Southern Belle owner Joey Ward.
Southern Belle

Joey Ward implemented a new business model that he shares with peers and colleagues who may be inspired to adopt similar changes to help move the industry forward.

Southern Belle Puts Employees First with New Benefits

Southern Belle + Georgia Boy chef and owner Joey Ward did not set out to be a shining knight sent to save the restaurant industry; however, when the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the systemic economic and social problems inherent in the industry, he made it his mission to provide his employees and teammates with a renewed vision of what the industry could and should look like.

“There are so many great aspects of working in this industry,” says Ward. “It’s exciting, it’s fast-paced and we get to meet and serve so many wonderful people on a daily basis, but the parts that weren’t so great were taking a toll on the people and the industry as a whole. I hope little by little, we’ll start seeing big changes for the better.”

As a result of the revelations exposed by the pandemic, Ward has implemented a new business model that he shares with peers and colleagues who may be inspired to adopt similar changes to help move the industry forward.

Among the changes Ward has implemented at his restaurants are:

Providing fair compensation

In Georgia, kitchen and stewarding employees are traditionally paid an hourly rate, often minimum wage, regardless of how busy the restaurant is. Wait staff, on the other hand, earn a much lower hourly wage, or “tip credit,” plus tips. The back-of-house employees make the same wage regardless of how busy the restaurant is while the front-of-house employees may earn much more on busy nights or next to nothing if the business is slow. This disparity often leads to resentment among employees.

With the relaxing of tip-sharing laws after the pandemic, Ward implemented an “All for One” compensation model where every hourly employee, whether front- or back-of-house, makes $10 per hour ($.2.75 above the state minimum non-tipped wage). Additionally, all hourly employees receive one point in the communal tip pool, which now averages about $25 per hour. Stewards make $16 per hour and receive a 0.5-point share of the tip pool, and now average about $23 per hour. This is a win-win for all employees because the busier the restaurant is and the harder everyone works, the more they are compensated. The hostility among employees also is eliminated.

Reducing the number of hours and days worked

Before the pandemic, Ward’s restaurants were open six days a week with many employees working more than 70 hours a week while barely squeaking by both financially, physically, and mentally. With restaurants closed during the pandemic, many employees left the restaurant business to make better livings with fewer hours in other industries. When restaurants re-opened, Ward revamped his schedule to have the restaurants open for three days of service (Thursday-Saturday) with a half day of prep and administration for hourly employees. This abbreviated schedule ensured the team was fresh, well-rested, and performed at their highest potential. To make the reduced schedule financially feasible, Ward had to increase the dollar amount coming in per guest and revamped Southern Belle’s style of service from an a la carte menu to a four-course tasting menu. This not only increased the amount coming in per guest, but it also provided a menu that was easier to execute for both kitchen and wait staff. Ward also compensates for the reduced number of operating days and brings in additional revenue with monthly events such as wine tastings and guest chef dinners.

Implementing service-inclusive pricing

To continue providing a spectacular guest experience with world-class food and service and also improve the overall direction of the industry and the well-being and livelihood of his employees, Ward implemented a tipless business model where menu prices include the gratuity typically left by guests. The overall price of dining at Southern Belle + Georgia Boy was unaltered as the price remained in line with the average tips his team garnered over the last two years. This allowed Ward to continue to provide reliable and equitable compensation and pave the way for opportunities to expand employee benefits. 

Being the boss people want to work for

A previous employer and mentor of Ward’s once told him that if the cooks are comfortable and happy at work, the food will taste better. It is now his goal to inspire, encourage, motivate, and teach his team rather than intimidate and belittle. He keeps a light-hearted demeanor at work, tries to turn mistakes into teaching moments, and shows his appreciation for all employees. Ward has put a strong focus on mental health and strives to provide a healthy and safe environment that includes a no-shift drink policy, taking much-needed time off by offering two weeks of paid vacation for all employees, and promoting a healthy work/life balance. Southern Belle also hosts the Atlanta chapter of Ben’s Friends meetings each Sunday, a non-profit support group providing addiction help for those in the service industry. 

“I believe that everyone employed at our restaurant should (actually) like being here, says Ward. “I spend as much time with my coworkers as I do with my own family, so why should they not be treated as such? This may seem like a simple concept, but it is often overlooked in the business.”

A first-time small business owner, Ward has experienced firsthand all that is great about the restaurant industry and now, since the pandemic, what was not working. “One thing is for sure, what we were doing pre-pandemic was not working,” says Ward. “I hope that in at least some small way, my story inspires others to make a difference in their own businesses and ultimately the entire industry.”

News and information presented in this release has not been corroborated by WTWH Media LLC.