How not to run a food business into the ground – staffing

The most successful business owners surround themselves with good people to whom they can delegate with confidence. The food business, however is particularly known for its high turnover of staff and volatile chefs that can make life particularly frustrating for the small business owner or partner.

It’s notoriously difficult for individuals to get bank loans as many fail in the first few months of running a café, restaurant or private catering company and keeping good staff is one of the biggest challenges and headaches for a small business owner.

This is true of most small businesses and in the first year they come up against the one of the most common problems to solve  as they get busier – they can’t afford to take on new staff and they can’t afford not to.

So, this has been my experience and hope you can learn from the mistakes that my business partner I and made.
Where food is concerned, chefs are very protective of their recipes. This is where process comes in and documenting every dish that is sold has to be a priority. Why? Because people get sick, leave and so you need to make sure that every cook on the premises can replicate the same recipe.

It just means that you have continuity.

Documentation. People will be daunted when they first see how many practical issues there are when running a food business. Learning as you do the job is part of it of course, but if you have all the important processes written down and printed as a document for the new staff to read and learn you will spend less time teaching and your staff spend more time absorbing information. I wonder how man café owners have a ‘manual’ for their staff? Not many I bet.

As a manager of people, you need to have approachability. New staff will be nervous and may not want to ask questions and you need to put them at their ease and make sure you can teach effectively and patiently and welcome any questions, however trivial they may seem.

I personally believe that if someone is sloppy with the cleaning, food prep or indeed any issues relating to the possible endangering of customers with ‘unclean’ food, they should be given one warming and one only. It takes one hair on a plate for that customer to shout about it from the rooftops and you’ve lost a host of potential customers. Bad news indeed travels the speed of light where food is concerned. People love to slate a place. They bang on about it all the time.

Listen to your staff. Encourage them to be honest, air their views – they may have some very valid ideas for boosting business or making life easier for everyone. Being tight lipped gets you nowhere.
Keep your distance. You cannot really be buddies with your staff. This is a general rule in business and the most important thing to create is an harmonious and respectful environment. You don’t need to be a despot but you can’t be their best friend either.

Delegate. Give your staff new responsibilities to take the pressure off yourself. This is always difficult but letting go is just as important as doing everything yourself because you can’t let go. People work themselves into the ground because they don’t trust anyone. This is the fastest route to an awful life/work balance.

Find the money for good people. If you need a loan, then talk to your bank about wanting to expand and can’t move forward without extra staff. They’re expensive but it’s a much more expensive mistake to make by spreading yourself too thin. I have been there before – too exhausted to function properly. Even small changes like hiring someone for an hour after a lunchtime service to clean up gives you a small break from drudgery, time to focus on something much more important than a pile of plates.

Reward your staff. Pay in the catering industry is not big. With all the bills you need to pay on top of the rent and the cost of the food, they are sometimes depressingly high. A tiny reward like a bottle of wine, an hour off at their request if a staff member normally puts in all the hours with a great attitude makes for happy and loyal staff.

Set the best example. Do as I say etc is just about the quickest way to create a disastrous business environment. It creates tension, resentment and a loss of respect. You need to be on your game at all times. Yes, it’s bloody hard but if you aren’t, you had better get out of the bloody kitchen and become an estate agent.


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