How to Build Your Team

This article is excerpted from our How to Open a Restaurant guide. Get the full guide here!

Before you can identify the best candidates for your team, you first need to figure out what you’re looking for. Organizational structure and the specific qualities that make a person a good “fit” will be different for every restaurant, but the best practices around the process are largely universal. Identify the soft skills that reflect your concept and brand, determine what skill sets will be needed to perform critical operational responsibilities, and define what your own role will entail. Then, develop a hiring strategy to find people that fit your criteria.

Your employees are your biggest asset, and in our industry they’re often the scarcest resource. Developing and executing a hiring strategy will pay off in the long run by reducing turnover, ensuring great guest experiences, and promoting brand consistency.

Prioritize Soft Skills

What qualities must every member of your team possess to create the guest experience you’ve imagined? Alex Seidel, owner of Fruition, Mercantile Dining & Provision, and Fruition Farms in Denver, says:

“When we hire our team, we’re not looking for bodies. We’re looking for people that we can work with, that are like-minded, and that want to grow and develop. When you surround yourself with people that have the same mission as you, there’s no limit to what you can do.”

Every restaurant will have different priorities when it comes to soft skills. Keep in mind that some of the qualities you look for while selecting your opening team may be different than those you look for months or years down the road.

Identify Roles & Responsibilities

Identify the roles and responsibilities you need your team to take on at a management level and an hourly level. If you’re already familiar with the size, scope, and service style of the restaurant you’re opening, you likely have a good idea of what your organizational chart will look like. If not, talk to peers who have concepts and hours of operation similar to yours about their organizational structures, do some market research, and make modifications based on the specifics of your restaurant to develop a working model.

One tool that can be helpful is a comprehensive list of the major responsibilities you expect each person to own. Then, factor in the amount of time each person will need to spend on the floor or in the kitchen during service. Your goal is to strike a balance here: make sure your team has the bandwidth to meet your performance expectations without burning them out.

Specific tasks will vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant, but I’ve provided a sample list of management responsibilities here to help spark your thought process:

• Scheduling
• Hiring
• New employee training
• Disciplinary action and termination
• POS maintenance
• Payroll
• Ordering (food, beverage, dry goods, dining room supplies) • Private dining sales
• Private event execution
• Bar program
• Inventory
• Cash handling

Reporting structure can, and often does, evolve after opening. Below is a sample organizational chart for the management team of a mid-sized, full-service restaurant to give you an idea of positions to consider and how they interact with each other.

Establishing responsibilities — as well as the size, service style, and concept — will help you understand what hourly positions you need to hire. For a fine-dining restaurant you’ll likely have a more layered front-of-house structure, whereas a more casual, counter-service concept may require only a few people who all have similar job descriptions.

When thinking about team structure, map out a typical guest experience and take note of the individual touch points necessary to provide great service. For example, let’s say your typical guests are a group of four joining you for drinks and dinner. They will enter the restaurant to check in for their reservation, head to the bar for a cocktail, and then sit down for a multi-course dinner.

In this scenario, it’s clear you’ll need a host and floor manager to ensure guests are greeted and directed to the right place, as well as a fully-staffed bar team. Additionally, multi-course dinner service means many touch points with each table, which require support staff for your servers (think runners, bussers, and sommeliers) and your culinary team (expediters, polishers, and dishwashers).

By contrast, a counter-service concept might find many of these positions wholly unnecessary. In a typical experience, these diners might simply enter and be directed by signage to a cashier to place their order. Once they’ve paid, they may receive a number to pick up their food from a window when it’s ready and have no further interaction with the restaurant staff.

In this scenario, unlike the previous, there isn’t need for much service or support staff, only cashiers, cooks, dishwashers, and a floor manager to facilitate.

There is no “one size fits all” guide to how to staff your concept, as each one varies. As a best practice, simulate service and ensure that each touch point with a guest is covered by a particular staff member equipped to deliver a great experience. Here are some roles to consider:

Define Your Position

Be clear and honest about your strengths, availability, and the role you plan to fill at your restaurant. This is one of the most important steps in figuring out who to surround yourself with.

