A headshot of Monte Silva.

Don't let your most important employees burn out.

Introducing ‘The Convertible Culture’ in Restaurants, and Why it All Starts with the Top Down

There is no great company culture unless it’s first demonstrated by how corporate treats the managers and chefs.

Editor's note: This is the sixth article in a new column from restaurant expert Monte Silva. More on the series can be found here. The first story, on Why Underpaying Restaurant Employees is a Recipe for Disaster, is here. The second, on Why Marketing is Not Expensive, is here. The third, on people-centric leadership, is here. The fourth, on Why Working 70-Hour Weeks in Your Restaurant is Not the Answer, is here. And the fifth, on How to Provide Hospitality in a High-Tech, Low-Touch World, is here.

Five years ago, on my wife’s and I’s 10th anniversary, we took a week off to go to Southern California. My wife, Anita, is from Ohio and had never been to southern California. So, I decided to rent a convertible mustang. We are approaching our 15th     anniversary next month and I was recently reminiscing that 10-year anniversary trip. A couple of days after that, I came up with a culture concept I call “The Convertible Culture.” I named the concept this because, like the Mustang we rented, you have to drive culture with the top down. 

Here is what I mean. To have a great culture, it starts with great leadership at the corporate level. You can’t write a bunch of touchy, feely stuff on a wall or in a handbook and expect your managers and chefs to champion this new mission statement if you don’t first prioritize taking care of your managers and chefs.

So what about the restaurant manager and chef? Unless you live under a rock, you know that there is a mass exodus of hourly employees leaving the hospitality industry. We have been talking about it for over two years. Many hospitality thought leaders, including myself, have recorded videos and written blogs and articles about how we need to rethink culture, compensation, benefits, and workloads of hourly employees. 

But, what about the restaurant managers and chefs? Out of the millions of hospitality employees that have left the industry, how many were managers and chefs? For the same last 40 years that hourly employees have worked in a very difficult industry … so have the managers and chefs.

In fact, I argue that managers and chefs have had a tougher time  over the last 40 years. But, who is speaking out on their behalf? I will! Managers and chefs over the last 40 years have:

  • Worked 60–70-plus hours a week with no extra compensation
  • Worked every holiday rather than being with family and friends
  • Missed weddings, birthdays, kids sporting events because they worked every weekend, had to please and serve thousands of guests, hundreds of employees, and bosses every week with no reciprocation and little appreciation.
  • Often made less than their hourly employees while working twice as many hours
  • Never called out sick
  • Were always on call with no real days off
  • Lived very stressful lifestyles often resulting in poor health, addiction, and divorce

Are we going to change the way we treat them? Are we going to change the way we provide work/life balance? Are we going to change the way we compensate them? Are we going to drive convertible culture with the top down?

I took a vacation to Maui once. And, on that trip I hiked up to the 7 Sacred Pools. Seven pools and waterfalls dipped into each other starting at the top. If one pool didn’t cascade into the next, the pools below would eventually dry up. If the first pool didn’t get rain, it would dry up as well. And just as importantly. If one pool didn’t flow to the next, eventually bacteria would grow because the water in that pool would become stagnant. 

I bring this story up because the 7 sacred pools are like culture. Let me explain starting with the pool at the bottom. If our hourly employees aren’t being poured into by their managers, they can’t pour into the guest. However, if the managers aren’t being poured into by the corporate office, then they can’t pour into their people. These managers become stagnant and eventually dry out and have nothing left to give to their people.

So, convertible culture like the convertible Mustang has to start with the top down. There is no great company culture unless it’s first demonstrated by how corporate treats the managers and chefs. Like the 7 sacred pools, if the managers dry up or become stagnant because the corporate executives don’t take care of them, they won’t be able to pour into their people who intern pour into the guest. So, culture has to come from the top and must be distributed first to the managers and chefs if they ever want to see great culture in the restaurants.