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Building a Rock Solid Work Culture in Your Hospitality Business

A strong workplace culture could be the difference between dealing with high turnover costs or having happy employees that stay.

By Dave Eagle

Hospitality as we know it today, is a challenging sector for many.

A combination of long hours of demanding work, low wages, unethical practices and high-pressure environments has seen the industry become synonymous with high turnover rates and unsatisfied workers. And for business owners, recent foreign visa changes and penalty rate cuts make it more difficult to find staff that are qualified and interested in hospitality as a long-term career choice.

The hospitality industry in Australia is growing, and fast. According to Restaurant & Catering Australia’s Federal Budget 2017–18 submission, the restaurant, café, and catering sector is headed for 12 per cent growth (or 98,000 jobs) – that’s higher than any other sector.

But with only 42 per cent of Australians completing their apprenticeships in food preparation, and the rate of students dropping out of TAFE culinary courses hovering around 50 per centsigns are pointing to future where there’s an overflow of new establishments and a shortage of talent.

While the highly-debated hospitality skills shortage issue is one that needs attention, it’s also arguable that the industry is facing a turnover crisis – not so much a labour crisis. 

How can hospitality owners and operators get an increasingly dwindling workforce to stay?

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Jobs in hospitality are still largely viewed as stepping stones

Changes to the 457 visa scheme does mean that hospitality and foodservice businesses will face more difficulty finding the specialist staff they need (say, a French pastry chef), and this should mean bigger opportunities for locals aspiring to make a career in the industry.

But it’s been found that hospitality business owners prefer hiring foreign nationals, and many Australian workers aren’t that interested in a long-term restaurant gigs anyway.

According to Dr. Wright, employment relations expert from the University of Sydney business school, hospitality employers were 13 times more likely to prefer 457 visa holders over similar Australian workers, largely because they are “perceived to be harder working or more loyal”.

He also opined that “employers, especially in hospitality, aren’t prepared to improve the quality of jobs in the industry to make them more attractive to locals”.

In an interview with Good Food, Juliana Payne, Chief Executive of Restaurant & Catering Australia, says one of the biggest barriers to this ongoing problem is cultural.

“There’s an undervaluing of hospitality as a long-term career – we tend to value university qualifications over VET. In Australia there’s an impression it’s [working in hospitality] just something you do while you’re in university.”

This problem of the hospitality industry being viewed as a stepping stone to a ‘better’ career later on isn’t unique to Australia. In the USA, mid-level and fine dining jobs are viewed as transitional and therefore expendable, according to hospitality industry leader Scott Vasko.

Restaurant jobs in Los Angeles for example, are sought after by aspiring actors and actresses, college students and new graduates as pathways to something else. “Restaurants are the largest source of private employment in the U.S., yet our culture says it’s not a ‘real’ career path,” Vasko says.  

“As a result, people outside the industry look down on restaurant workers, clouding their perceptions and expectations. Our culture has demeaned any job that doesn’t require a four-year degree and happen in a cubicle,” he said.

In an industry that’s seen to be transitory, it’s more important than ever for hospitality owners and operators to give the people they hire a reason to stay. And if culture and negative impressions are where the issues lie, then perhaps the key to retaining employees and reducing turnover costs is developing a strong work culture – one that motivates staff and connects the team to a higher purpose and to each other.

READ NOW: 5 Tips (and Advice From the Pros) on Hiring Staff for Your Hospitality Business in A Climate of Change

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Gelato Messina’s vibrant workplace culture exemplifies their core values: trust and honesty among staff – powered by Kounta

Defining your restaurant’s culture from the get-go

Building your business’s culture stems from developing a set of core values that outline your beliefs and philosophies. According to restaurant coach Donald Burns, core values help guide your restaurant, especially during difficult times.

As the leader, it is crucial to remember that a restaurant’s work culture flows from the top down, and is shown by example. Here are a few things to consider when defining the culture you want against the core values you’ve set:

1 . Be clear with your beliefs

When your restaurant’s beliefs are clear as day, staff understand your goals and expectations straight away. When you hire staff that whose values and vision are aligned with yours, they’re more likely to stay.

