5 ways to retain foodservice staff with a culture of caring

Brown Bag Seafood Co.

With workplace culture in the foodservice industry getting some negative attention lately, operators are being challenged to make positive changes. But there’s no widespread guidebook or toolbox for creating and managing culture. “We’re constantly learning in that space,” says Donna Lee, founder of Brown Bag Seafood Co., a four-unit fast casual in Chicago. As such, Lee has come up with several innovative ways to nurture her 80 employees and foster a culture of caring. Here’s how she put five of these ideas into practice at Brown Bag Seafood.  

Brown Bag Seafood Co.

1. Create a family tree

Brown Bag Seafood Co.

To remind team members that they are part of a work family, Lee created a family tree that hangs on the wall in each location. Attached to the tree’s branches are the names and photos of each employee. “It reinforces to the team that they’ll be treated like a family member … and is proof that we have their back,” she says. As a bonus, a new hire can immediately learn and put a face to co-workers’ names, Lee adds.

Brown Bag Seafood Co.

2. Schedule professional development training

training meeting

Some of Brown Bag Seafood’s managers are only 23 years old, and have little or no experience managing relationships between team members, says Lee. To help with that and other management skills, she schedules monthly leadership training sessions, which she follows up on with professional development trackers. “The trackers are similar to performance reviews but more personal,” says Lee. “I ask questions such as ‘How well are you executing on team initiatives?’”


3. Publish a companywide magazine

Brown Bag Seafood Co.

To recognize employees’ personal and professional successes, Lee launched Brown Bag Mag—a printed publication that gets distributed to each location. Two of her staffers act as reporters, interviewing team members and writing up their stories. For example, one writeup featured Anna, an employee who used to hate running as exercise but completed the Chicago Marathon. “Brown Bag Mag helps employees at different locations get to know each other and is another way to promote the feeling of family,” says Lee.

Brown Bag Seafood Co.

4. Conduct surveys about staff happiness


Lee regularly surveys employees for feedback, asking questions such as “Do you feel you are compensated fairly?” and “How can we improve work/life balance?” The surveys are anonymous, so answers are honest, she says.


5. Invest in people with good intentions

office employees

In this tight labor market, finding experienced team leaders and store managers is increasingly competitive. Lee uses her knowledge and past restaurant management experience as an “emotion detector” to tap people who may not have the leadership skills but do have supportive personalities. Being a “people person” is the most important trait of a leader, Lee believes. As a self-proclaimed “people person,” Lee works side by side with new hires to develop that trait and teach them hospitality by example. “I look for people with good intentions and invest in them,” she says.


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