It doesn’t matter if your restaurant or bar has a multipage craft beer menu, killer cocktails or the best ribeye steak in town. If the service is subpar, your customers will likely remember that and nothing else.
Servers and bartenders are performing right at the front lines, making an immediate impression on customers. Operators that invest in both initial and ongoing training opportunities are often those whose guests experience the best overall service.
Whether you take a more conservative approach to staff training or explore innovative methods designed to maximize employee engagement, your operation should have a strategic training plan in place. Here are a few tips on how to start or improve a training program.
Even the best training program likely won’t help an employee who just isn’t the right fit for your operation, so careful screening and hiring processes are key. Consider what types of people are most likely to thrive in your business environment. Those are the people you need to hire in the first place: the folks who will fit in and be successful.
George Barton, a consultant specializing in restaurant and bar operations, stresses the importance of implementing an effective employee-selection tool. You don’t want to waste time trying to train the wrong people, he says.
“So many restaurants go into panic hiring during peak times, and will just hire warm bodies off the street,” says Barton, who previously worked as an executive for T.G.I. Friday’s for 35 years. “Make sure you have the right processes in place to guarantee that you have a pool of qualified candidates to choose from.”
Most operators look to hire warm, friendly people who will have a good rapport with guests and make them feel welcome. Experience is also key for many: DineAmic Hospitality Group, which operates three Chicago restaurants, requires previous serving experience for all new employees.
Each DineAmic restaurant has its own unique style and customer base: Bull & Bear is an upscale sports bar catering to young professionals that employs 100 people; Public House, a beer-centric gastropub that attracts the tourist and business crowds, has 150 employees; and Siena Tavern is a modern Italian eatery that employs 250. DineAmic operating partner Keegan Moon believes in investing significant time and energy in hiring and training at all concepts.
UPGRADE YOUR ONBOARDING PROCESS
Moon emphasizes DineAmic Hospitality’s onboarding practices, making sure that new hires get a good first impression of him and his operation as soon as they report for training. The company’s approach is a bit unconventional in that instead of outsourcing the training, most of it is handled by Moon, along with his business partner, David Rekhson.
“Not many partners get involved with training at this level, but showing them how invested we are in it and how important we think it is makes our staff want to perform at their absolute highest level,” Moon explains.
While DineAmic staff members value the experience of having hands-on training with the company partners, they also recognize the monetary value of the experience as well—something Moon always stresses to them. “Every single thing that we teach them is designed to help them make more money,” he says. “And they know that.”
It’s also important for DineAmic staff members to know that the company’s partners are always there to assist them and answer questions. During the first day of any training session, Moon has everyone take out their cell phones and he gives them all of his contact information to program into their phones. An open-door communication policy is encouraged across all levels of the organization, Moon says.
Operators should have a comprehensive plan in place to make sure all employees learn the same things, and that they learn them the right way the first time.
Houlihan’s Restaurants owns several concepts across the U.S., including its eponymous causual-dining chain, Devon Seafood + Steaks, Bristol Seafood Grill, and J. Gilbert’s Wood-Fired Grill. Each restaurant employees 75 to 100 people, and although locations use many of the same systems, every brand has its own customized training program.
Houlihan’s recently overhauled the training programs of all brands to provide more effective staff education and to better reflect the company’s mission and values. It was important for the new training programs to be written in each brand’s specific voice: the same voice that is used to communicate with their customers, says Amanda Stone, director of training and communications with Houlihan’s Restaurants.
“We realized that we had very healthy brands, and great communications targeted toward consumers, but the marketing to our own employees was entirely different,” Stone explains. “We had been talking to our employees in black and white, using dry and outdated bullet points. Nothing about the old program had anything to help employees really embody the brand.”
Revitalizing the staff training program was no small task, and it required Houlihan’s executives to step back and consider several questions: What exactly is the job of a Houlihan’s employee? What are employees expected to do? And what is the most important information that employees need to know?
Identifying those elements helped the company revamp its training materials to be more entertaining to read, and also much more succinct than the old manuals.
“Trainers are tempted to throw everything they know into a new-employee manual, but we realized that with every page we add to ours, we are increasing the chance that no one will actually read it,” Stone says.
TRAIN THE TRAINERS
When you overhaul your training materials or program, be sure to spend time educating the people who will actually carry out the training itself. Some organizations have a tendency to assign people to the role of trainer without giving them any additional instructions. Barton advises choosing and training your instructors carefully.
