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USHG chief Chip Wade: Workers ‘want us to value them as individuals’

President and COO of Union Square Café parent assesses COVID’s change in employee culture

The two years of COVID pandemic and ensuing Great Resignation have altered company cultures, especially in the restaurant industry, says Chip Wade, president and chief operating officer of Union Square Hospitality Group.

“I think the expectations of our employees at all levels have changed because of COVID in in the past 24 months,” Wade said Tuesday during a CREATE session moderated by Lisa Jennings, Nation’s Restaurant News’ executive editor.

“The employees are saying loud and clear that they want us to value them as individuals, value their time and help them to bring some work-life balance into their lives,” said Wade, who has headed the New York City-based parent to such concepts as Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern and newer establishments like Daily Provisions and Ci Siamo since 2019.

Wade’s CREATE conversation, entitled “How to Future-Proof Your Company Culture” and sponsored by Konverse, is available free on-demand with registration at the CREATE website.

Wade said USHG founder Danny Meyer embedded hospitality throughout the company, which Wade joined from Red Lobster and Darden Restaurants Inc.

“We want to make sure that we're delivering hospitality to all of our stakeholders,” Wade said. “We are an employee-first — an employee-centric — organization, but that hospitality we also wanted to come to life and be delivered to every guest, every vendor, our investors, our purveyors, the communities where we operate.”

For USHG’s workforce, he added, the company is “committed to making sure that we have the best and brightest on board with us, that those employees and leaders and chefs are living our values each and every day, that they are collaborating with each other. We firmly believe that when you start with the notion of hospitality that you can only win and your business can only thrive.”

Wade joined USHG about eight months before the pandemic was declared in March 2020, and the first goal was to keep employees and guests safe. Along with other restaurants and business, the company with more than 20 locations went from more than 2,300 employees down to 45 individuals, he said. The company has hired or rehired about 1,700.

“We wanted to make sure that we were we were going to be a great un-employer,” he said. “Being a great un-employer, for us, meant that we had to significantly elevate our communications to our former employees. We embarked on these twice-a-month Zoom calls with 250 sometimes 400 former employees.”

The corporate team would walk former workers through what they knew about COVID, help them navigate government assistance programs and find positions with retail, grocery and delivery companies that remained open, he said.

We have navigated through a rollercoaster since COVID began,” Wade acknowledge. “All but two of our restaurants are open today. We haven't fully activated all the meal periods. Most of our fine dining restaurants were open five days a week in some cases were only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday lunch.”

While “a good percentage” of former employees returned to USHG, Wade said, but many left New York City permanently.

Wade, who began in the restaurant industry at age 15 to help his single-mom family, said the restaurant industry needs to communicate its worker advancement stories.

“For me, it's really about: How can we how can we change the narrative tell more success stories?” he suggested. “How do we ensure that we're listening better to the workforce and then adapting policies and procedures and pay and benefits to meet the demands of this new workforce?”

That also includes corporate policies, such as vaccine mandates for workers.

“In almost every change that we embark on at USHG, we find a way to listen to our employees and seek feedback from them,” Wade said.

Workers and guests have also expanded their premium on time, he added.

“People are valuing their time even more so than they did pre COVID, which means the idea of a three-hour or two-and0-a-half hour lunch at Gramercy Tavern for The Modern — I think those days are long gone,” Wade said. “We have to make sure that we are respectful of their time in and doing all that we can to ensure that the dining experience is abbreviated from what it was prior to 2020.”

The theme of speed and a frictionless dining experience flows from that, he said.

The growth vehicle for USHG in 2022 and beyond will be Daily Provisions, a three-daypart breakfast-lunch-dinner “neighborhood kitchen” brand with fine-casual food, he said. USHG currently has Daily Provisions units in New York City, opening the third in September and the fourth in October

“We will have modest growth,” Wade said. “We aspire to open two more units in 2022, and then we hope to accelerate that in 2023 and beyond. It's a brand that is in urban New York and then eventually we aspired to take it and see how it performs in the suburbs of Connecticut and New Jersey and then ultimately maybe the suburbs of Philadelphia”

USHG also opened a fine-dining Italian restaurant, Ci Siamo, in October. It is headed by chef Hillary Sterling and general manger Megan Sullivan.

“I would say Danny continues to ideate up and help us all think about ways that we can grow revenue whether that's a new concept or growing revenues outside of the four walls of a restaurant,” Wade said.

Contact Ron Ruggless at Ronald.Ruggless@Informa.com

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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