Two unique ways to retain your kitchen staff

There's no doubt that the restaurant industry has a wage-gap issue. One that's not only creating a rift in the industry but also among restaurant's staff.

It's also a gap that's making it more difficult for restaurants to keep and retain their best employees. 

Some local governments are trying to remedy the situation with a minimum wage increase (though it's not directly aimed at restaurants, per say). Seattle's minimum wage is already at $15/hour. California is well on it's way to that same minimum wage, and now Massachusetts is debating on doing the same. 

Some operators have started putting an additional line item on the receipts, allowing for diners to leave tips for the kitchen staff. Others are imposing hospitality surcharges that go to help cover wage increases. 

But it's not always so simple as boosting pay, not when front of house workers earn so much more than back of house, thanks to tipping and when federal courts are ruling that tip pools are for servers only. It all helps a little, but the NYC Hospitality Alliance puts the median hourly wage for servers at $25.34 while line cooks earn just a median of $13.

That's a big difference that's driving some talented chefs out of the kitchen and into server jobs or into entirely different industries all together.

Tuition reimbursement

As is typical of large cities, housing in Boston is expensive and so is culinary school. Many cooks leave school just as bad as their university counterparts -- thousands of dollars in debt. Chris Coombs, owner of DeuxAve and Boston Chops and member of the Boston Urban Hospitality restaurant group says he was losing great staff to not just other restaurants, but to better paying industries.

Collectively as a industry, we’ve set up a structure that’s not sustainable for 99% of people coming out of culinary schools.
— Chris Coombs

To stop losing talented cooks from his kitchen, Coombs came up with a unique perk for his back of house staff -- a tuition reimbursement plan. Coombs reimburses his cooks up to $1000 a month to pay for their student loans. Sweet deal, right?

Boston Chops and DeuxAve have a culinary school reimbursement program that pays their cooks up to $1000 a month for student loan bills.

Coombs says that this program "sweetens the pot" for his kitchen staff, but admits that program is too new to know for sure if it's helping with the retention problem.

(I sure as hell would think twice about leaving a place giving me a sweet grand per month for student loans)

Training program

Bill Brodsky, operator of Wink & NodTap TrailhouseGriddler's Burgers + Dogs, and Akinto, sees how the restaurant industry is changing and the call for quality of life is higher than ever before.

When I was coming up, it was commonplace to work 70 or 80 hours a week for no money. You kind of made a deal with yourself that you’re learning that craft, and this is what you need to get ahead and earn your dues. But the climate has changed significantly.
— Bill Brodsky

Bill Brodsky is looking to build loyalty with his kitchen staff by working and training young chefs

Brodsky, who is also the Chief Culinary Officer for Boston Nightlife Venturesisn't looking to reimburse past education but mold young staff with continued training. He takes young chefs willing to learn and grow, and trains them while making sure they have creative outlets for their work.

We might be getting these diamonds in the rough who need time and development. We’re really trying to offer people long-term careers.
— Bill Brodsky

Brodsky also tries to limit the work week to no more than 50 hours, he said.

Regardless of either of these methods could work in your restaurant, the challenge to keep your best employees is real. That goes double for your kitchen staff. Wage boosts is one way to help curb the issue, but it's not always the answer. Sometimes a little creative problem solving and create a win-win situation for operators and staff.