“First of all, make sure your trainers are people who actually want to be training other people,” he advises. Then work with your trainers to make sure they have the resources they need to be effective teachers, and that their methods are in line with your own. “You also want to reassure your trainers that they won’t be penalized for mistakes made by trainees under their supervision,” Barton adds.
Houlihan’s made sure to include current employees in the training revamp and it developed new training for staff members who are expected to instruct other people. The operator also created new brand and culture pieces, which are presented to all new hires on their first day of work. These pieces highlight company values and outline employee expectations.
One new curriculum uses materials known as Repeat guides, which focus on how each position in the restaurant can strive to generate returning customer business and increase frequency. These materials were created with the goal of teaching Houlihan’s employees everything they need to know to be great at their positions.
Houlihan’s rolled out the service portion of its new training program eight months ago; it’s gearing up to launch the new manager portion. The restaurant group works with an outside firm to measure guest satisfaction. Stone anticipates that customer satisfaction and overall profits will increase over time as a result of this revitalized education program.
GET STAFF INVOLVED
Sometimes the most effective way to instigate staff education programs is to empower the staff to take charge of the training process themselves. That’s Jackson Cannon’s philosophy.
As the bar director of Eastern Standard and co-owner/bar director of its sister restaurant, The Hawthorne—both located within Boston’s Hotel Commonwealth—Cannon is responsible for the development and the performance of the bars.
Each establishment caters to a diverse clientele of locals, tourists, and professionals. Eastern Standard is open 19 hours a day, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night menus, in addition to robust beer, wine, and cocktail offerings. Its 140-person staff outnumbers the 33-person crew at The Hawthorne, which is more of a high-end cocktail bar. Yet the staff training techniques remain consistent at each location.
Cannon believes that having management lecture staff members on a regular basis is ineffective and, quite frankly, pretty boring. He’s devised an ongoing training system in which all servers and bartenders actively participate in the process.
At Eastern Standard, each meal period is preceded by a 30-minute service meeting attended by all staff. In addition to discussing the daily specials and expected parties/VIP guests, a portion of the meeting is devoted to staff presentations that focus on a specific theme.
“Right now we’re focusing on sherry wine, which is an extremely broad category,” Cannon says. “Each bartender is taking a session during our pre-service meeting and doing a presentation on sherry. We rotate the themes, and they can focus on food, drink, or other aspects of service.”
Many of the training sessions include blind tastings, which Cannon believes really help educate servers and bartenders.
In addition to the daily presentations, Cannon also builds longer training sessions into the staff’s schedule. For the restaurant’s sherry education, Cannon researched the category and developed a two-hour seminar to present to his team prior to the start of a new shift.
The service staff at Eastern Standard has also taken the lead in running an annual December training session. Staff members decide on a theme (last year’s was “Counties of Massachusetts”) and work in teams guided by management to research the topic and present their findings to each other.
DineAmic restaurants hold pre-shift meetings with the staff twice a day. In addition to reviewing food, beverage, and serving standards, the pre-shift meetings enable managers to discuss upcoming events and give mini refreshers on other topics.
“Sometimes we’ll do a brief wine review, and I’ll give them a quiz,” Moon says. “Sometimes I won’t say anything and the staff will share what they know, and we won’t have a quiz.”
But staffers always want to perform well, he notes. “They don’t want to be the one who doesn’t know the answer during a pre-shift, when everyone is up there together on the spot.”
PROVIDE ONGOING REFRESHERS
DineAmic also holds larger quarterly meetings for staff in each individual department, such as servers, bartenders, and hosts. The company schedules additional meetings anytime the restaurants overhaul one of their menus.
For example, when the brunch menu recently changed at Siena Tavern, staff members attended an employee brunch, where they sampled new food offerings and learned the specifics of the menu.
CROSS-TRAIN TEAM MEMBERS
Another way to encourage ongoing staff education is by promoting cross-training opportunities within your operation. A server can step in and be a great host, and sometimes even a great bartender—if that employee has been properly trained in all areas of the operation.
This encourages staffers to learn more about the business, and it can benefit employers as well. “The more cross-training you have, the more positions a person can step in and work for you if needed,” Barton says.
Social Bar Irish Pub and Lounge cross-trains all staff members so that they can easily function in all areas of the restaurant. The three-story, 500-seat venue located in New York’s Theatre District employs about 30 staff members. The main floor of the establishment features a large bar, cocktail area, and back dining room, while the two upstairs floors are reserved for private events.
