ownership, and I can tell you from my experience none of it has worked. No matter what I do, I am still the bad guy and my employees hate me and hate the job (a bit of hyperbole, and not everyone of them hated my guts, thank God).

I can only think of two businesses where I have seen employees stay long term. The first is a restaurant hotel in Taos Ski Valley called the Hotel St. Bernard, where my wife Sandy worked for years. The pay was great, the setting - right at the bottom of the main lift - couldn’t be beat, and to get a job there was almost impossible.

The second was a restaurant I started in 1987 in Albuquerque called Scalo. We had almost zero employee turn-over and everyday people would apply.

What is a common denominator in these examples? I think two things; A sense of pride, and a sense of family. Let me explain.

A sense of pride comes first. In the restaurant or brewpub business, which is the service business, customers have a fairly low regard for the people who work in these establishments. Even the lowest wage earner in another business, can come into you nice brewpub and treat your staff like shit. This has a psychological effect on your employees, reinforcing the false idea that working in the service industry is a demeaning way to earn a living. If you tell someone that you code for a living, they may say “wow, that sounds interesting.” Tell the same person you are a bartender and they may ask “what are you hoping to do after that?”

Not respecting the place you work in or what you do for a living, is not a great incentive to go to work. It’s no wonder employees may or may not show up.

At Scalo, we were the best restaurant in town. Zagat called us the best restaurant in New Mexico. Everything we did was first class and we cut no corners. The waiting list to get in stretched to two hours, and of course the tips were great. The kitchen was completely open to the dining room and the tables were set up like an amphitheater with the kitchen as the stage, so the cooks in their chef coats were truly on display.

The Hotel St. Bernard in Taos was built at the same time as Taos Ski Valley and the clientele had been going there for decades. The owner, Jean Mayer, a French ski legend in his own right, encouraged absolute loyalty from the staff, but also paid extremely well, and always allowed the employees to go take ski runs in between shifts.

The second common denominator is a sense of family. You get this when you have low employee turnover. Employees get to know and trust one another and naturally relationships form. In fact my two partners at Scalo both found their spouses there. If you feel a personal connection to other employees, you are less likely to blow off a shift, leaving your fellow employees to cover for you.

In these examples there were no games or tricks, or special employee incentives. There was only the sense of pride in the establishment, and the obvious enjoyment the employees had working with each other. I don’t think there is a formula for this. You can have a restaurant or brewpub where you do everything right, always working at excellence, and still have high employee turn-over.

What makes an establishment achieve this special status? I will give it the name “It”. I can’t define “It”, it just is. There is simply something about a place that has “It”. You either have “It” or you don’t. Some of my other places had a sort of “It”.

Maybe your place has “It”, but if it doesn’t, there are things you can do to help you get there. Being excellent is the best way to start. Paying better than anyone else helps, and of course treating your employees like humans and not just parts of the business is also huge. In my book Brewery Operations Manual I tried to provide systems that would at least coral employees to do all the functions to keep your brewery running smoothly.

If you have something that has worked for you, or if you feel your brewpub has “It”, I would love your feedback.

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