Burning issue: Fostering staff loyalty

How F&B outlets can protect themselves from poaching
Empowering staff members, while training them to reach their full potential is important.
Empowering staff members, while training them to reach their full potential is important.

With many industry insiders mentioning the issue of poaching to Caterer, we investigate what F&B outlets can do to hold on to their employees

It’s one of the most repeated laments in the F&B industry that we have heard at Caterer — it is hard to retain staff members, and more often than not, employees leave with the carrot stick of more money dangled in front of them. The ugly word of poaching rears its head in this region, whispered behind the scenes, but never referred to publicly.

Even head chefs agree — this is a problem. In last year’s Caterer Middle East Head Chef Survey, nearly 43% said labour shortages was an issue affecting their outlet’s performance, while a few commented that “staff retention” needed to be the focus of their job for the next 12 months.

How to go about retaining staff is the issue, when the next company can offer more money and faster job progress under the guise of role name changes.

Solutions Leisure operations manager Sacha Daniel says he is fortunate to have great team members who are passionate and motivated. Listening to them is high on his agenda, and he explains: “An unresolved issue can, for example, lower the motivation and maybe even cause a member of staff to leave out of distrust for their employer.”

Internal promotions are another method to attract and retain employees, says Daniel. He says: “We encourage staff members to go after a promotion within the company when an opportunity arises. As a group undergoing great growth at the moment with new venues opening up this year, we are happy to be able to offer several such opportunities; it is incredibly satisfying seeing your employees grow and develop and eventually take on a bigger role.

Every six months, we conduct appraisals for every team member — from housekeeping through to senior management — to understand their needs, expectations and discuss their growth within the company.”

Empowerment is another term many use in the fight for staff retention. The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai food & beverage director Isabelle Von Burg says it is important to select the right person to lead the rest.

Von Burg explains: “Everything starts with selecting the right leaders who will foster open communication, encourage new ideas and viewpoints, and recognise their employees for sharing valuable inputs. Establishing trust is essential. Without trust, empowerment will not exist.”

Giving examples of how she works with her team members, she says: “To make my team members feel empowered, I involve them in the planning of the work that affects them. For instance, as we are currently in the phase of repositioning our dining venues, I appoint some of my leaders to handle the entire project from the concept brief, market research, selection of OS&E, new uniform designs down to the new food & beverage experiences. I am here to coach and guide them to achieve the desired outcome on each project.”

Another example of empowerment in the F&B outlets, under Von Burg’s command, is the creation of new beverage menus, where she involves the servers and bartenders in the process and acts on their ideas and feedback. She says: “One of my key responses to anyone who comes to me for advice and seeks a decision is: ‘What do you think about it?’”

Maki Restaurant Group founder Mohamad Zeitoun says in his company, staff are encouraged and trained to make their own decisions and take responsibility for them.

He explains: “So your job as a restaurant manager does not only entail that you manage hospitality staff. It also means you make suggestions about improving processes, whether it has to do with service, equipment, guest relations, communications, or any other facet of the business. We want our staff to feel that they know what is going on at their place of work and that they have a stake in it.”

Lafayette Gourmet culinary director Russell Impiazzi agrees and emphasises the importance of encouraging teams to take as much pride in their venues as possible.

He explains: “Trying to instil that sense of ownership in what we are trying to achieve is so important, and of course the best way of doing that is to listen to any and all ideas. Some ideas may not be so great but as long as they are thinking about trying to improve things, not only for their team but also for the guests — it is a positive that I always try to encourage.”

He says that from a chef’s perspective, it is also important to try to get the team involved with all menu changes. According to Impiazzi, part of a young chef’s development is to try and get them thinking and involved with all aspects — from the receiving area, developing recipes and how to manage them, to what goes on to the plate, while always thinking about food.

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In addition to involvement and listening, training on the job is also important. Von Burg reveals: “I have recently implemented the FAB (Food And Beverage) Talk, a monthly coffee chat that includes about 15 food and beverage ladies and gentlemen encouraging them to address any opportunities for improvement that they have identified within their respective areas and share their ideas on how to enhance and innovate remarkable guest experiences.

“I regularly run a similar round table with interns who work with us for a period of six months. We also recently introduced our resort repositioning workshop that comprises a team of creative employees who brainstorm ideas and develop initiatives to position the hotel as a ‘destination within a destination’.”

There are, Von Burg says, many opportunities to train employees further. Marriott offers an online platform that offers various trainings and workshops, which employees at all levels can undertake, ranging from language to leadership courses.

In F&B, focus is put on practical trainings to maintain high service standards and improve consistency.

She points to the beverage manager Dominik Schachtsiek who conducts a weekly bar workshop, and ‘the FAB summer workshop’, which is a yearly training programme all F&B leaders conduct. This course is comprised of intensive eight weeks of daily training sessions that cover service behaviour and standards, as well as culinary basics.

Von Burg adds: “We recognise all employees who successfully complete the course by giving them a certification. For the month of June, we now have a waiting list for this workshop as it has even stirred the interest of non-food & beverage employees within the resort. Aside from these trainings on property, we send them for trainings outside the property, such as master classes and WSET trainings, where they can expand their knowledge and also gain professional certifications.

“The new project that I am now working on is the development of a mentoring programme for key talent within F&B. I believe this will further enhance the retention of our top performers.”

This is an important issue for Daniel as well. He says Solutions Leisure aims to provide regular and frequent in-house training in all of its venues, including areas such as customer service, new menu training/tastings, wine/sake/cocktail training and sales training. The firm also works closely with all its suppliers to provide expert training to the teams.

