The View from the Kitchen

Last week, I attended an event sponsored by the New York Times here in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center. Kim Severson, who recently won a Pultizer for her reporting on sexual harassment and the restaurant industry along with a team of writers, interviewed a panel of Bay Area based women chefs about the state of the restaurant industry in California. Reem Assil,  Dominique Crenn and Tanya Holland are three well respected restaurateurs/chefs who currently own and operate businesses here in the Bay Area.

Several themes emerged from the conversation. Of course, sexual harassment was central to the conversation. But something else came up which made a light bulb go off for me.  Tanya mentioned how difficult it is for her to find investors. Even with all her experience and visibility, her commitment to her community, she has struggled with this.

What is this about? Prior to this moment, why is that men have managed to attract investment despite their track records with settling out of court for sexual harassment claims, while women have so much struggle with this? And does being a woman of color play into this? Or the community that she serves?

Two things come to mind here for me.

One, the investors who bankroll the Mario Batalis of the world are not interested in the kind of business that Tanya is committed to. They want a ROI and they need to understand the attraction of the business. Dominique had had less trouble raising capital because she has a fine dining establishment. Rich folks get that. They want the kind of visibility that being an investor in her restaurants bring. Tanya’s food is for all of us, not just a group of people who can afford $400/person dinner. So it takes a certain kind of investor to see it’s value for themselves.

Two, I believe to raise capital for her businesses, and businesses like hers, it may require  restaurant owners like Tanya to think of different ponds to fish in. Just like Dominique Crenn can go to investors who can afford to eat at her restaurants, maybe we can create a pond of people who invest in restaurants like Tanya’s. Not for the profit they are looking to make, but the communities they are trying to build. Like a capital fund for community based businesses. Like a BIG capital fund.

Real estate developers, are you listening? Let’s dig a pond…



The First-time Worker

February labor numbers came out this week, and no surprise, the food industry is one of the leading creators of new jobs in the private sector.

While 242,000 new jobs were created in February, more than 40,000 of those jobs were created in the restaurant industry. One in five of these new restaurant jobs were filled by first-time workers.  (see “Half of QSR Jobs filled by First-time workers, promotions”, National Restaurant Association March 4, 2016)

First-time workers. Immediately that set the wheels turning in my head. I think the implications of that are profound.

If you currently own or operate a small restaurant business, you understand exactly what this means. The person that walks in your door, asking for that minimum wage job, has never had an employer.  You are their first. Most likely, you are asking them to do things they’ve never done before. This is the beginning of a relationship. Not just the relationship between you and them. It is the relationship of the newbie to the value of their work and labor. You have the chance to impact that in a positive way.

From another perspective, if you were sending that person out into the world to work for someone else, wouldn’t you like to send out a capable, well-trained individual so that our whole industry becomes stronger? Wouldn’t you like to send that person out with a strong sense of confidence in what they do, so they can grow in whatever they do, even if it isn’t being a line cook?

After all, nearly one third of all Americans say that their first working experience was in some form of food service. We are training America’s workforce in a very real way. How do we do that responsibly?

I have created a list of 6 things I think are essential to teach the newbie in the hopes of contributing to their worth as employees, for you and for others:

