Staff training is an important focus for any restaurant, but in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Massachusetts, one restaurant has taken the initiative a step further.
Branch Line, a full-service neighborhood restaurant featuring a patio and outdoor bocce court, spent the first three months of 2018 empowering staff to develop their own restaurant pop-up concepts, dividing the team in two to open a cafe and wine bar, each for just three hours in April. Teams were responsible for everything from the name and concept, to the menu and uniforms, and even unique hashtags.
Teams came up with the Early Bird Cafe, a fast-casual cafe featuring made-to-order breakfast items and coffee, and Mulberry Wine Bar, a communal dining-based concept featuring wood-fired dishes, beer and wine.
Branch Line general manager Deena Marlette had previously overseen similar projects during her time working at Boston mainstay Eastern Standard. After Branch Line opened in 2016, she knew she wanted to get her new staff on board, especially during a slow first quarter.
“I really wanted to give them something fun and exciting to do during the colder winter months,” she says, adding that she was eager to expose her staff to the many facets of restaurant industry employment. “There’s naming, there’s marketing, there’s presentation, there’s food, there’s pricing. … There are great careers in restaurants.”
Over the course of three months, staff would meet up during slow times and on their off time, completing tasks that Deena then checked and graded.
“They realize what goes into something as simple as an Instagram that Branch Line puts out four days a week,” Marlette says. “The back and forth that goes with it, the copy that has to be written, the colors that we want to portray, the hashtags that we want to have people follow. Everything takes such an enormous amount of effort and time on so many different people.”
That attention to detail carried over to the menu, as well, when a seemingly simple burger dish turned out to be anything but.
“Alright guys, you want to have a burger. How much does the bun cost? How much is that slice of cheese? How much does it cost to wash that plate?” Marlette recalls asking. “That was probably my most favorite part, sitting there watching them be blown away. We want to have a burger? Great, let’s break out the bun. Let’s figure out how many ounces. That burger, once it goes on the grill, is going to lose about a quarter of an ounce. We have to make sure we’re aware of that.”
Marlette said she even opened up her books to her staff, something she never envisioned sharing with anyone but upper management, to show them the sales and food cost goals they were still expected to meet with their pop-ups. “That was really valuable to me,” she says. “That was probably my favorite part.”
It was a move appreciated by staffers like Shaun Brideau, a server and bartender at Branch Line who worked on the Early Bird Cafe. “The overarching theme here is that restaurants are starting to become more transparent about how they work. In the past, financials were always kept with the top level, the bosses and the high-level employees. Your servers and your bartenders and your support staff–they didn’t have any idea of the cost of this bottle of wine or what happens when five glasses break,” he says, or the complex pricing that can be involved in offering a $2 cup of coffee. “This whole project has given staff a better understanding of how Branch Line actually works.”
Transparent bookkeeping is the way of the future, he says. “It really does parallel what’s happening in the best restaurants in the country, and in the world right now. Let’s get out of that old school of thought of keeping the financials and everything away from the employees. No, let’s teach them how this works.”
Brideau says he and his fellow staffers were enthusiastic about trying out the new cafe concept, and even started using instant messaging service Slack to be able to communicate around the clock, even sharing ideas at midnight. “I think right off the bat, you get really excited about having a license to do this. Not many people get the opportunity to create something from scratch.”
The team drew inspiration from their own memorable cafe experiences to create a menu included pastries baked in-house, both sweet (a coffee cake made from a server’s own recipe) and savory (an “adult Hot Pocket” of dough filled with ham, cheese and mustard).
“Then from there, you can’t have a cafe without a breakfast sandwich,” Brideau says, noting that the team agreed upon locally sourced ingredients and house-made chorizo. “We sold 117 breakfast sandwiches, and that’s something to be proud of, that people actually came out and they supported us. It was thrilling to take something that was a little baby concept, turn it into a one-day event, and have it be successful. It felt really good to have the team come together and have something created by the staff.”
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And with 174 customers coming through the doors in a matter of three hours, Marlette says her eyes were opened to the potential for a different kind of service.
The Mulberry Wine Bar team also brought in enough business to make a future wine bar focus a potentially viable option for Branch Line. They found success using the natural wine trend as inspiration.
“Natural wine, cheese boards, small bites, things like that,” says Nina Krane, a bartender and server at Branch Line who worked on Mulberry Wine Bar. “Even though we started with ideas like that, we really had to learn how to translate it and still make it Branch Line. Because we’re still thinking of the clientele and the hospitality that the group represents, and then of the people who know us and want to come to Branch Line because of our staff and menu offerings.”
The brainstorming process could get overwhelming at times–”You have to allow people room to, for lack of a better word, vomit all their ideas out at once,” Krane says–but it was a lesson in delivering constructive criticism and working together to strengthen ideas. “What was most important to us, is understanding the team and making sure that everyone had an outlet to give their best ideas and really help us out with their best foot forward.”
Compared to a more typical weekday afternoon where a dozen or so guests may be dining at one time, the Mulberry pop-up brought in some 120 patrons. “It was really fun to show people that we’re open that time of day,” Marlette says, noting that while it might not always be a special pop-up event, “We’re still all here with hospitality and with open hearts and minds and arms.”
After two-and-a-half years at Branch Line, Marlette says her main takeaway has been to not rest on the status quo, and to continue to think outside the box, perhaps by expanding upon one of the pop-up concepts more permanently.
“That was a huge lesson for me. Wow, there could be interest in breakfast. There could be interest in turning the midday area into a wine bar,” she says. “On the staff side, it was just incredible to watch people that work here two days a week, three days a week, 30 hours a week, in their spare time and on their days off, in here with their laptop, crushing work. I think I underestimated what they would have been able to come up with. They took the project right from the very first day and just blew it up.”
Staff say they also came away with valuable lessons learned.
“In terms of staff training, when we have a new hire, we’re training people on the history of the restaurant, our food and wine menu, the concepts behind them, everything that most restaurants should do,” Brideau says. “I think moving forward, one way that we could benefit is to start using this build-your-own-restaurant concept to start to expose staff to why we’re making certain decisions that are in the restaurant, financially. Because it ultimately affects everyone. You want a restaurant to succeed, and there’s a way to do that. I think this project was a nice little window into that further training.”
The process also served as a way to unite the existing team, Krane says.
“No matter what, I think in the end, this was a great exercise in just learning how to work with your employees in different ways, and learning how to work with your colleagues in different ways,” she says. “Regardless of if it’s someone who works here part-time because they’re a nurse on the side, or someone who’s in grad school and they work here on weekends, I think that restaurants are often overlooked as places where people from all different backgrounds and from all skill areas can come together and put forth a really great product. That was a really awesome thing to learn.”