by Evan Noetzel, Chef Magazine

This article is the Foodservice Business online exclusive for the April 2009 issue of Chef Magazine.

In this fraying economy, restaurants are seeking to bolster lagging profits by trimming food costs and enticing customers with discounts, promotions and prix fixe menus--but the savviest owners are not stopping there. Many restaurateurs and foodservice operators are strengthening their respective establishments from the inside out by focusing on employee-training initiatives that spur productivity and minimize turnover.

In December 2008--when the industry was already reeling from the current recession--Ian MacGregor, president and owner of The Lobster Place, appeared in a video segment produced for to discuss, among other topics, his approach to building relationships with employees at his New York City seafood market.

"My general management philosophy when it comes to employees," he said, "is that nobody ever washed a rental car--meaning, if an employee doesn't feel like they own something, they're not going to take care of it. So, we try and empower our employees as much as possible because no matter what level they're working at, if they feel as though they have ownership over their group of responsibilities, then they're much more likely to stay with us than turn over, the way [that] is typical in the industry." (See full video here.)

By MacGregor's own account, his ability to foster a work environment that validates his employees' contributions ostensibly has saved his business money by indirectly improving worker-retention rates (at least relative to a presumably worse industry standard). What's more, we can extrapolate from MacGregor's comments that his employees, instilled with a sense of purpose (i.e. "ownership"), work harder and more efficiently, thereby further improving profits.

While this notion--that acknowledgment and ownership are catalysts for worker morale and productivity (and vice versa)--is among the oldest truisms for the employer-employee dynamic, effectively putting it into practice still requires time and energy. And it still starts with solid hiring and training practices.

Kitchen case study
At Four Moons restaurant in Orangeburg, S.C., the responsibility of hiring and training kitchen staff falls on executive chef Charles Zeran. Having spent seven years as a divorce attorney before entering the culinary scene in his early 30s, Zeran knows a thing or two about conflict resolution--but he'd just assume not deal with competing egos in his kitchen. For him, an applicant's culinary skill and experience are often secondary to his or her commitment to, and ability to mesh with, the rest of the staff.

"It's very expensive to replace people. There's a lot of time and labor eaten up by just trying to get a new person up to where the old person was before they left. So, you're always looking for a long-term solution," Zeran says.

Luckily for him (or more appropriately, as a credit to his hiring practices), the restaurant's core back-of-house staff--Zeran, his pastry chef, sous chef and four line cooks--has not changed since the restaurant opened in June 2008. Of course, some of pastry chef Colleen Zeran's loyalty could be attributed the fact that she's also married to the executive chef.

When it comes to ongoing training and managing work flow, Charles Zeran, the self-taught, creative type, leads by example and demands passion from, and mutual-respect among, employees. For the overall structure and organization of the kitchen, though, he often defers to his professionally trained wife. In this way, husband and wife--executive chef and pastry chef--provide training and leadership styles that are perfectly complementary--not unlike, say, the relationship shared between his savory entrées and her desserts.

While the chefs Zeran run the show at Four Moons, Charles Zeran is quick to point out that the restaurant's success depends on a team effort every night. So, whether it's training, prepping, line work or even dishwashing, he always takes a hands-on approach. "I don't like to manage from a distance, and I don't own a clipboard. I've got a lot of knives but no clipboard," he laughs. "I show people how to do things more than I tell them how to do things, and I think you build more respect that way. You're not asking someone to do something you wouldn't do."

At Four Moons, Zeran even solicits feedback on dishes and pairings from every member of his staff before finalizing menu changes. "It really is a group effort," says Colleen Zeran. "Our's is a small kitchen compared to some of these corporate brigades, so we're all on the same level, working toward the same goal, and that's to do the best we can to serve the people on the other side of the [kitchen] door--and to wow them."
Pastry chef Colleen Zeran and executive chef Charles Zeran, Four Moons, Orangeburg, S.C.

Training resources online
The Zerans set the tone for worker productivity from the top down by making hiring and training decisions with an eye on retention. Then, like MacGregor, they empower those employees with an equal say in creating and tweaking the menu.

Looking for more information on hiring and training techniques like those employed by the Zerans and MacGregor? The Iowa Restaurant Association, AimHire and a number of other organizations are sponsoring an ongoing series of free TeleWebinars covering topics such as: Hiring SuperStar Employees (Wednesday, April 22); and Hiring, Training, Motivating & Keeping High Performance Employees (Tuesday, Sept. 8). For more details, visit
Castagna Restaurant in Portland, Ore., will host a family-style dinner on April 15 to celebrate its 10th birthday. The French- and Italian-inspired restaurant has emphasized locally grown, seasonal ingredients since its inception and recently was named one of Portland's Top Ten Restaurants for the second year in a row in Portland Monthly magazine.

Castagna's interior

The anniversary dinner will feature favorite dishes from the past 10 years selected by staff members.