Restaurateur Danny Meyer writes in his venerable book, Setting the Table, “Understanding who needs to know what, when people need to know it, and why, and then presenting that information in an entirely comprehensible way is a sine qua non of great leadership.”
One of the most consequential decisions restaurant operators make is how to train the people that will be carrying forth their vision. Staff training is an art form that takes years to master. It is a mix of intuition, experience and patience, and it will determine the eventual success (or failure) of the team, and form the foundation of the health of the business.
Setting up and running a successful training program requires keen attention to detail, a sense of empathy for employees and a clear vision rooted in repetition and inspiration. No one becomes a champion without a proven training regime and a team of skilled coaches who work to unlock their employees’ potential.
Learning is fun
“I have found that the most effective approach to training is to actually just put in the hours,” said Christine Wright, general manager and wine director at Hearth restaurant in New York City. “Don’t assume that the new server or bartender has a working vocabulary when it comes to food, wine or spirits. Start fresh, from zero. Build knowledge from the ground up. Repeat and repeat again. It’s about constant, gentle pressure.”
Christine Wright, Augusto Ferrarese, Christopher Saenz, Kathleen Thomas
For a manager, especially one who oversees a diverse set of beverages, the training and learning never end. “We taste wine, beer, spirits and/or food every single day,” Wright said. “Training is the most fun part of the job, because it’s when you’re learning. And when the staff has learned a new thing or tasted something cool, they can’t stop talking about it. And they can’t wait for guests to try that cool thing, too.” By highlighting certain products for the staff to learn about and experience, there is often a direct correlation to sales based on their enthusiasm.
Remember to cross-train
“Training is the key to success, and sets the tone for the new employee by showcasing the culture we’ve established here,” said Augusto Ferrarese, corporate beverage director for Urban Kitchen Group in San Diego, which operates five restaurants in California. “I believe that a front-of-house server/bartender should be trained in all positions, from back of the house to host. Our module consists of six full training days where the new hire spends time with the food runners, bussers, bartenders, and on the last day there is a mock-service test. And we also administer a written food/beverage test that can provide a better understanding of their retention level.”
Staff are people too
Being able to connect with your staff, and adjust to their individual needs, is a skill that can’t be overrated, especially when it comes to training.
“I’ve moved further and further away from a traditional, corporate training regimen, to more of a personalized individual training,” said Christopher Saenz, general manager and wine director at 2120 restaurant in Seattle. “By not using a rigid training outline, I can customize the training to the individual by learning what they know and don’t know.” In addition to skills training, Saenz specifically focuses on ensuring new staff know what the internal management hierarchy looks like, what communication channels are being used, and, perhaps most importantly, what the mission, vision, and values are for the restaurant.
“You must have goals,” Ferrarese said. “I know this could sound simple, but it’s not. Staff need to understand what you and your brand stands for. If you build your restaurant as a community, and your staff speaks your same language, they become an extension of yourself, and they’ll reach where you can’t reach. All your managers must be committed as much as you are. You are only as good as the people around you, and you won’t leave a footprint if you work alone.”
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
For restaurant groups with multiple concepts, training is especially important. After working on the floor as a sommelier, Kathleen Thomas was promoted to wine training manager, and quickly found herself jetting around the country to the various restaurant concepts run by the Hakkasan Group which operates restaurants and nightclubs across North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa (her territory includes the United States and Mexico). Thomas’ focus is on working with management and beverage teams throughout the company, training everyone from execs to servers. She runs once-a-month, on-site training for each restaurant that does not have a sommelier on staff, and when she’s unable to be there in person, she uses technology such as Zoom to host virtual trainings.
Thomas’ position is unique and dynamic, allowing her to build training programs from the ground up, while also navigating the fact that each location is different.
“As this is my first official training position, my approach has altered in regard to how I perceive myself and my progression,” she said. “Of course, my bosses appreciate quantifiable efforts, and I definitely have to make this priority in what I teach, but [I remind] myself that there is only so much I can do as one person, and to be patient. When I’m there, I have to be present and available to them, while keeping the information for wine and service as simple as possible. And keep in mind, they are human, and respond to things like high energy and a smiling face. This [helps] brain waves to fire more easily, and creates connection that leads to memory retention. Remember, we’re guiding them to be confident in their abilities to learn, to sell and to be consistent.”
David Flaherty has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.