Daniel says: “Members of the bar or service team can, for example, be enrolled on internationally accredited beverage courses, such as the WSET, thanks to the support given by our suppliers.”

Impiazzi agrees that training is imperative, and adds: “In any larger operation that is showing growth, training is key. When you have a multi-kitchen operation, cross-training becomes an important tool. Being able to expose a chef whose background has been, say, only in an Italian kitchen operation, to an Asian kitchen and train him/her in how to use a wok and different cutting skills... this will only broaden the chefs’ knowledge.

“Our outside catering operation is another great asset to exposing another side of the industry, taking a chef from the comfort zone of his or her familiar kitchen to a totally different one — from a satellite kitchen in the middle of nowhere to a private yacht, the guys are exposed to a different skill set and how they think. Do I give them a fancy pants certificate at the end? No, but I would hope that they see the benefits of what we try and do.”

Maki issues its employees standard training manuals that they all have to go through in both formal training sessions and home studies. Hospitality training classes are also implemented, which encourage discussions of various scenarios so everyone can interact and benefit.

Zeitoun says: “Perhaps the most significant developmental initiative that we have consistently adopted over the years is to encourage and coach staff to perfect their trade and hone their skills so that they keep getting promoted to higher posts as the company grows. This ‘promotion from within’ approach has been proven successful by several employees ending up at senior level positions, having started their journey with Maki at the lowest posts possible.”

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With Dubai having won the bid to host the Expo 2020, there is a lot of expectation from the city to become a hospitality leader.

Staff quality is even more important — employees in the F&B and hospitality sector need to be at the top of their game, and consistency can be achieved with members staying on in a role long enough.

Are the issues of salary gradations and benefits going to be even more important in the run up to the Expo 2020?

Von Burg says that in line with the growth in Dubai’s hotel supply, it is “critical” to offer competitive salaries and benefits to attract the right talent.

She adds: “I have noticed in the recent years that accommodation and living conditions also play an important role for the young generation. I think competitive salaries and benefits can certainly contribute to employee satisfaction, however, a strong, supportive company culture can be just as important to retain our employees.”

Daniel has a different take on the matter. He says: “The Expo 2020 doesn’t quite affect the staffing to be honest. Sure, there are more venues opening in Dubai, stiffening the competition for great staff, however, there are also more and more talented F&B professionals moving to Dubai.”

Daniel adds: “It is well-known that there is generally a high turnover of hospitality staff in Dubai. Most employees never stay longer than two years in the same place, and often even less than that. At the end of the day, what most staff members want is a job that they enjoy going to every day and a salary to match that.

“We encourage staff to work hard to progress within the company, and when a member of staff gets promoted, his or her colleagues will aspire to achieve the same.”

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But poaching still exists. Von Burg says the best protection against poaching is to make the company a more attractive employer than the competitors.

“This may include salaries and benefits, but also, and most importantly, this means looking after your employees, fostering a vibrant workplace culture with exciting learning and career opportunities, offering flexible scheduling, and creating staff development plans and recognition programmes.

“After all, people rarely leave a job they enjoy,” she adds.

When it comes to protecting one’s company against poaching, Zeitoun says: “Salary brackets and gradations are extremely important in reflecting the combination of seniority, experience, education, and skill-set.

You cannot have a head chef, a sous chef and a senior chef de partie all receiving the same compensation. A proper salary scale needs to be applied where employees are being fairly remunerated for their post, and are also able to look forward to promotion. With more training, more hours on the job, comes more responsibility and more compensation.

“Additionally, a bonus system is necessary in certain settings so that employees tie their own success to the restaurant’s. The aforementioned scheme should help in establishing an equitable compensation system, which deters staff from leaving out of resentment, and help retain them by looking forward to promotion.”

On the matter of poaching, Daniel takes a matter-of-fact view. He explains: “Poaching is inevitable and frankly, sometimes you shouldn’t try to retain a staff member if their strategy is to jump from one job to another solely based on salary.

You are much more successful as an operator if you value loyalty, dedication and passion, and employees possessing those qualities can be rewarded accordingly. You should also not just wait around for a team member to ask for a pay increment or promotion, instead we are very proactive at identifying and rewarding key members of our teams.”

Impiazzi agrees and says poaching will always be an issue, and his challenge is to make sure staff do not want to leave.

He points out: “My biggest concern — and this is from a chef’s perspective — is that the junior guys are moving up too quickly and chasing the dollar. Of course I cannot blame them, but without the experience necessary to sustain their career long term, they will get found out and not only will they suffer, but so will the reputation of the venues, which so often fail to deliver what is promised.”

Impiazzi reveals he recently got a CV from a young chef with only four years’ experience wanting a sous chef role with a promotion every year in a different company.

He notes: “I am sure this will be familiar to a lot of chefs but I believe as employers we need to be careful here. Big brand names on a CV will, of course, make him look like a potential asset; however we need to look past this and see what can he really do... Make a veal jus? Bone a side beef? Probably not.

“Because there is and will be an even greater skill shortage in the coming years, we have to find a way to keep our teams together longer and ensure when they do move on, they are ready to. The biggest benefit I think we can offer to our teams is to show a genuine interest in them both personally and professionally.

You have to care; we have a responsibility to each and every one of our staff and that has to come a across. Take the time to talk to them, not just about work but personal aspects. After all, most of them are a long way from home, and creating an atmosphere where they are comfortable, for me, is so important.”

Benefits aren’t the ultimate answer to staff retention, according to Impiazzi. He concludes: “It’s all well and good offering gym discounts, free hotel nights and so on, but for me, the most important thing is to know the person behind the name badge.”

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