2 . Communicating authenticity

Honesty is key to build trust among employees. When staff see realness at work, they feel more inspired. Getting rid of lip service means being transparent – saying it like it is delivers engaged staff who are more likely to stay on for longer, and so does following through on your promises.

3 . Creating an environment where teamwork is valued

By creating an environment where teamwork is a top priority, restaurants can retain valued employees, increase customer satisfaction, and exceed sales goals. Melbourne restaurant Attica is a prime example of this – colleagues from both the back- and front-of-house are expected to chip in and help each other out, and the kitchen roster is shared among all 18 chefs. 

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Help your staff derive value from their jobs

There’s no denying that the widespread popularity of programmes like MasterChef and Netflix’s Chef’s Table have given restaurant jobs a certain level of glamour, appealing especially to younger people on the brink of their careers.

But the tasks that generally fall under the remit of new starters typically include a lot of instruction-following and very little decision-making. 

Combine this with a lack of concern around training (in a survey of over 800 Aussie businesses by the NSW Business Chamber, 23 per cent said they did not have the budget to train workers, and 22.6 per cent said their staff were too busy to train a new worker) and tasks like food prep and napkin folding can becoming really boring after a while to a worker who dreams of the chance to learn and do more.

You know at the back of your mind that you need to invest the time and effort in developing your employees, but in reality, the hustle of the day to day operations can get in the way. It can be daunting to even think about what you can do to make your staff happier if you’re finding it challenging to manage your own workload as a business owner and operator.

Offloading the more time consuming and error-prone aspects of staff management – like rostering and timesheet reviews – to platforms like Deputy and Tanda could free up heaps of your time and help you nurture your employees by:

  • keeping everyone informed on company announcements and developments to boost morale.
  • assigning higher-value tasks and learning opportunities to junior team members and tracking their performance.
  • organising individual reviews to give staff opportunities to ask questions or offer feedback about how to improve their jobs, and to let them know how they’re doing.

Pro-tip: Deputy and Tanda also integrate with various point of sale systems (including Kounta) to give you insight on sales revenue and labour costs, and accounting software (like Xero or QuickBooks) to help you automate payroll.

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Fostering a great working culture with as much flexibility as possible is Cousin Jacks’ key to keeping employees happy – powered by Kounta.

Take action to reinforce the culture you want in the long-term

When employees positively engage with a business’s culture, it’s more likely to see productivity growth, lower turnover rates and higher overall satisfaction levels – research has shown companies with “performance-enhancing cultures” had average revenue growth four times higher than firms with poor culture.

Culture is one of those intangible aspects of doing business – it’s something you know you need to create, but its success is not easily quantified and measured in the short term, so more often than not, it tends to get relegated to the ‘it’ll-sort-itself-out’ list.

But if you consistently work at instilling a culture geared towards employee satisfaction and turnover reduction, you will be able to see the results in due course.

A case study by San-Francisco based CULTURE LABx explored how using human-centered design and business strategy to build a scalable company culture in a restaurant group (SF Restaurant Group) resulted in over $100,000 in annual turnover costs. Here’s what they found worked:

  • Learning what their employees truly cared about: Through quantitative research and asking the right questions, it was found that SF’s employees wanted flexible schedules, more vacation time, the ability to achieve personal growth and having a sense of community.
  • Co-creating value: SF’s Employees were initially offered various options to use up to $100 a month on things like certifications, travel credits, and fitness memberships. Upon discovering that some employees were not actually interested in any of the offerings, SF changed it to a $1,200 lump sum year end bonus, and brought on educational classes, beverage tours and social gatherings as company-wide benefits instead.
  • Investing in designing touch points to sustain and improve the culture: This included a workshop that defined among other things, the Group’s purpose, values, behaviours and recognition models according to the culture they wanted to instill.
  • Communicating the culture visually on an ongoing basis: This included using visual cues in the form of posters and the employee onboarding pack to remind employees of the vision, mission and company values.

Studies have shown that a strong workplace culture significantly raises employee well-being and productivity. On the other hand, a poor culture results in negative impacts like absenteeism, distracted staff, and a turnover rate that could cripple your hospitality business.

Workplace culture can be the make-or-break factor towards helping your business stay afloat in a highly competitive industry. Crafting a clear, consistent and concise roadmap will help your venue do more with less, and make the a path towards long-term growth that much easier.


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