Rocket Farm Restaurants has something most restaurant groups don’t – a university. It features over 20 classes on topics like hospitality management, HR, finance, marketing and diversity.
The university was created a few years after Chef Ford Fry opened his first restaurant in Atlanta in 2007, laying the foundation for what is now Rocket Farm Restaurants, which includes a portfolio of 13 brands in Atlanta, Houston and Nashville. The impetus behind creating Rocket Farm Restaurant University was simple: The company wanted more people to consider restaurant work as a lifelong career, not just an entry-level blip.
“The restaurant industry has never really been viewed as a respectable career path in America. Our society has largely viewed it as a way to make ends meet while working on your real career. As a result, restaurants suffer from extremely high turnover. We’ve always wrestled with this, even prior to the pandemic,” Toby Franklin, COO of Rocket Farm, said in a recent interview. “One of the things we wanted to do at the inception of this company is legitimize the industry as a respectable career path. We wanted to stimulate that idea internally, which gave birth to our first benefit – the university program.”
Franklin said that by offering educational opportunities covering the complex restaurant business – from kitchen management to understanding balance sheets – Rocket Farm could better compete with other industries and, ideally, retain more employees.
“When we first started and were observing what the leadership teams in our restaurants were doing – they were spending half the time doing things nobody trained them how to do, like be a good accountant, a sales person, a marketing person,” Franklin said. “All of these specialties they were never educated on. And, they were spending less than half of their time on things they were really good at, like food and service.”
Offering comprehensive courses, taught by those who do the work every day, provides a stronger foundation for those who want to open their own restaurant, or those who want to grow within the Rocket Farm system. But the university is just one benefit the company offers to try and level the playing field with other industries. In the past 10 or so years, Rocket Farm has also added medical, dental and vision insurance, a health savings account, paid family leave and PTO, scholarship grants, an employee assistance program and, most recently, retirement bonuses.
Getting a retirement program in place was like “wrestling an alligator,” Franklin said, but he added it was perhaps the biggest step in the company’s quest to promote a career path.
“I’ve been working on getting that program in place for at least seven years. Adding a 401K is a challenge to execute in the restaurant space given the youth and transience of the industry. The qualification requirements were just too difficult. So, we had to go non-qualified – a deferred comp long-term retention plan/profit share is the best way to describe our program,” he said.
With this growing list of benefits, including the “retirement alligator,” now in place, Franklin said Rocket Farm has experienced better retention rates. According to Black Box Intelligence, the industry’s turnover in the Southeast region recently peaked at over 160%.
“Ours is half that,” Franklin said. “We have a lot of work to do, but there’s a huge payoff. It just makes financial sense for a company to do this.”
The biggest payoff comes from savings yielded by better controlling turnover. For instance, Franklin said if Rocket Farm loses a skilled hourly employee to another restaurant for $1 more an hour, the replacement cost of that employee is “north of $1,200 per person.”
“In our company, it’s closer to $2,000. Imagine that turnover over 100% per year when you have 20 or so restaurants. That’s a staggering soft cost,” Franklin said. “These benefits aren’t just the best thing to do to take care of your people, they’re the best thing to do for your company.”
Rocket Farm, like most restaurant companies, took a huge staffing hit in 2021 and early 2022 and was losing as many people as it was hiring. The company trimmed its operational hours to manage. But Franklin said the company has since ramped back up and finished 2022 with net positive staffing and a return to full operations.
Even though these benefits have long been a priority for Rocket Farm, Franklin said the pandemic has forced much of the industry to catch up as well. Still, much work remains.
“We’re doing a better job of recruiting and retaining people, but I think it’s out of sheer necessity. I’m not sure the industry has learned its lesson yet. I hope we have. The good operators have, at least, and I think you’ll see more of a separation between the ordinary and extraordinary businesses based on what they offer their employees – the benefits, the development, the dialogue. That’s when it becomes extraordinary for the guests as well.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]