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How to build your best restaurant team

How to build your best restaurant team

Jim Sullivan is a keynote speaker at foodservice leadership conferences worldwide. His newest book Fundamentals is available at Amazon or Check out his leadership video series at This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

“At the end of the day, you bet on people, not on strategies.” –Larry Bossidy, CEO AlliedSignal

In his 2005 bestselling book Topgrading, author Brad Smart first posited the notion that there are four levels of job applicants: A players, B players, C players and D players, with “A” players the most desirable and “D” players the least desirable. The simple message of his complex book was that smart businesspeople should focus on finding, hiring and retaining only A players.

It’s sound advice, but 10 years later, the notion that A players routinely walk into our restaurants looking for work is a premise flatter than a Swedish pancake.

The truth today is that only C and D players are applying for jobs in the foodservice industry. Why? Because A and B players are held in high regard and most employers hold on to them with all their might. On the other hand, Cs and Ds perform poorly, are rarely valued and often dissatisfied, and therefore more often looking for a new job.

Successful foodservice operators should always compete first for talent, then for guests, but any hiring strategy focused exclusively on sourcing and hiring only A players is doomed to fail. A new strategy must be deployed:  focus on being extremely adept at developing talent, as well as finding it. Knowing how to transform C players into B players and B players into A players is critical to success in the next five years.

As I’ve said in this column before, successful foodservice brands don’t grow business; they grow people. In turn, people grow business. So it’s time to once again make the case for training as a viable strategy for improving retention and reducing churn in our workforce.

The marketplace for foodservice labor is both highly competitive and very crowded. Statistics offer hope: the current Millennial generation is some 80 million strong, surpassing even the vaunted 72 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1962. Colleges expect their enrollment to swell to historic levels in 2016, as the largest number of Americans who are aged 18 will hit university age simultaneously.

But just because the numbers offer hope, hope is not a strategy. All those Millennials may be of job age, but that doesn’t mean they’ll choose foodservice over retail, Home Depot, or even choosing to stay unemployed. We need to make a strong case for our industry in terms of what we teach and develop if we are to stock our talent pipeline and bench strength with future leaders. Otherwise we’re endless victims of economic cycles predicated on variable birth rates and driven by job-seeking supply and demand.

Here are a few ideas on finding keepers and turning them into long-term assets:

Grow your own. Reassess and reevaluate all of your crew and manager development tools, from your onboarding process to training materials to pre-shift meetings, which should be mandatory, not optional, every single shift. Find a way to make your development resources richer, better and more effective. Benchmark the best-demonstrated practices of your best team members and incorporate that insight into your training materials. Teach everyone something new every shift.

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Recruit strategically, not generically. Seek talent where it gathers and aim for people who are already motivated and wired to succeed. Instead of just participating in local high school job fairs, sponsor or recruit from the school’s National Honor Society or Link Crew. Align your company with a local Boy Scout Troop and recruit from the Order of the Arrow honorees (Scouting’s National Honor Society). Look for affable, eager and self-directed people from these groups that you can develop into tomorrow’s superstars.

Stop the brain drain. Like Major League Baseball, the foodservice industry has its own farm system of sorts. In the full-service segment, brands like Pizza Hut and IHOP train future Chili’s and Applebee’s servers. Then Chili’s and Applebee’s in turn develop servers who seek positions in the polished segment for brands like The Cheesecake Factory, Bonefish Grill and P.F. Chang’s. It’s an aspirational, upward trajectory driven by servers’ expectations of higher earnings and fewer guest service issues: more money, fewer problems. So keep an eye on your best team members and appreciate, recognize and “re-recruit” them regularly.

How have you trained a B employee to an A-level employee? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Don’t recruit or train to yesterday’s competencies. Identify and detail the top five performance-based criteria necessary to be successful in every position in your restaurant. Determine what average performance and what stellar performance looks like for each role. Develop your current teams to be proficient in those key performance-based criteria. Now look two years down the road. What skills may be critical then that are only peripheral now? For instance, if you have two GM candidates with similar expertise, I’d promote the one with proven social media savvy and technology-enabled training skills.

Assess your ABCDs. Consider the nuances of the four levels of employees. There are two kinds of A players. An A player in a B company is likely to be a B player in an A company. They will work down — or up — to the talent that surrounds them. There are two kinds of B players. One is a B player in the overall foodservice marketplace, but could be an A player, or even a C player, in your company, depending on your talent pool.

An organization can also outgrow A players. For instance, an A-level area manager in a $3 million foodservice company can quickly regress to a C in a $50 million company if their skillsets don’t grow. C-level managers don’t hire A-level team members. They hire D-level associates so they look better as a manager. As author Brad Smart says in Topgrading: “C players suck the creative energy out of your organization. They fail to prevent problems and then can’t fix them. A tremendous amount of your time is wasted undoing what C players did or doing what they should have done.”

There are two types of C-players: one who can be developed into a B and one who will only ever be a C. Know the difference.

Simply put, your most competitive strategy going forward is out-teaching the competition and doing so with habitual consistency. It is cheaper to train than it is to recruit. Consistency in operations is the most effective marketing strategy. Consistency in hiring, training and development is the most effective profitability strategy.

Every day that we spend not improving our people, performance and products is a wasted day.

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