Building a Better Boss

In my last blogpost, I talked about how expensive it can be to constantly have to replace employees in your business. It has an economic cost as well as a less quantifiable cost, like the cost to company morale and customers’ experience. So how do you keep employees happy, for the moment and on an ongoing basis?

Retaining employees doesn’t necessarily require paying them more than anyone else in town or offering platinum benefits, although that certainly can help. If you don’t keep your wages somewhat competitive, people will eventually leave no matter how great a work environment you provide. There has to be an additional value beyond wages that your company brings to the employee. Most people who are building their careers want to be paid well, but they also see the value in the other important pieces you can offer that don’t cost you lot of extra dollars. These pieces just require extra thought and an action plan..

Let’s look at why people decide to quit a job. According to studies by Accenture that measured reasons for employees’ unhappiness, the greatest percentage can be attributed to not liking the boss. Think back on any job where you quit: Did you quit the job, or did you quit the boss? I can remember one boss who put her feet up on my desk whenever she came in to talk to me and yelled at me for every mistake, real or perceived. I had to quit before I’d get fired for yelling back!

According to Eric Reed’s article in TheStreet, the food service and hospitality industry is one with a reputation for mediocre bosses because managers often rise to their position based on skills that have nothing to do with their ability to manage people. They have mastered the line, or they understand the menu better than anyone else. The transition from line cook to sous chef to general manager isn’t easy for someone without leadership skills.  Often there is little time or money to be spent on training and development. Our industry is the hardest hit by this short-sighted thinking.  

The [second] most common profile for mediocre bosses is a high-turnover, low-skill environment. This may often be a retail or low-wage service industry position, one in which workers rarely stay very long so the corporation spends little on training or development. (Fast food alone has a turnover rate of 150% annually.)….. managers rarely receive the support or preparation they need to do the job well.

The other reasons why people quit? According to the Accenture study: 1) lack of empowerment, 2) internal politics, and 3) lack of recognition.  It all starts from the top. All part of the same issue.

Management Training:

It would make sense that if people leave a job because of their manager or boss, having better leaders/managers  could make a difference in having people stay.  Let’s start thinking long-term in developing leaders. Here are a few ideas:

  • Identify leaders – First identify people in your organization who have either natural skills for leadership or those who are interested in developing themselves as leaders. People who are able to take ownership of their work, and can lead others to do their best work.  In this process, be aware of any unconscious bias you may have around what a leader “looks” like. The leader in your organization may be hiding in plain sight! That busser, barback or dishwasher may surprise you someday.
  • Invest in coaching.  Put a program in place to train leaders in leadership, whether it’s a leadership program outside of work or a coach you bring in once a week. This has many benefits: 1) employees understand you are serious about leadership and good management , 2) all employees see for themselves what’s possible in your organization, 3) leaders get ongoing training designed to deal with real issues in the workplace.


  • Role Models for the Culture.  When you started your business, you had a strong set of values that informed your decision making. And now it’s time to translate those values into a culture in your business.  Often it’s these values that draw employees to work for you. But if your managers haven’t been thoroughly trained in it, they won’t be good ambassadors for that culture. Be clear with your staff that culture matters by having your managers act as role models.  I often remember the wonderful staff I had at one of my businesses. We made healthy simple food there, and connected with our customers on a personal level. We took care of our staff the same way. Our values and the way we demonstrated our values through our culture had our staff want to stay and work with us.
  • Create Structure for Everything . “Oh no!” you say? “I hate structure!” Well most people love structure in the workplace because it gives a clear map to what’s expected of them. Furthermore managers need good structures from which to evaluate someone’s success.  In fact managers can be instrumental in developing these structures!
    What do I mean? Here are a few examples: 1) a training manual for all positons 2) a clear policy around advancement and wage scales 3) a clear guide for managing disciplinary issues.4) regular check-ins with employees. 


My philosophy is if you create great managers and pathways to success, in any industry, you will create a place where people want to stay and do their best work.

Our industry in the past 30 years has become more of a profession than an occupation. We have people who have chosen career in the culinary field rather than fallen into it. Our industry can no longer assume that we don’t need the structures that other businesses need to serve employees. Employees everywhere want to be empowered in their jobs and have recognition for what they bring to their work. By crafting better managers, our industry will go a long way in improving retention in an industry that has one of the worst retention rates in the country.

 This blogpost can also be found as part of Bernoulli Finance’s February 2019 edition of The Workshop.


If not now, when?

The Food + Entrepreneurship Conference opened yesterday in San Francisco at The Village on Market Street. The conference is hosted by La Cocina, the local food-business incubator is in its second year and yesterday’s events were well attended. The outcome of the election last week was on everyone’s mind, and so the discussions took on an urgency. I think if the elections had gone the other way, the tone would have been one of possibility. Now the mountain may be harder to climb.

I attended the breakout sessions that addressed activism in the food business because I’ve been deeply curious about how to run a small food business with an eye to social justice. I ran my own businesses with the intention of taking care of my employees, my community and the environment. I look around and see so many businesses answering that same call and I want to learn how they do it profitably. I mean the nuts-and-bolts of it. What do their balance sheets/income statements look like?

I will write more about what I learned and what inspired me about the day, but one moment really stood out for me.

After lunch, I listened in on a panel discussion let by La Cocina’s Leticia Landa called “Activist Owner: Can you Fight Social Issues & Run a Good Food Business?”. The speakers were Cristina Martinez from South Philly Barbacoa, Anthony Myint (The Perennial) and Shakirah Simley (Bi-Rite Businesses). One common thread the messages: Begin with an intention to fight social issues, plan your business culture and profitability around that, and all else will follow. Cristina who spoke through an interpreter, said she has created community through her food and her employees, paying them better than most restaurants in Philadelphia, and so drawing loyal talent to her kitchen.  Shakirah and Anthony both spoke to providing living wages to workers, providing training and support, and giving back to community.

All day, I had been thinking about how we need to extend this conversation across the country, and how California needs to share this message to other states. A young woman raised her hand to ask a question. She was from Foodlab Detroit(I think, that was the name…definitely Detroit). She explained how hard it is to encourage her clients, new food entrepreneurs, to do all these things that one needs to do to be responsible business owners. it felt like she was saying,”This is all fine and good for you folks but that’s just too much to ask of someone who is trying to build something for themselves.” She was passionate. I, for my part, have always wondered as a white, middle-class woman, where do I get off telling business owners that they should rethink profitability? This is hard enough to make money without having to think about activism.. So am I trying to impose my own vision of the way things should be without being realistic about the hardships of being a food-entrepreneur?

Look, I understand what it is to be a food industry worker and a food entrepreneur. I know that this is an industry which lags far behind in doing the right thing by its employees. Living wages, sexism, racism. All issues screaming for reform in our industry.

We need to begin.  We, of all the folks,  know what it’s like to struggle on minimum wage, to work without health insurance, to endure sexual harassment and hostile work environments. We are the ones who know this. That is why we have to be be the ones to CHANGE this. It has to start from us.

We should want to take care of each other and set an example for entrepreneurs everywhere. Our work is to nurture in every way.

As the Jewish prophet Hillel the Elder said, ” If not us, who? If not now, when?”




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?