Will Beckett, Founder & Owner of Underdog Restaurants (parent company of The Hawksmoor) in the U.K., says, “Irrespective of who you are and how much experience you have, there is stuff that you’re really good at and there’s stuff that you are not. And you need to be able to plug those gaps straight away.”

If you’re a chef but you don’t know much about the front of the house or running a business, your first priority will be to find a General Manager who is dedicated to your vision, is experienced in running a front-of-house team, and has strong business sensibilities. Don’t assume you’ll be able to perform major functions that you have no experience with. Conversely, if your strengths are business and operations, but your knife skills aren’t particularly notable, you’ll want to find a chef very early in the process.

Recruit the Right People

Once you’re crystal clear on what you’re looking for, start finding candidates. Earlier is better than later. Thoughtfully written job ads and the channels you choose to circulate them through will also serve as filters.

Timing

Start your search for managers before you look for hourly employees. Key positions like chefs and General Managers should be brought on two to four months before opening day, meaning you’ll need to start posting job ads, planting the seed with your peers, and working your network four to six months in advance.

What’s the point of paying your two most expensive people before your doors even open? It all comes back to culture. Will says, “You need that opportunity to spend time together getting on the same page with the kind of restaurant you’re going to open and making sure the relationship is good and that it’s trustworthy.”

Hiring individuals at the top of your leadership structure is much more than just checking a box. Chefs and General Managers need to be aligned with your brand, share your values, and believe in your vision. It’s particularly important to find a chef early on so they have enough time to develop a menu you’re both happy with, test that menu, and work with your design team on laying out the kitchen.

Hourly employees can be brought on later in the game, but leave your new employees with time to give respectful notice to their current employer and be on board in time for pre- opening staff training. Bringing on a couple of servers or cooks to fill open positions is very different from onboarding a new team from scratch. Starting early and being honest with candidates about the fact that your timeline may shift a bit is better than starting late and having to hire bodies rather than individuals who are an ideal fit for your restaurant.

Job Ads

The ads that you post should include keywords describing your company culture as well as your restaurant’s concept, style of service, projected opening date, and any relevant specifics regarding job description and schedule requirements. Incorporate the legwork you’ve done to define your brand and the type of person you’re looking for to build ads that look and sound unique to your project.

Ads should be professionally presented and shared through multiple channels, such as online job boards and social media. Getting the word out among your network is also one of the most important ways of recruiting great employees.

Let your friends in the industry know you’re on the hunt for an awesome opening team and extend your outreach beyond your immediate market. People in the restaurant industry are always on the move, and you want your entire rolodex to be aware that you’re looking to meet great candidates. Once you start hiring your first team members, encourage them to invite their peers to apply — these introductions are great ways to find good people efficiently.

Interviewing

Effective interviewing is the key to finding top performers for your restaurant — don’t rely on first impressions or gut reactions. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Develop a Core Set of Interview Questions

Assemble a thoughtful list of questions designed to determine whether a candidate shares your values and uncover details of their professional experiences. Often, the best way to do this is to work backwards. Figure out the five most important qualities you want a candidate to possess, then design questions that will allow them to demonstrate each one.

The Hawksmoor looks for front-of-house employees who are passionate about food and drink. This may seem like an obvious quality to require, but for many restaurants it actually isn’t a top priority for front-of-house employees.

Asking candidates questions about the role that food plays in their lives or having them describe favorite dishes and pairings is a great way to gauge interest. The content of their answer is much less important indicator than the emotion with which they deliver it.

If teamwork is a value that ranks high on your list, think of everyday situations that demonstrate teamwork and then come up with questions that provide candidates the opportunity to talk about those things. I always like to ask interviewees what makes a shift feel fun and rewarding versus a shift that feels disappointing or frustrating. Usually, candidates who have a natural tendency towards teamwork will demonstrate that by telling you about busy nights in which everyone has to support each other to get through. Always ask candidates to give you specific examples so that you’re more likely to get a real answer.

