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On an early spring evening, Glen Agritelley, owner of the Mercy Wine Bar in Addison, Texas, raised his glass to celebrate the establishment’s anniversary. But he was doing more than honoring the wine bar’s success that evening. “I’m toasting a wonderful staff, almost all of whom have been with me since the day we opened.”

Celebratory events for staff morale and recognition are hardly new. Agritelley, however, planned to go one step further for his valuable staff: in May, twelve employees would spend three days in the Napa Valley and Sonoma exploring vineyards and learning more about winemaking. Although the trip was designed to be as enjoyable as it would be instructive, the owner emphasized his motive: “I work to create an environment in which people love what they do, and their passion comes through every day. . . . My goal is simple—the staff will bring their experiences in the wine country back to Mercy, and those will be shared with their guests at the table. It is an investment in the business.” Agritelley, like other mindful owners and managers, has learned that keeping employees enthused and motivated can make all the difference between struggle and success in the restaurant industry.

Just as real estate professionals have their mantra, “location, location, location,” when describing the properties that are valued most, restaurateurs have their own dictum for success: “staff, staff, staff.” Without a committed, hardworking staff, even the best of fine establishments will falter. And it’s no secret that dissatisfied or dishonest employees, prima donnas, and incompetent managers can and do wreak havoc in both the back and front of the house.


Frequent employee turnover can be costly and also contributes to declining morale in any business. Looking at turnover expenses alone, the National Restaurant Association’s Education Foundation estimates that it costs close to $23,000 to replace a manager and $2,300 for a line employee.

Stephen Zagor, Dean of the Culinary & Restaurant Management program and Instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, stresses that owners need to be very selective in their recruitment of restaurant staff. “Look for positive, talented, upbeat people.” Choose staff, Zagor advises, who will quite literally “bring something to the table.”

Philip Wood, Managing Director, The Jefferson, Washington, DC, says he takes hiring procedures very seriously. “The selection process is critical,” Wood explains. “Several staff members from the property meet with candidates to see if there is a good fit. We are looking for individuals with a willing attitude to learn and work hard . . . our properties focus on the five Cs: character, calm, charm, culture, and cuisine, and we expect our staff to make certain our guests experience them.”


According to Wood, new recruits receive an extensive two-day training program on the subject of working with the public, in addition to other career training. “Many of our new employees are local college students and recent culinary school graduates. Our goal is to get the very best, most enthusiastic people willing to learn all there is about the business!”

But finding such dedication is not as easy as it used to be, according to Richard Femenella, chief financial officer for the Charlie Palmer Group, which employs over 900 restaurant personnel across the country. “Middle-aged managers have to keep in mind that for Generation X—the 25- to 35-year-olds coming up in the business—career is number two for them . . . quality of life is number one. This new generation of workers is not driven like the Baby Boomers and those before them who made careers and success their whole focus.” Given this trend, old-school managers shouldn’t be put off when prospective employees ask about vacation time and reasonable work schedules.

At Mercy Wine Bar, finding the right team, front and back, was the result of personal referrals. “Most of the original staff is still with us,” Agritelley explains, “and all were chosen by referrals. The few new people now with us have also been found through referrals.” In selecting staff, the owner claims, “I take risks and like to hire people at the beginning of their careers . . . take chances on them and give them opportunities they would never [have] had if they stayed in the mainstream of the food and wine industry.” But no matter what the position, Agritelley’s principal requirement for hiring is the same: “Have a passion for service, food, and wine.”

Megan Burgess, the general manager of Roppongi, in La Jolla, California, operated by the Ladeki group of restaurants in San Diego, echoes that sentiment. If a job applicant doesn’t show plenty of enthusiasm during an employment interview, she stresses, “he or she is a poor candidate for the job. You can’t make someone enthusiastic about a job. It has to come from within.”

Even under the best recruitment circumstances, where a restaurant is able to assemble a team of eager, conscientious workers, the manager is still not off the emotional hook. Staff leaders play an essential role in maintaining motivated spirits.

For Burgess, who has both front- and back-of- the-house experience, managers are critical to the well-being and enthusiasm of the staff: “The best advice I can give anyone: treat people like you want to be treated . . . right down to the dishwasher, who has the most backbreaking job in the place.”

Agritelley believes the atmosphere in the work environment is critical. “We create a team approach, and everyone’s input is taken seriously and solicited. There are no dictators in my workplace.” Having spent most of his career in computer sales, he is quick to admit, “I am not an expert in this industry, so remaining open to my staff—and the guests—is most important. I allow our staff to have a say in how the business is run. We work hard to have an environment in which everyone looks out for fixing things that don’t work and suggesting new things without the fear of failure or intimidation.”

