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How Danny Meyer, Alon Shaya, Andrew Zimmern and More Inspire Their Employees

Creating a strong company culture is at the heart of building a restaurant empire

Danny Meyer at Aspen Food & Wine 2017 Jennifer Olson

With a labor shortage, variable minimum wages from state to state, and a national healthcare bill in flux, several sectors in the restaurant industry are currently facing a tall list of challenges. So why are so many chef-driven restaurants thriving? And in spite of the challenges, how do chefs and restaurateurs inspire their employees? This week, Eater spoke with industry leaders at the tops of their game to find out.

The setting was “Cultivating Culture,” a panel discussion at this year’s Food & Wine Classic, an annual three-day festival that takes place in Aspen, Colorado. Restaurateur Danny Meyer (Union Square Hospitality Group, NYC), chef Alon Shaya (Shaya, New Orleans), Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern, and others weighed in with their views on company culture — the jargon-y term a lot of modern entrepreneurs like to use when talking about their leadership style. Here’s how they attract talented employees, incorporate them into their vision, and retain them for years.

Danny Meyer, Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), NYC: “To me, there are two ways to look at culture. Very simply, culture is the way we do things […] and for Gramercy Tavern, it meant how you make choices, how you behave. The second way I look at it is as the terroir of an organization. No matter what grapes you plant in your soil, in your microclimate, the way you cultivate it, the way you plant it, they will taste different than if you plant them in someone else’s soil. If you really care for that soil, it is a way to make your restaurant taste a little different and feel a little different.”

Jonathan Sawyer, the Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat, Trentina, Cleveland, OH: “Holding the door is easy, I say in a talk I give every now and then about building culture, which is a complicated equation that involves a lot of different facets and steps. Among them: Taking care of yourself before you assist others, just like the oxygen mask instructions say in case of an emergency in an airplane; be sure you keep your ego in check and that you are not the smartest person in the kitchen; and recognizing staff through compliments in an open forum.”

Alon Shaya, Shaya, New Orleans: “What makes us relevant is that we work together, that our team is so strong and so smart that we have this collective vision on how to do something that has a meaning.

We have so many incredible people outside of our restaurant: our baker, our blueberry farmer, the person who is going out foraging for chanterelle mushrooms. They are part of our team. Our chef from Domenica can come and teach our staff at Shaya how to make a good salami. With that, you are serving your people. You are showing them kindness and giving them a piece of yourself, and the good ones will receive it well and then will give it to somebody else.”

Lachlan Patterson, Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, CO: “[It’s] not only about challenging the team but really valuing the individual. In the early years, we did a good job at Frasca with challenging the employees. As you grow, striking the balance between keeping them challenged and inspired but letting them know that they are valued, showing them generosity, is something that matters to me a lot. […] In 10 years of working in the greatest restaurants in the world, I was never taught the fundamentals of business. It’s something we learned on our own, and I pride myself now on teaching that to our young employees.”

Jonathan Waxman, Barbuto, NYC: “Building a culture is the most important thing to success. I joke around to my employees that they have to — or that I want them to — absorb a bit of my DNA. For the sake of our culture, they really need to know what my aspirations are. We are forming a family — it is a strange extended family, but it is a family. We are in to serve great food but also to make money. How do you integrate capitalism with that familial sense? That’s the real trick when building a restaurant business and culture. It is about how to learn to communicate the best way possible, to share the most in the least amount of words.”

Sabato Sagaria, Chief Restaurant Officer of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), NYC: “We tried to list our family values for our staff. We distilled those to four: excellence, hospitality, integrity, and entrepreneurial spirit. That is the lens through which we try to hold ourselves accountable, and the lens through which we ask our employees to look when they make decisions. It has to start internally. The magic of it is when guests feel that come through.”

Mike Lata, FIG and the Ordinary in Charleston, SC: “When we had only FIG, I sat in line-up daily and spoke with passion about how we approached seasonality, guest interaction, our overall philosophy ... and it was clear that the more passionate I was, the more passionate the servers became.

When we grew to two restaurants with the opening of the Ordinary, over time, we started to realize that although our culture was certainly strong, the ship was not as tight as it once was, and things were a little cloudy... After 10 years at FIG, I was confident that we could graduate a cook with a skill set in about six months, and now, it was taking about a year. We realized that the cooks did not have the same skill set as before, so we wrote a kitchen manifesto: Outlining the way each cook needed to view his or her position, the culture we created, and what was important helped us draft a list of values. Each person brought in was personally schooled on the manifesto... it allowed us to give each new staffer the best opportunity to learn and preserve the culture.”

John Tesar, Knife, Dallas, TX, and upcoming Element Kitchen, Denver, CO: “We have worked very hard over the last four years to build a team, a team with a philosophy and training. As I source the products, train the staff, and hire more team members, I promote young talented chefs, cooks, sommeliers, and managers to build a family culture, a business, and a brand.”

Will Guidara, Eleven Madison Park, NYC: “There was a moment nine years ago when Daniel [Humm] and I realized that it was just the two of us making all of these decisions out of this little windowless office. When we actually opened up our eyes and looked at the people we were working with, we had Harvard graduates and Yale graduates and a lot of people decidedly smarter than either of the two of us — and if we could involve them in the collaborative process, engage them in the creative process, they would feel a much more significant ownership of the direction we are going. When you feel ownership in what you are trying to create, you are working a hell of a lot harder and you gonna be that much more dedicated to ensure the success. We basically realized that it was awesome and fun to dream with more people.”

Andrew Zimmern, chef and TV personality: “A lot of culture building comes from the top down. But you will always hear: I have this other thing to do that is more important, I have the prep list, I have the service structure, I don’t have time for this culture thing. It is counter-intuitive to think of generosity first in a for-profit business, and yet that is going to be your business model: generosity. A lot of people get scared. As a business person, it is taking that counterintuitive step. Someone once said to me, a long time ago: I’m gonna ask you to take steps you don't believe in, but I promise results that you can’t imagine. And I have never forgotten that. It changed my life.”