  • The importance of showing up!: ok, this seems obvious, right? Does the employee understand what that means? Getting to work on time, being ready to work when you get there, calling in when you are running late. You as an employer need to be strict about this or this can lead to really bad habits, even for your best worker. I have worked in places where the time and attendance is so strict that we have lost really talented people because they couldn’t be on time if their life depended on it, let alone their job. We are not like office workers; if someone shows late in the restaurant, the business can grind to a halt. Instill this sense of urgency.
  • Teamwork: Think of the best place you ever worked. Something needed to be done, you were swamped, someone stepped in and helped, you worked like a real crew. In my restaurant, lunch was a dance between cutting meat, serving customers, ringing people up, calling back to the kitchen for reinforcement. It was so much fun, my team was completely in sync. No one stood around and watched. All the best work environments from the perspective of productivity and employee satisfaction work well as a team, so it is important that they learn the value of chipping in when needed, even if  “it’s not my job”. (and teach them NEVER to use that phrase!)
  • Expectations: From the get-go, let the newbie know exactly what will be expected of them.  As part of your company’s training protocol, create a list of clear expectations for all employees, and ones that are specific to positions. For example, servers are expected to know the menu and wine list. (seems obvious but some newbies may not take this very seriously). When someone doesn’t have a clear idea of what is expected of them, they end up doing what they THINK is expected of them, and you may have very different ideas about that.
  • Giving them room to ask questions and make some mistakes: Everyone should feel that questions are welcome, and questions should be taken seriously and handled in a timely manner. So for example, if the employee has a question about their paycheck, pay attention, answer it or get them to someone who can.  (I am not a millennial, but I understand this is one work quality of this generation…they want to know “why”) When mistakes are made (and they will be), set some time aside to discuss it with them in a constructive way. Use words like, “tell me what happened” and “what do you think you could have done better“, and “how do you think we can avoid this in the future?” Give them a chance to talk. Yelling and scolding does nothing to improve anything; it fosters fear and secrecy. Unless this person does something repeatedly that you have told them repeatedly not to do, there is no point in raising your voice.
  • Listening skills: Constantly check in with your employees, new or old, and encourage them to be frank with you about their concerns. I think some employers believe that this gives the employee the mistaken  impression that they have some power or say. Work is not a democracy, but this conversation allows you to explain your policies and why you do things the way you do. This is your chance to strengthen your culture, to hone it and understand how it is being lived out everyday. And for the employee: it helps them to understand how they fit in the work equation.
  • Logistics of Getting Paid:
    •  I am shocked as a payroll manager how many people have NO understanding of the W4 or how this document  affects your pay.  And when it come to benefits, it’s the same thing.  It would be an amazing gift to a newly employed individual who has never seen this document before to have someone sit down and explain it in detail. I know, you just want to leave them alone with the new-hire paperwork for 15 minutes so you can get back to the kitchen, be done with it and get them working. Right?  This is the way so many employers handle new hire paperwork, I know. I’ve seen it. The long range effect of this: an individual who has no idea how their pay is being taxed or why, who has no idea whether the health plan they signed up for will be adequate, has no understanding of premiums or co-pays or deductibles. They work 100 hours in a pay period, look at their check and have no idea why it is so much less than they expected and they blame you.
    •  Help a newbie understand the deductions on their check and what they are for: I’ve had people come to me with questions about the MED (medicare) deduction on their check, wanting to know why we were deducting for medical but they weren’t covered.  I’ve had people complaining that our payroll company took out too much in social security and they wanted me to reimburse them. People should be versed in the lingo of their paycheck and how it works. If you can teach them this, they will be better off for the rest of their working life. They may even become better citizens.
    • Direct deposit or live checks: If you offer direct deposit, explain to them the convenience of this, and the possibility of setting up more than one account for direct deposit so they can start saving. Also let them know that if they close the account, they have to let you know well in advance.
    • Make sure they understand they need to look at their check stub each pay period and if there are any problems, they should let you know immediately. They should feel that they can come to you with any problem they have.

Imagine the implications of being someone’s first employer. Pretty heavy, huh? You may not take that too seriously, but if you do, image the impact you could have on someone’s life. Like your amazing history teacher in high school who made you love history for the rest of your life. This employee could come to remember the great leadership skills you taught him or her and become a great employer too.  Just a piece of my mind…

xavieralopez loop woman head eating

The Minimum Wage discussion….

San Francisco voters recently passed a measure, as several cities around the country are starting to do, which will raise the minimum wage to $15/hour by July 2018. Its a steady ramp-up, one dollar per year, and, frankly at the rate that everything is becoming more expensive here, I don’t know that $15 will look so great in three years.  I’m very happy that the discussion has started and that we’re on our way to giving hourly employees a better wage.

An article appeared in the Huffington Post last May about the effect the new minimum wage has had on the community of Seatac in Washington. They aren’t going the gradual route…they just upped the wage in one fell-swoop. The impact? One worker could actually quit one of his full-time  (40 hours a week) jobs to concentrate on his other full-time job and spend more time with his family. And start exercising.

Another worker decided he could start saving (What a concept!?) So when his car breaks down, he won’t have to scramble to make it one month.

Another CEO in Washington decided to raise the minimum wage of his workers to $70K/year. The average employee in this company was making $48K/year.  Wow. Imagine what the buying power that CEO just released! What would you do if you had an extra $22K/year? Buy a car? Send a kid to college? Save for college? Travel and spend? I read that this CEO has met with some resistance, from within his company as well as from outside.