“Cross-training is essential for us, because we can have events going on anywhere in the restaurant, along with our walk-in crowd,” says Meg Sylvester, special events manager at Social. “A staff member could be working in the bar area one night and then assigned to an event with 200 guests the next night.”
Given the nature of Social’s business, “we need people to be able to work anywhere,” she says. “It also breaks up the monotony for employees by mixing things up for them a little.”
Training for Social staffers doesn’t end after the first few weeks. The company has created a fact sheet program as a way to share information about new menu offerings and policies with employees. Anytime a new fact sheet comes out, servers receive a printed copy when they arrive at work for their shift. The fact sheets are also posted on Social’s web-based, employee-scheduling system, which all staff members log into on a regular basis.
DON’T SHORTCHANGE THE PROCESS
Most operators designate a certain amount of time for start-up staff training. Sometimes managers may be tempted to cut the period short if a new employee appears to be catching on quickly, or if the restaurant is experiencing an extremely busy period and could use the extra set of hands.
Don’t do it, advises Barton. You want to make sure that new employees receive that full benefit of training, he says. “If you shortchange it, you’re only hurting that employee and yourself, because that person will usually never have an opportunity to go back for training again.”
Servers at all DineAmic restaurants generally complete a rigorous, five-week training process and pass a final test before they hit the floor. This is key, because Moon and his partners have high service standards at every level of the company.
For instance, in addition to absorbing each detail about all the various menus (Siena Tavern’s beverage menu alone has more than 100 wines, beers, and cocktails listed), servers are also expected to know everything involved in preparation—not just ingredients.
“We never want one of our team members to say to a guest, ‘I don’t know,’ regardless of what the question is,” Moon says.
Investing in your training programs will ultimately end up benefitting staff members as well as owners and operators. “If you’re willing to take the time with your staff, it translates to massive benefits that I cannot even begin to describe,” Moon says. “Give your people the tools they need to succeed.”
A lot of new hires come in and are eager to hit the floor as soon as possible, he notes, “but throwing people to the sharks doesn’t typically work to their advantage.” ·
Melissa Niksic is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
Make Training Fun
DineAmic Hospitality Group, which operates Chicago restaurants Bull & Bear, Public House and Siena Tavern, has a comprehensive training strategy with set instruction materials. The company also brings in outside sommeliers and cicerones to educate staff members on wine and beer options. No matter what the training program encompasses, the key is to make it fun, says DineAmic operating partner Keegan Moon.
“When you’re expected to process all this information, and you’re sitting through these very intensive training sessions for two to three hours at a time, it’s hard to keep focus and pay attention,” Moon acknowledges. “So we do our best to keep our training sessions running like a stand-up comedy show. Everyone’s laughing and having a good time.”
A recent example of integrating humor into training: Moon and business partner David Rekhson were gathering a group of new staffers to talk about proper attire for servers. Moon entered the room wearing a tank top that was several sizes too small in a hilarious display of what not to wear. —MN
The time and resources devoted to establishing a successful and comprehensive training program can be overwhelming, especially for smaller operators. Some companies have developed web-based training programs specifically for bars and restaurants to simplify part of the process.
Michael Paolucci, owner of six bars in Houston, TX, and his business partner Errol Mayer, developed the Bar Restaurant Training program as a way of streamlining the process of hiring and training new employees. In addition to housing all new employee forms, such as W-2s, the system also features core training for servers, bartenders, and even restaurant security.
Staff members complete tests online to ensure that they’ve retained the information. The system alerts managers and operators of their staff member’s progress via e-mail notifications.
Paolucci is quick to point out that his program doesn’t replace one-on-one training programs at individual locations: Bar Restaurant Training is meant to enhance it and make life easier for operators.
“What the product does is teaches your employees the basics of being in the service industry,” he explains. “Once your new hires complete this basic training, they’ll be ready to come in for the hands-on training experience, and they’ll be ready to hit the ground running.”
Bar Restaurant Training launched in 2012 and was scheduled to debut an upgrade in January with additional customizable features that will allow operators to incorporate information specific to their location, such as menus and drink recipes. The program costs $34.99 a month for each location.
Some operators choose to create their own web-based training platforms. Houlihan’s Restaurants has an online employee portal featuring a news hub that is updated several times a month, highlighting new programs or announcements. The chain uses these tools in addition to daily pre-shift meetings and communication boards on display in staff areas at each location. —MN