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CREATE-Dallas-Meet-Up-Bret-Thorn-Khahn-Nguyen-Jack-Yoss-Juliet-Greene.jpg Ron Ruggless
Workplace culture contributes mightily to retaining restaurant talent.

Strong culture helps restaurant brands retain workers, CREATE Meet Up panelists say

Leaders from Charlie Baggs, Hai Hospitality and Zalat Pizza share workforce advice in Dallas gathering

Workplace culture contributes mightily to retaining restaurant talent, leaders from several organizations told a gathering of culinary professionals in Dallas this week.

From adopting team members’ culinary inspirations to offering employees stock options, the leaders told the CREATE: The Future of Foodservice Dallas Meet Up, sponsored by Johnsonville Foodservice at Café Momentum in Dallas.

Panelists included Juliet Greene, assistant vice president of culinary strategy at Chicago-based Charlie Baggs Inc., Khanh Nguyen, CEO of Dallas-based Zalat Pizza, and Jack Yoss, vice president of culinary at Austin, Texas-based Hai Hospitality. The panel was moderated by Bret Thorn, senior food and beverage editor at Nation’s Restaurant News.

Yoss said pandemic workforce disruptions highlighted a tight labor market that had been reported on for more than decade.

“We've done what everyone else has done,” Yoss said of the efforts to recruit and retain works in the past two years. “We've done retention bonuses. We've done hiring bonuses. We've done referral bonuses. we actually came out of it pretty intact.” Most of those who were furloughed came back, he added.

“I think that all people came because of our culture,” he said. “You have to look internally and ask yourself what your culture is like. What do you have to offer these cooks, these servers, these managers?” Hai Hospitality has the Uchi, Uchiko and Loro concepts in Austin, Dallas, Denver, Houston and Miami.

While wages have gone up as much as 40%, meeting workforce demands, Yoss said, “It really came down to culture.”

Nguyen of Zalat Pizza, which calls its team member “Zealots,” said the focus must be on the employees and their experience.

“We have to have this full commitment from the frontline staff,” Nguyen said. “They have to care.” Nguyen, whose background is in tech startups, said Zalat trains every day and gives back to that workforce.

The company offers employees 401(k) savings plans, free tattoos and even stock options.

Nguyen, who was a securities lawyer before launching the pizza brand, borrowed benefit ideas from tech startups, especially the stock options.

Referring workers at large restaurant groups that started with a few units, Nguyen said: “All of the people who put in the work — the blood, sweat and tears — at all those restaurants never got a piece of the action.”

Those stock options, he added have “been a big part of our ability to retain and recruit.”

Greene of the Charlie Baggs innovation consultancy said “bringing back hospitality to hospitality” includes how company’s treat their employees. Yoss called it bringing hospitality to your people.”

Greene said she currently works with a former Hai Hospitality chef, who still speaks kindly of his time at the company.

The chef said he was asked to help create culinary ideas for the menus, Greene said, as were other staff members. All creations were presented to various levels of store teams and management before approval.

“You're going feel pretty darned good in life,” Greene suggested, saying all the workers can take pride in their creations.

“Really having people feel a part of it is important,” she said. “Having that real passion will drive your business, and that's once again bringing hospitality back to hospitality.”

Join NRN at CREATE in Denver next month.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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