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Executive chef Joe Brenner at working with staff at Tuscan Kitchen's La Scuola Culiaria.png

Joe Collins says he gets chills up and down his spine when coming to work every day as general manager of Ledger Restaurant & Bar, a farm-to-table restaurant that opened this summer. But it’s not because the restaurant is in the picturesque (yet notorious) city of Salem, Massachusetts, or because the space is rumored to be haunted (delighting employees and visitors alike), but because it’s his “dream job.”

Though having a short commute one town over helps, it’s not only about the convenience. He— along with other industry professionals—say that training and hiring the right combination of people, and some on-the-ground team-building activities is a recipe for creating a place where restaurant staff want to stay put.

Ledger executive chef Daniel Gursha
Ledger Restaurant & Bar executive chef Daniel Gursha

Case in point: Ledger’s farm-to-table ethos means that all staff members get to go on field trips—literally—to small, local farms to see where produce is sourced. Executive chef Daniel Gursha says since the restaurant just opened this summer, one of his main advantages is getting to hire and train his own staff since no one’s habits are already established as a team. Coming into a space where the team has already “gelled”—or not—means some people have formed habits, and sometimes alliances, that are hard to break.                                                                 

For others, like FireLake general manager Kristin Holt, who helped open the Minneapolis restaurant in 2003, she says she’s been “blessed” with a group that’s been with her just as long. “With Minneapolis’s unemployment rate of just 3.3 percent, you’ve got make sure you’ve got a great environment where people get to help make decisions and are part of a real team,” she says. “It’s not like it used to be—millennials are shopping for [employers] as much as you’re shopping for them, and they read all of the [online] reviews to make sure they’re making the right choices.”

‘millennials are shopping for (employers) as much as you’re shopping for them’ – Kristin Holt

At FireLake, the staff comes together for monthly team brainstorming meeting, where employees hash out improvement ideas. This has likely contributed to the low turnover rate, and the fact that Holt’s most recent bartending hire to replace a nine-year employee was an internal referral.

Ledger Restaurant & Bar brunch_Photo courtesy of Ledger
Ledger Restaurant & Bar brunch. Photo courtesy of Ledger.

Adam Stark, manager of Sixteen in Chicago, says social media is one of the best ways to gain a strong internal following and build employee loyalty. Rather than just the cleverly crafted Instagram food shot, he will also profile dishwashers who have been there for years.

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For Tuscan Brands, which is opening a fourth Tuscan Kitchen & Market location in Boston’s bustling Seaport District this fall, social media and job fairs help with hiring, but competitive salaries are also key to incentivizing new hires. But the most important factors? The feeling of “la famigilia” at a family-owned business, the opportunity to grow from within, and hands-on training that is just as informative as it is fun.

To encourage their career development,  all employees attend culinary school at the flagship Tuscan Market in Salem, New Hampshire, to learn how to make gelato, tiramisu, pasta and sauces from scratch. “It’s important to us to have employees who are versatile and can help guests out with questions that may not even fall under their duties,” says culinary director Joe Brenner.

Executive chef Joe Brenner at Tuscan Kitchen's La Scuola Culiaria
Executive chef Joe Brenner at Tuscan Kitchen’s La Scuola Culiaria

Steve DiFillippo, a trained chef and owner of Italian steakhouse group Davio’s, says that offering employees a full two-weeks of training, versus the industry standard of three days, is what gets people to work and stay in the Davio’s family, which will soon add a new Braintree, Massachusetts location to a roster that already includes Boston, Manhattan, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and beyond.

Job fairs have been helpful to fill roles, but he advises to “hire more than you need” in a strong economy as a backup. “We’ll take someone who’s worked at a fast-casual restaurant who has a better attitude than someone with more experience,” DiFillippo says, “because in this market having a great personality and working hard is hard to find.”

In the end, says DiFillippo, it’s all about the service. “The hospitality is what people remember. Their steak could be overcooked and they’d try it again but if someone’s rude to them—they’ll never return.”

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Carley Thornell is a Boston-based food and travel writer with adventures chasing down okonomyaki street food pancakes in Japan, savoring asado in Argentina, and working the lazy susan with chopsticks and China that have all made it into stories shared around the dinner table. A firm believer that a meal is more than what’s on the plate, Carley’s passionate about cocktail culture, décor, hospitality, and beyond.
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