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Hospitable Human Resources: Feeding the bottom line

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The stereotypical chef who rules the kitchen with anger and aggression may work for reality television, but it doesn’t work in the real world of foodservice. In fact, it erodes business operations from the inside out, resulting in high turnover rates, poor employee retention and unhappy customers. One study estimates that it costs an employer $4,004 in direct and indirect costs to replace one employee in the service industry earning $12/hour (go2hr.ca). The business case is clear: leading edge employee programs and positive workplace cultures are proven paths to success.

Keg Restaurants is also an industry leader in human resources. Employing over 8,000 people, Keg Restaurants has made the 50 best employers in Canada list—compiled by Aon Hewitt—for 14 years straight. We sat down with Dean Sockett, Vice President, People and Culture for Keg Restaurants Ltd. Beginning his career as a server during his university years, Dean Sockett graduated university and stayed on at The Keg as a server and bartender. A “Kegger” for 38 years, Sockett is recognized in our industry as an expert on creating and delivering a superior service culture with truly engaged employees. He told us why human resources operations are integral to our bottom lines.

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TELL US ABOUT THE KEG’S BEGINNINGS!

We were founded in BC in 1971, as “The Keg and Cleaver”, by George Tidball. George started with his idea to bring quality food to the people in an era when people were somewhat anti-establishment. Society was changing, people wanted steak and lob- ster, but without the jacket and tie. George is now gone, but his philosophies have permeated the company since 1971. Hiring people, who are passionate, competitive and genuine; this was something George did right from the beginning.

HOW HAS THE KEG MAINTAINED ITS SUCCESS OVER THE YEARS, FROM ERA TO ERA?

If you speak to our staff, you will get many of the same answers and sentiments, because the people we hire are part of our “Kegger” tradition. Our HR practices have stayed true to the core. We operate knowing that what differentiates us is truly our people. It is our desire to create an experience for our guests. When a guest comes to The Keg our staff have one thing in mind, that the guest experience is good. The economic climate changes, but regardless, people have come to treat The Keg as a favourite. When times are good we believe our guests come because they love us. If times are bad, our guests come because we are a sure thing and they know us. What started with George was this culture built entirely around our people.

HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE THAT YOU CONTINUE TO MEET THIS EXPECTATION?

We are really careful that we don’t wreck it! We maintain our contemporary interiors and styles, but we’re never aloof, we don’t want to be the latest trend. This is embedded in our corporate culture. We put our staff first. We don’t take ourselves that seriously, we know the front of house is more important than we are. They are our resources, they are the ones who make the experiences. What they do when we aren’t there is what matters.

HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT HIRING? HOW DO YOU FIND THE PEOPLE THAT BECOME “KEGGERS”?

Often we have diners who become staff. We have very little marketing recruiting because staff potentials have a relationship already with us. We hire friends of friends. This is a terrific pre-screening process.

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WHY DO YOU THINK HR IS SO IMPORTANT IN A SUCCESSFUL HOSPITALITY BUSINESS?

Your staffing situation is your weathervane in individual operations. We do a quality of work- life survey of staff twice a year across the company. We ask staff to rank our managers from one to 10. Our managers were usually staff before they became managers. Our farm team is our 8,000 employees. We look at them as future managers. Our surveys are anonymous to ensure full disclosure. You have to have faith in and give your staff credibility. They live it day to day, who better to get feed- back from? The survey can’t be a ‘gotcha’ tool. It’s about resolution and development.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE LIFE SKILLS THAT YOUR STAFF ARE TAUGHT?

Running a restaurant, you’re learning how to run a business. Staff are often people learning to be accountable at a young age, just as I was as a server during university. I was going to be a teacher. I graduated and decided that teaching was not for me. I was bartending and waiting at The Keg, they approached me about becoming a manager. They asked me to try it for one year. I have been here for 38 years now and I am not a unique story in the company.

WHAT IS YOUR BEST ADVICE FOR RESTAURANT OWNERS AND OPERATORS?

To listen. It’s not really that complicated. The real complication is doing it day in day out, across locations. It’s never the same person doing the same job, you have to be genuine, deal with individuals. Don’t get hung up on policy, worry about what’s right for both parties. I’m an anti-policy guy because policy can be used as the lowest common denominator. At the heart of many issues is someone not listening or hiding behind policy. Maintain an open mind, give your employees the opportunity to understand an issue and they will relay this happiness and under- standing back to the guest experience.

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To read more about labour standards in Canada restaurantscanada.org/industry-issues