In a large, multiunit operation such as the Charlie Palmer Group, staff motivation takes on more complexity. “There are different levels of incentive and recognition instituted for different levels of the staff,” Femenella remarks. Key management employees are offered a chance to privately invest in the company, whereas staff at each unit are given bonuses and other acknowledgments. But the most important factor in motivating the Palmer Group employees, Femenella maintains, is “to really pay attention to each employee’s career goals and aspirations—even those of a busboy. Very few people have no hope of advancing themselves . . . most workers want to move up, so management needs to focus on ways they can allow employees to improve their skills or positions, within the company.” Such consideration fosters motivation, but it also helps the organization retain valuable staff. Citing a low turnover of employees and many 10-year-plus staffers with the Palmer Group, Femenella emphasizes the reason for this achievement: “We don’t just move our people around in the company as it suits us . . . we always consider whether the move fits into the employee’s ultimate goals.”


Depending on the resources of a restaurant or hospitality group, there are different ways to nurture high employee morale. But no matter the size or sophistication of the operation, “there are three golden rules for building motivation in any workplace,” states John Miller, president of In-Power, a New Jersey–based consulting firm specializing in employee effectiveness. “First of all, managers must state their expectations very clearly, so that workers know exactly what they must accomplish. Don’t be vague.”

The second rule for managers, according to Miller, is to praise specific actions. “One of the most frequent mistakes leaders make is that they praise in generalities but criticize in specifics,” Miller explains. “Speaking in general about someone’s performance, like saying ‘nice job,’ doesn’t really show recognition of what the employee did. It doesn’t give true ownership of good performance to that person.” But unfortunately, Miller explains, that’s what happens most often with criticism: “It’s given specifically so that the critique becomes more real than the praise.” The rule for managers, Miller adds, “should be to turn this dynamic around and praise specific performances.” Conversely, when an action or situation needs to be corrected, refrain from personal criticism and focus more on ways to avoid repeating the problem, rather than fixing blame and shame.

At the Charlie Palmer Group, such praise and recognition have been instituted in a new “rewards” program, one that has nothing to do with financial bonuses or incentives. “We’ve created an automated calendar that lets us know each day when an employee is celebrating his or her anniversary with the company.” If so, the employee gets a phone call and a thank you from each of the executives: Femenella, Randy Scott, the Palmer Group’s east coast director of operations, and also Charlie Palmer, the president. “Just recently, each of us called one of our managers in the Washington DC, operation to congratulate him on his anniversary with the company, and to tell him how much we appreciate his efforts . . . by the time he got the third phone call, from Charlie, he was completely blown away by the gesture.” Besides the verbal recognition, Femenella expects that the company will also send complimentary dinners to these celebrated employees.

In addition to detailed praise, the third requirement for nurturing motivation according to Miller’s rule book “is to provide all the necessary resources for employees to succeed. It’s essential that employees have the time, material, and skills they need to do their job effectively.”

Industry watchers report that restaurant executives are increasingly paying attention to the issue of skills and training as tools for employee recruitment, satisfaction, and retention. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2005 Restaurant Industry Forecast, 37 percent of fine dining operators plan on allocating a larger part of their budget to training in 2005, and 52 percent of quick-service operators are contemplating this investment.


Jessica Wion, director of the NRA’s Education Foundation, says it’s essential that managers take leadership programs and other workshops that help them with time management and coaching their staffs. “Teamwork is critical in this business. We have joined with Harvard Business Management for several of our training programs. They can be on-site, and online, in some cases.”

One popular program, according to Wion, is English instruction for the many employees whose first language is not English. “We offer daily doses of language training. Some restaurants use a 10-minute huddle where a particular topic is discussed. Although much of the language training is for Spanish-speaking people, many restaurants using this program are doing so with speakers from eastern European countries and Asia.”

For Mercy’s new recruits, Agritelley provides a rigorous training program. Candidates go through three weeks of “off the floor” training where they learn the wine list, taste all of the wines, taste all of the food, and study food and wine pairings. “They spend a week running food and shadowing a senior server,” he explains. “Then they are put on the floor under the direction of a senior server on light shifts, usually Monday through Wednesday. Total training time is between four and six weeks, depending on how quickly the individual learns.”

But that’s only the beginning of what Agritelley describes as an ongoing commitment to “improving employee skills in both service and product knowledge.” In addition to the staff foray to Napa last May, “I will send our sommelier to a Pinot ‘camp’ in Oregon this year, and next year we hope that a server will be going. These are the kind of investments that motivate the staff and help them grow personally and professionally.”
As much a mentor as a manager, Agritelley reflects the growing awareness that restaurant leaders need to consider the staff experience as much as the guest experience in their pursuit of success. As Femenella says, pointing to the paradox of modern management, “It’s not all about work anymore.” Business, after all, is very personal.

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