Restaurateur Kwini Reed wears a smile around her neck.
Her jeweler made the necklace for her after Reed said she wished people could see her smile while she wore a mask. The charm is an apt icon for the co-owner of Poppy & Rose and Poppy & Seed, a pair of restaurants in the Los Angeles area. Reed wields the power of positive energy to uplift both her employees and the community.
She spoke at the LA Chef Conference about a restaurant’s responsibility to its team and its community. Her perspective on making wherever you live and work a better place can light the way for restaurateurs who want to follow her lead.
How to make a happy team:
The way Reed sees it, without employees, there would be very few restaurants. “You need to see them as treasures,” says Reed. Here’s how she makes them understand how much she values them.
Make vacation mandatory
As soon as they’re hired, new managers at her restaurants are asked to plan their vacation. “I tell them, we’re going to be away for two weeks in July, and I need to plan your time off, too, even if it’s a staycation,” she says.
She says vacations are non-negotiable and she never turns down a PTO request. Planning is key, though, so everyone can have their time without leaving the business in the lurch. “Time off is important to creativity,” she says.
Bring your kid to work, any day
Childcare poses a challenge to parents when schools and daycare centers close or babysitters don’t show up. When that happens, many employees have to miss a day of work to take care of their kids. Reed doesn’t want that to happen in her restaurants.
“If you can’t find childcare for your kid, bring them to the restaurant and we’ll figure it out,” she tells employees. Reed has personally jumped in to watch a child, but often the whole team pitches in to keep them entertained. “Kids aren’t a nuisance. Sometimes they even help out,” she says.
Consider the whole person
Reed urges her people to have a rich, full life outside of work. That means spending plenty of time with family, pursuing hobbies, taking classes, or doing anything else they feel called to do. “We’re getting back to the human side of restaurants. We see employees as whole human beings, not just people working for us,” she says.
This approach benefits the restaurant as much as it does employees. “It’s almost selfish. If you can’t experience life, you aren’t in the mood to be hospitable when you come to work.” Salaries, time off policies, bonuses, and workplace culture are all designed to support whole people, not just the worker side of an employee.
All restaurants think about marketing to guests and potential guests. Reed says restaurants must market internally, too. “Our brand is kindness, and we have to market our brand to our team as well.”
Boxes of positive affirmations sit on each table, and Reed finds herself constantly affirming the team. “What works best is telling them that they are doing great,” she says. She’s also taken the whole team to a baseball game or for a group dinner at a new restaurant to show the restaurant group’s brand in action. “Affirming the team has caused them to stick around and believe in us and themselves,” she says.
Support mental health
“Most of our people are already in therapy,” says Reed. But if they aren’t, there’s a policy in place that connects people who need it with mental health resources. Additionally, good old-fashioned mental health days are encouraged.
“I can tell when someone is drained, and I really urge them to take a break to make sure they stay mentally healthy,” she says.
One of the best gifts a restaurant can give its employees is a feeling of pride and accomplishment. “It starts from the top,” says Reed. “When people are proud of what the owners are doing, because we practice what we preach, it shows. When people are proud of the high quality of the food and experience we deliver, it gives them something to feel good about standing behind,” she says.
How to help the community:
Increasingly, restaurants are committed to community service, and this is especially true for Reed. Here are some examples of how she sends positivity, care, and compassion out in tangible ways.
Feed the food insecure
LA’s flower district, Poppy & Rose’s home turf, gets quiet at night. During the pandemic the streets filled with tents and displaced families, unhoused people that made Reed feel the need to feed the food insecure. “We started by giving food to the people right outside our door,” she says.
Over the past few years, this has continued but the restaurant now also partners with other organizations to fight food insecurity, including Brown Bag Lady and No Kid Hungry. “We’re taking it a step further now,” she says.
Teach and train
Reed and her husband and partner, chef Michael Reed, founded a nonprofit, The You and I Coalition. It’s a teaching kitchen with a mission to train anyone with a passion for hospitality to succeed at a high level in the industry.
The plan is to reach formerly incarcerated people, kids coming out of the foster care system, women fleeing domestic violence, and people living in poverty.
“It’s really for anyone who needs a second chance,” says Reed. The teaching kitchen is in the final stages of approvals, planning, and certification and should be up and running next spring.
Those ambitious initiatives will have outsized positive impacts on the people they touch, but Reed believes the smaller ways a restaurant can positively affect its community count for a lot too. She sees every guest as a way to make the community a little brighter.
“The one thing that can heal and change people’s mood is food,” says Reed.
Reed doesn’t see any of these forms of care and service as a hindrance to growing a profitable restaurant group. In fact, she believes it has helped the business’s revenue grow. People tell her they want to dine at her restaurants because of the work she and her husband do in the community.
“When you support your community they will support you.”