shutterstock_456182230Good staff is hard to find and even harder to retain in today’s competitive restaurant labor market, so making sure your employees are happy as well as productive is a top priority.

San Francisco restaurateur Ryan Cole and his partners compete for workers against the cafeterias of high-tech companies such as Twitter, Uber and Dropbox. These companies can offer employees 9-to-5 jobs at twice the salary. To address this challenge, Cole and his partners enlisted a team of graduate students to help develop a plan to improve employee retention.[1]

The restaurant group now offers a new benefits program that supplements the usual medical, dental and vacation benefits with “á la carte” benefits. Job-related options include business courses; cooking classes; wine country, farm and agriculture tours; a build-your-own wine cellar program; and wine classes. The program also offers dining credits, commuter checks, Netflix subscriptions, movie tickets and gift cards.[2]

Cole and his partners were able to fund this new program through a small increase in the customer surcharge that San Francisco restaurants are required to levy to cover healthcare costs for employees. Other cities may not mandate a similar surcharge, so Cole recommends looking for ways to fund extra benefits. He believes he’s saving money through higher staff retention, lower recruitment and training costs, and better customer service.

Restaurant owners have found other ways to keep employees happy, motivated and healthy, including:[3]

  • Show appreciation – Reward positive behavior and great customer service with an “Employee of the Month” recognition and incentives such as a small bonus, gift cards, paid time off or a prime parking space.
  • Invest in training – Paying for classes that expand employees’ skills makes them feel appreciated and motivated to provide a higher level of service.
  • Recognize longevity – Offer cash bonuses or extra paid vacation as incentive for employees who remain with your restaurant.
  • Free food – Make a special meal before shifts or offer a free meal to your employees as a time for togetherness. Try out new menu ideas and get feedback from your staff.
  • Have fun – A break room with games or a television gives employees a place to relax between shifts. Shared activities such as paintball, bowling or rock climbing build stronger working relationships on the job.

[1] “Why This SF Restaurant Group Treats Its Employees Like Start-Ups Do,” by Stephanie Tuder, Eater San,  Hot Takes blog, July 7, 2016. Available at:

[2] “Why This SF Restaurant Group Treats Its Employees Like Start-Ups Do,” by Stephanie Tuder, Eater San,  Hot Takes blog, July 7, 2016. Available at:

[3] “7 Tips for Keeping Restaurant Employees Happy and Motivated,” by David Galic, guest blog post on Netwaiter, July 7, 2015. Available at:

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