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Why Dominique Crenn Believes in Paying Her Staff a Living Wage

Investing in people is the key to growth and success, according to the chef.

This content was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and our sponsor, New York Life, without involvement from Vox Media editorial staff.

A two Michelin-starred restaurant in the heart of San Francisco is not where you’d expect to expound on the treatment of blue collar workers: not when the seating arrangement is custom-made by a Portland designer, the cutlery is imported from Japan, and a dinner for two can easily cost more than $1,000. Then again, you likely haven’t had a conversation with Dominique Crenn, a chef who’s not afraid to tackle the most pressing issue facing the restaurant industry: a living wage. So how does she manage to grow her business while still staying true to her values?

“As leaders in the industry, we have to make sure that we are giving our staff the opportunity to have a good life; [so] we made the decision that instead of having high profits, we would invest in our team,” Crenn says. “I would rather make less money a month but at least keep them happy ... The way you build a business is to build it with people.”

That people-centered philosophy is the key to Atelier Crenn’s continued growth. And Crenn has seemingly pulled off the impossible in the restaurant industry: According to her staff, they keep consistent hours, five days a week, with health benefits plus paid time off (as mandated by the state of California). Compare that to the industry standard: Twelve-hour shifts, five-plus days a week are the norm for a line cook, and paid time off for sick days and parental leave has been left up to the states and employers to decide. (San Francisco instituted paid sick leave in 2007, and the state followed in 2015.)

Restaurant workers, even in a city with progressive policies like San Francisco, are faced with difficult working conditions. According to a recent survey by Restaurant Opportunities Center United of San Francisco restaurant workers, only 27 percent said they had access to paid sick days despite laws that require paid sick leave, and 82 percent did not have employee-sponsored health insurance. It’s been reported that 40 percent of workers nationwide live in poverty, and wages have stagnated and have not been adjusted for inflation since 2000. But in an industry where profits are razor-thin at best, San Francisco restaurateurs may be unwilling to invest more money in labor costs. Restaurant rents in the Bay Area have increased exponentially, food costs are up, and the pool for diners able to afford to eat out is diminishing. The restaurant scene in San Francisco hit a rough patch after a study found that local restaurants (especially those with lower Yelp reviews) were more likely to close as the minimum wage increase set in. (The minimum wage in the Bay Area, which just increased to $14 this summer, is set to increase again in 2018 to $15.)

Every day at 3:30 p.m., Dominique Crenn and the staff at Atelier Crenn sit down for family meal in the courtyard. Get a peek behind the scenes at today’s family meal, where lamb barbacoa and smoked trout are on the menu.

But to Crenn, who has earned degrees in economics and business from her schooling in Paris, investing in her team may be one of the easiest decisions she’s ever made. She’s not shy about changing her policies to pay a higher wage. She raised the prices of her tasting menu at Atelier Crenn over the last three years by 66 percent as of this April. She also instituted a standard 20 percent surcharge to every ticket, eliminated tipping, and, most recently, moved her reservations system over to Tock, where guests pay upfront.

Juan Contreras, the pastry chef at Atelier Crenn and her business partner of 11 years, remembers well how difficult it was at first to institute this radical restaurant model. Being an employee motivated him to provide a better living wage to his teammates and to correct the imbalance between front of house and back of house. “That's been the growth that Chef and I always wanted from the beginning,” he says. “Was it shaky? Yeah, it was in the beginning. Ninety percent of the restaurants are still tips. Chef [was] a risk-taker in leading the team: ‘This is what I want to do and this is the structure in which I want to go.’ And I think that was very pivotal in importing a step to the growth of the internal services of the restaurant.”

It’s not lost on her staff just how lucky they are to have such a progressive boss, who cite how “complicated” the industry has become. “I have a family outside of this restaurant,” says Jonny Black, the newly appointed executive chef at Atelier Crenn. “The days of being a young cook for your whole life, [when you’re] sucked up in the 14 to 16 hours you spend in the restaurant, are really over.”

Contreras thinks that the financial benefits of working for Crenn have allowed the staff to show up for work as their best and most creative selves. “If you do not worry about monetary issues, then you can just come in and work and express yourself and just kind of live life,” he says. “I think that's definitely been a factor in what we've done, and [why we] continue to evolve. It's not perfect yet and I think Chef is still trying to provide a little bit more of a balanced wage and lifestyle.”

Top: Executive chef Jonny Black preparing for service.

Crenn’s plan for growth stretches well beyond paying a living wage and benefits. She also gives her employees room to learn and develop a newfound passion for what they do. She’s sent Montrose to Hungary, Austria, and Champagne, France, to explore wine regions he knew little about. She sent Black and her Petit Crenn pastry chef to Paris to gain a deeper understanding of bistro culture. She encouraged her operations manager, Jasmine Chan, to perfect the hand-stitched menus she made for a New Year’s Eve dinner so they could start sending guests home with a poem at the end of the night. It might be why, in an occupation rife with turnover, few of her employees leave. “The reason why I have stayed here is because there's constant change, opportunities, and chances to learn and push and grow,” says Chan. “That's challenging and exciting.”

Crenn’s top-down philosophy has made an impression on the leaders within her team, who try to impart her same attitude to their teammates. “As a manager, you have to make sure you ask about your employees — you have to care about them,” says Black. “You have to show interest in their lives beyond just their setup sheet to get ready for the day ... Growing as a father [and] looking over multiple properties has taught me to work on my mentorship skills a lot more.”

Black says he was accustomed to the restaurants he grew up operating in, where they show little interest in their employees. “It was only about what was on the plate — but that doesn’t lead to longevity in this business, especially in a town like San Francisco,” he says. “If you have good people, you want to keep them ... I think we really value the group that we have here, and we want to see them move forward and grow with us.”

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