Bonanno Concepts is seeking to compensate its employees in new, more rewarding ways, including with a tipless system that provides back-of-the-house workers with higher pay, and a dedicated therapist available free to anyone who needs to speak with her.
The Denver-based company, which operates 10 restaurants and lounges, including the flagship fine-dining destination Mizuna, decided to rethink its wage and benefit strategies in the wake of the pandemic shutdown. While owners Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno had long sought to provide wellness services, such as yoga and meditation sessions, the temporary closures in 2020 provided an opportunity to take a step back and gather feedback from the workers themselves about what they needed most.
They arrived at some outside-the-box solutions, including offering access to a full-time therapist. Employees can schedule up to three free appointments with her to discuss any issues they may have, from workplace disputes to problems in their personal lives. If she cannot solve the issues herself, she helps connect the worker with outside resources, such as substance abuse counseling or other services.
“She’s very good at listening to what people’s grievances are and then working through a solution,” founder Frank Bonanno said.
Her consultations with employees are kept confidential, however, just as any other health service would be.
“We just wanted to provide something that’s not provided in our industry for our employees,” Bonanno said.
In addition to the therapist, the company also seeks to offer a generous health insurance package that includes paid coverage of up to 75% of the cost of premiums.
The tipless wage program, in place at nine of the company’s 10 locations, is another experimental compensation strategy at Bonanno Concepts. Creative director Jacqueline Bonanno said it addresses pay disparity, which she feels is one of the biggest obstacles to employee retention in the industry.
After doing some calculations based on pre-COVID tip earnings, the Bonannos came up with a 22% admin fee that is now added to every check. The company itself keeps a small portion of the fee to cover some of its own expenses, including benefits for workers, but the majority is divided approximately 60-40 between front- and back-of-house workers, respectively.
“We had a very heated virtual conversation about it, and we did not go forward until we had 100% agreement,” said Jacqueline Bonanno.
As a result of the new structure, Frank Bonanno said kitchen staff are making 20–30% more than they did pre-COVID, and its restaurants are almost fully staffed at a time when some of the company’s competitors are struggling to find enough workers.
The new wage structure has been well-received overall by both employees and customers, the Bonannos said, although they noted that it does require some adjustment in the mindset of tipped workers, and some explanation to customers.
The change has engendered a spirit of teamwork among workers throughout the restaurant, Frank Bonanno said.
“The days of the kitchen wanting to close early are over,” he said. “Now they’re incentivized to cook for that last table, because it means more money in their pocket.”
Bonanno Concepts will be honored as the Leadership Creator at CREATE: The Future of Foodservice in Denver, taking place Sept. 19-21.