As an employer, this may appear at first to put a huge strain on your ability to make money. After all, the food industry is probably the #1 employer of folks on minimum wage (I have no idea if this is true…it just seems like it is!). New York State recently created a mandatory minimum wage of $15/hour for fast food workers. Interestingly enough, this proves problematic as it begins to pull folks away from really important low paying jobs, like child care, towards jobs at McDonalds and Burger King. Economists have said that minimum wage works to raise the folks on the edge of the middle class up into the middle class, but only if it is across the board.

I realized this was an issue that needed to be addressed when I was sitting in a management meeting at a restaurant where I worked. The ballot measure for raising the minimum wage was coming up for a vote. The owner,  talking to all the managers, kitchen and front-of-the-house,  told us to tell all our team to vote against the ballot measure as it could mean the restaurant would have to cut back on staff to stay in business. Really? What planet did you come from? Who is going to turn down a raise?  If making $15/hour means that you only need to have one job to make ends meet, that you could spend more time with your family, tuck your children into bed at night, or take a Sunday drive to the country…why wouldn’t you vote for that?

Let’s face it: no one gets rich on $15/hour. The point is to shrink the income inequality gap, which can only be good for everyone. The question really is, how does it effect your business plan? How does it effect your decision making? Raise your prices? Limit your menu to reduce the need for labor? Make a smaller profit? Eliminate tips?

In the next few blog posts, I want to explore this issue further. This is an issue with so many people weighing in. There is conflicting perspectives that a high minimum wage boost unemployment figures and is bad for business and that is reduces unemployment and is good for business. I want to hear from restaurateurs about what has worked for them, how you have adjusted your business labor model to account for these changes…



How Your Business has Consequence

I’ve been thinking alot over the years about how entrepreneurs start businesses. I believe initially we start with an idea …it might be something we want to do, something we think others need, something that is an expression of ourselves in the world. I am a huge believer that this is more of what the World needs…(World meaning humanity or even on a natural level, Earth).

However when you start a business, whatever it may be, suddenly, you are bringing that into the realm of others, engaging those around you and creating, in essence, community.

In my first blog, I touched on the consequence of opening your business to a community, and how it is a commitment you make to bring a space to life so others can engage. Here I want to talk about other ways your business alters the community in which you live.

The most profound change between what you were before you started your restaurant and what you are now: you are an employer. Hear the weight of what that means. You are now responsible in ways that may have never occurred to you. These new relationships your business has created are far-reaching and profound. People work for you to help bring your vision to the world. And you, in turn, make it possible for them to feed and shelter themselves and their families. A major part of an employee’s day (if they re full-time) will be spent in your care…you must provide a safe and secure environment for them to work. You must make sure they have proper rest periods, that they can take a day off if they are sick and not risk losing their jobs, that they feel they can perform their jobs without feeling threatened.

With the intention of protecting employees from business owners with less enlightened perspectives, the government has passed laws to support employees. Minimum wage. The establishment of OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Association). Division of Labor Standards Enforcement…a whole host of alphabet soup designed to keep employers in line. Sometimes you may find…I should say one time at least in the life of your business, you will have an occasion to curse one of these agencies, when something you didn’t think was going to be a problem, sneaks up to bite you. Maybe you fire someone and don’t get them their final paycheck in time…they take you to the labor board. Or someone claims they injured themselves in your kitchen and you know they twisted their ankle skateboarding…..But ultimately these agencies are designed to help the employee. I am hoping that you, happy reader, are not the type to take advantage knowingly of your employees. However, you may be doing something that violates some of these laws without knowing it. Its a really good idea (Red Truck-speak for DO THIS!) to get to know as much labor law as you can as it relates to your business. Enroll in free courses offered by your Employment Development Department. Get brochures. Find your favorite site that keeps you up-to-date about local changes in laws in your area.  Here’s one link to the EDD site for California. Here’s another link to the State of California’s Department of Industrial Relations.

So the upshot: As a new employer you now have a responsibility that extends from your employee to the government of your community. A relationship has been set up to make sure you do the right thing (but you were going to anyway) the way that they need you to do the right thing. It would behoove you to understand their expectations.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, how about the deeper, more meaningful message that Red Truck wants you to come away with: Everything you do in this new role of employer can have some sort of effect on employees which adds a new layer of consequence to your business. I think that’s pretty heavy.

You may want to change the language a little too. Employees can be  partners in your venture, there to help you get your product out with your message. Wouldn’t you want them to walk away a better person for having worked with you? What does that mean? Having greater knowledge, greater skills, more confidence and self-esteem. You may not be able to pay them as much as you’d like, but if you can give them this? That would be a remarkable relationship to have. I would work harder for an employer who gives me that, wouldn’t you?