Restaurant leaders share best practices for employee engagement

May 28, 2013 | by Alicia Kelso

A handful of restaurant leaders shared their tips on how to best engage employees in their high-turnover industry during the NRA Show in Chicago last week. These executives incentivized and engaged their team using everything from company retreats to closed Facebook pages and ESOL programs.

Below are some of the tips they shared:

Use social media to boost company experience

Some brands use closed Facebook pages to engage and communicate with their employees across the system.

"Our page allows them to connect and express themselves. We needed something nimble and fast, which is why we stuck with Facebook. And it's free," said Christine Sanjuan, vice president of Boloco. Her company also uses Google Plus.

Jason Lyon, CEO of The Common Man Family of Restaurants, said his company also uses a closed Facebook page as a forum for employees to learn from each other, and to provide staff with a direct outlet to senior management.

"It lets them know their opinion matters," he said.

White Castle is currently rolling out an internal system that is similar to Facebook. John Kelley, the company's chief people officer, said it will include training information and is aimed at building engagement across the company's 400-unit system.

Outline employee paths

Because of the industry's notoriously high turnover rate, executives suggest outlining clear career paths that entry-level employees can aspire to.

"The more formalized career path you have, the less training you'll need to do in the future, and it builds employee loyalty," said Michele Lange, director of Training and Development for The Habit Burger Grill.

Not only is it important to have an achievable path, but also to have it illustrated in writing; for example in the employee handbook.

"If you're a growing company, this will perpetuate your culture," Sanjuan said. "It's important to be honest with them about their path; if they become unengaged, it's because they don't know."

Boloco holds employee retreats once a quarter to reiterate training and possibilities, while The Common Man's execs meet with employees twice annually to develop these strategies.

Train for employee engagement, mobility

Once employees are aware of their future options, they should be trained sufficiently on how to get there. For example, managers at The Habit pick six team members each quarter to train toward the next level up. Training is done every day and is performance based. Additionally, executives meet with all managers once a quarter and everyone in the company — from the c-suite to the fry cooks — has a one-on-one meeting quarterly.

The brand is also piloting a program called "Take Five," where all managers sit down with their employees to find out what's being done right in the restaurants.

"These meetings keep everyone on the same page," Lange said.

Training at The Common Man restaurants is done through a new position called "certified training mentor." These mentors are certified once a year and are paid at slightly higher rates.

Boston-based Boloco takes training outside of the restaurant walls, encouraging its English-as-a-second-language employees to take an ESOL program, which helps them improve their English.

"This is in its second year and we've found that as they've progressed with their speaking skills, they've taken on a bigger interest in the business," Sanjuan said.

Put a recognition program into place

Many of the panelists engaged their employees through formal recognition programs. For example, White Castle has a "Royal Order of Crave Keepers," which allows employees to earn points for their success. Those points can then be used to buy items on

The Common Man employees also earn play money that can be traded in for dining gift cards, spa services, etc. Lyon said the company often leverages distributors and manufacturers for trade.

Also, when a guest submits positive feedback about an employee, it's forwarded to all locations and is posted in every restaurant. The guest is also copied on the email string. "This makes guests feel good about participating in the survey," Lyon said.

Start with the management team

When the panel was pressed on where to begin with training, they all pointed to the management team.

"If you have a disengaged employee, that starts with a disengaged manager," Lyon said.

All of the panelists also suggested joining CHART — Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers — or simply using it as a resource.

Read more about staffing and training.

Topics: Online / Mobile / Social , Operations Management , Staffing & Training

Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine.
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