Will recommends asking candidates situational questions based on past experiences as opposed to asking how they would deal with a hypothetical problem. He says, “People are way less inclined to try and work out what you want them to say when you’re asking about the past and they’re way more likely to give you an answer that’s representative of how you can expect them to behave.”

Coming up with unique questions will help you determine fit and also increase the likelihood that you’re getting genuine answers from the people you’re interviewing.
An efficient interviewing process also demonstrates your level of professionalism to applicants and gives you more objective criteria for evaluating them. If someone is a total rockstar when it comes to knowledge but comes across as selfish and not a team player, it’s best that you pass and look for someone who more closely aligns with your mission and values.

Make Interviewing a Two-Way Street

Never forget that candidates are also evaluating you. Show up on time, read their resume beforehand, and dress appropriately — it will go a long way in creating a strong impression of what they can expect if they come on board. Always put your best foot forward so that when you come across great candidates, you’re able to hire them.

Alex Seidel explains that giving every candidate the opportunity to interview his team first is one of the most important steps in their hiring process. “We want people to analyze our culture, our philosophy, the environment, the people that they’ll be working next to, their superiors, so that we can ask them — is this an environment that you want to be in? Hiring someone for any position is a commitment and it’s an understanding on both sides of what our collective goals are.”

Get More Than One Opinion

Passing over a great candidate can be as big of a loss as hiring a bad one, so take more than one person’s opinion into account. Managers should sync up between interviews to highlight any areas of concern for others to investigate further. That way you know hiring managers all have buy- in. Everyone who conducts interviews should take notes

— especially for an opening team, because you’ll be meeting with applicants constantly. It’s easy to forget how you felt about someone or confuse them with a different person when you’re in the throes of pre-opening onboarding.

Assembling Your Team

When it comes to assembling a team, diversity is your friend; this applies to knowledge, skill set, past experience, and personality. Pay attention to balance as you bring people on board, as a diverse and dynamic staff helps everyone to learn from one another. Be wary of hiring too many people from the same restaurant or company.

Aim for Balance

Having a team of great people won’t do you any good if they’re all great in the exact same way.

Check References

Ask every candidate you’re seriously considering to provide you with three professional references. Let the applicant know up front that you will need to hear back from at least two of them in order to move forward with the hiring process. No matter how great someone seems or how strongly you connected with them, do not skip this step. Hiring someone is a commitment to a relationship. Know

Check References

Ask every candidate you’re seriously considering to provide you with three professional references. Let the applicant know up front that you will need to hear back from at least two of them in order to move forward with the hiring process. No matter how great someone seems or how strongly you connected with them, do not skip this step. Hiring someone is a commitment to a relationship. Know what you’re looking for and be clear with that person about your goals. Give them an opportunity to figure out if you have what they need to grow as an individual.

Mark Canlis, co-owner of Canlis in Seattle, holds this principle above all else. He says, “If you’re not willing to enter into a relationship, then you’re just faking it. Each employee is a relationship, and relationships are hard. They can be tricky and they can be messy and they can be time consuming and they can be rewarding and they can be fulfilling and they can be rejuvenating and restorative, but they always take a lot of work.”

The process of building your team is all about ensuring that you’re selecting people whom you’re excited to do that kind of work with.

Key Takeaways

1. Invest time in identifying what exactly you’re looking for in prospective employees before you begin the hiring process. Know what values, character traits, and skills your team will need to have in order to make your vision a reality.

2. Prioritize soft skills when hiring. Teaching someone how to clear a table is easy, but teaching them to have a different attitude is almost always impossible.

3. Define your role. Be honest about your areas of expertise and create realistic expectations around what you’ll be contributing to the restaurant on a day-to-day basis, then hire your leadership team based on the gaps you can’t reasonably fill.

4. Create a hiring strategy. Make sure your recruiting, interviewing, and onboarding strategy is intentional, universally understood, and thorough.

5. Understand that employment is a relationship. It has to be a good fit for everyone involved, and both sides need to be working towards the same goal to be successful.

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