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Industry insider: 7 tips for training a superb restaurant staff

There’s no two ways about it, staff members represent the face of a restaurant – it’s their smiles that appease the picky customers, and their presentation that makes a gourmet special a house hit. Considering they can make or break a business, staff training is a top priority.

But how do you go about it? Of course, certain elements of successful recruitment and training are just good old common sense. For example, before you would get started, it’s important to decide what good service means for you. What are you looking for – a good sales person? A great host? These requirements will determine the type of roles you need and the kind of people that should be employed. Other important steps would be to do a thorough background check on every potential employee (to prevent the risk of the dreaded job-hopper, for one reason), and also to lead by example – staff members are likely to be more responsive if they see you taking an active role in the training process.

As for more specific advice, we asked some successful local restaurateurs about their staff training programs and tried-and-tested approaches to finding and developing valued staff members.

1) Hire the right person for your brand

Pay attention to applicants whose personalities complement both the concept and values that you hope to represent. For Karen Dudley, the owner of The Kitchen and The Dining Room in Woodstock, Cape Town, it’s all about hiring someone who is invested in her vision. “I want someone who is friendly and chooses to come to work because they love what we do. They need to buy into our philosophy,” she says.

Staff at The Kitchen. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

Staff at The Kitchen. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

2) Introduce a structured training schedule

A highly organised, almost ritualistic training program will ensure that new staff members (and those training them) won’t feel overwhelmed. It helps if training is divided into structured sessions where all aspects of service are detailed. Paolo Carrara, co-owner of Meloncino in Cape Town, conducts a thorough training schedule where new employees are required to complete seven individual training shifts and ace a test. “On completion of training the employee will go home and study for the test, for which they must score over 90%. The test covers everything from service and menu item descriptions to what happens if there is a complaint.” Trainees who score 60-90% are eligible for a rewrite and must complete two extra training days. Those who get below 60% are dismissed.

Staff in the kitchen at Meloncino. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

Staff in the kitchen at Meloncino. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

3) Make training an on-going process

It’s important that your staff understand that training never really ends. The restaurant industry is constantly evolving and there is something to be learnt every day. Luca Borella, owner of Luca’s Ristorante Italiano in Sunninghill, Johannesburg, communicates the importance of continual training by keeping his staff motivated and up-to-date with the latest industry trends. He does this by arranging regular coaching sessions: “If we introduce a new product, we often bring in the supplier to tell our staff about the product. Knowledge is important,” he says.

4) Hold open forums and regular staff meetings

Reduce turnover by giving your staff a voice. Ian Halfon, managing director of the Slick Restaurant Group (which includes Balducci’s, Balducci’s Royal Sushi Bar, Belthazar and Gibson’s Gourmet Burgers & Ribs) believes there is great value in employee feedback. “99% of the time we get our most valuable information from our service ambassadors – it’s what helps us grow.” Along with incorporating a suggestion box, Ian holds 10 to 15-minute staff meetings after every shift to address issues, discuss new ideas and assess customer feedback.

5) Play to an individual’s strengths

It’s often more productive for restaurant owners to focus on what their staff are good at, rather than zero in on their weaknesses. Although implementing a thorough training schedule should equip your employees with enough knowledge to fulfil their duties, everyone has areas where they excel or fall short. Karen of The Kitchen believes that each of her employees is a part of the whole picture: “It’s my job to find out where they are going to be strong,” she says.

6) Evaluate individual performances

Stop bad habits in their tracks or reward good performance by conducting performance evaluations for all of your staff. It may take a bit more effort (and time) on your side, but keep in mind that it takes one compliment to change a person’s entire attitude. Robynne Savic of Butcher’s Block Steakhouse in Durban says keeping a smaller, select group of staff – a “close-knit family” – allows her to give each of them individual attention during and after the training process.

The interior of the Butcher's Block. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

The interior of the Butcher’s Block. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

7) Uplift and inspire

There are many ways to reward good work other than simply handing over the paycheck. Ian Halfon of the Slick Restaurant Group treats his staff to team-building activities and outings to wine farms, while Luca Borella believes that promoting staff within the company shows them that hard work reaps great rewards.

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