More money, flexibility are tempting lures for wait staff

Friday, September 8, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 36
By Hollie Deese

Holding the Southeast IPA made in house at Tailgate Brewery is owner and brewmaster Wesley Keegan.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Chances are if you’ve eaten out in some of Nashville’s hottest spots over the past 14 years or so, you’ve had the pleasure of being served by Kris Koon.

His first gig was at Carrabba’s, but it wasn’t long before he was working at Rumours Wine and Art Bar in the then barely burgeoning 12South neighborhood back in 2003, a job he says he is still recognized for almost daily.

“It is probably my favorite job of my life, I would imagine,” Koon says. He paid $350 in rent a few blocks from work, and the area was electric with change for him and Nashville. “I definitely felt that was the beginning of me feeling like, ‘OK, I can...’ Having come from a church background, feeling like you’re part of that community was really important. I don’t know if you can feel more of a community than what Rumours had.”

He moved on to City House, then worked for Bob Bernstein for a bit before going to Burger Up. He has spent the past five years at Lockeland Table in East Nashville.

He hasn’t made any career move lightly and has loved each place because of how it worked within his life at the time. It has always been about more than money for him, though he is glad he usually pulls in a lot more than the $60 “good nights” he had during his Carrabba’s days.

“I’m not going to leave a place that’s really respected, like City House or Burger Up, or any place that I’ve been honestly, unless there’s like something super valuable on the other end,” Koon adds. “Whether it be more flexibility or, of course, more money.”

Happy where he is now, he has still been recruited for three different gigs in just the past two months, one for management, one for another field in the hospitality industry and yet another at a bar just two blocks from his house.

“All of which, honestly, sound like great jobs, but I don’t know if I can leave where I am now,” he explains.

Lockeland hits all the sweet spots right now for Koon. He makes good money, he has the freedom to pursue other interests like music and travel ­– he just got back from Oaxaca, Mexico – and he says he believes he is making an impact on his own community.

“I’ve always said that you run the danger, being a server, of feeling like a robot that might just bring people things, unless you can find that sweet spot where you feel like you’re actually really connected to the community, like you’re doing more than just bringing people things,” Koon says.

“You’re able to actually be a part of people’s lives and make friends and connections.”

Creating a culture

Community Hospitality owns Prima, Josephine and Burger Up, all of which opened in the past six years. Each restaurant needs anywhere from 30 to 65 employees. Chris Neese, chief operating officer, says during that time they have seen housing go up and the cost of living go up, so people who would generally take those jobs, especially the kitchen jobs, don’t have many places to live. They have had to adjust accordingly.

“So, what we’ve seen in that period of time is really, in the last two years, a pretty dramatic increase in payroll in order to one, acquire quality talent, and two, for them to be able to live in the market,” Neese adds.

The company has had to think about short- and long-term solutions. One idea was to partner with the Nashville Chamber of Commerce on a plan that has all the restaurant groups in the city working together to attract and train quality talent, and then competing for that talent in the workplace. Another is working with Metro Public Schools and the career academy program. They are also a partner in the Hillwood High Culinary program.

The goal is to have chefs actually teach in the program along with having interns or apprenticeship opportunities for students in high school and college.

“Our hope is to be able to use our facilities and our chefs and our knowledge to help educate these kids on what a quality career can be had in the hospitality field,” Neese points out.

Neese says retention goes hand in hand with an employee-friendly philosophy.

“We pay well,” Neese says. “We were offering benefits before the law required us to. We were offering health care. At Burger Up, for instance, there are so many people that are in bands, that are artists and we recognize that this job serving or cooking or bartending is not their dream.

“They’re chasing their dreams and this is just a means for them to get there. So, we respect that, and they always have a home when they come off tour. They can go do what they need to do, chase their dreams, and they’re going to have a home when they get back.”

Neese says Community Hospitality considers it an obligation as employers to be a positive part of their community as employees.

“If you start there and you are good to that community, then it’s going to translate into smiles at the dinner table,” Neese adds.

Specific skills hard to staff

Wesley Keegan, owner and brew master of Tailgate Brewery, brought his 11-year-old brewery to Nashville from San Diego three years ago. He started it himself without investors while the economy was in a downward spiral, motivated by the need not to fail. That pressure mounted when he moved to Nashville just as the brewing industry was blowing up.

“The growth in Nashville is definitely a blessing but it comes with the cost of being expected to perform,” Keegan says. “If we weren’t putting out a quality product, growth isn’t going to carry us.”

Keegan currently has a little more than 80 employees. While he doesn’t hire every single person anymore, his top concerns when bringing people in are quality and the culture that breeds. The quality as it applies to customer service, the quality of the beer and the quality of the food. And that costs money.

“If they share our ideal they are going to be paid great,” he acknowledges. “We offer benefits to every single employee. We even pay part of or most of their benefits for senior employees. And those are unique within the food and the beer industry. It’s probably less than 5 percent of the beer industry that offers benefits at all. My job is to pay you well so that you can go home and you can have a great quality of life and be focused when you’re at work.”

Breweries attract a certain number of people passionate about the product, and that helps deter turnover. But you have to find those people in the first place. The area’s current growth is bringing more people to the market though with an advanced craft beer background. Keegan is willing to pay for that experience.

“We have to show that our people are valued,” Keegan points out. “We’re such a young craft beer market, it’s not so much as there’s not [enough] people as there’s not experienced people. It’s tough to get experienced brewers when there’s not a lot of breweries. Our challenge is finding the difference between somebody who likes to drink beer and somebody who understands the career of brewing.”

“Almost everybody that’s in charge has been with me since the very beginning. And they’ve grown from an entry-level position,” Keegan says. “You look at any article about the top 500 companies to work for in the U.S. and they’re all doing the same things. I can certainly offer someone more money than they’re making somewhere else. But if we’re a hit place to work and they never get to see their kids on the weekend, they’re not going to want to work for us.”

“The little perks matter,” Keegan continues. “The humanity matters. I’ve got to make sure that they feel appreciated. We have to treat each other with some modicum of professional respect. And the personal relationships follow.”

Money can be an issue for employers, though, especially when they are up against deep pockets. So, offering other perks can tip the scales in their favor.

“It’s tough when you can’t pay the kind of money that the big places can pay, so you try to make it a great place to work. And, if they want to learn things, if they want to learn this cuisine then I feel like I’m pretty confident in that I could show you how to cook this food,” Nick Pellegrino of Mangia says.

Even at Burger Up there’s a skillset that you have to have or learn in order to be able to execute in the kitchen. And because five years ago there weren’t that many restaurants in Nashville, those places were basically having to teach these skills to a whole new workforce.

Nick Pellegrino stirs up some pasta and sauce in the kitchen of Mangia Nashville.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“Nashville has just historically never had a large quantity of those types of restaurants, and now you’ve got an abundance of them,” Neese explains. “So not much of a skilled workforce, but a ton of demand. And it’s just not that easy. When you’re constantly having to hire and train and hire and train, what happens is you’re not able to train effectively because you’re constantly hiring.”

Todd Varallo faces a specific challenge when it comes to staffing the state’s oldest restaurant, Varallo’s Chili Parlor, and that is offering adequate and affordable parking downtown. He has a small staff of five with most positions filled by people who have been in place for years, in some cases decades.

But one position he can’t seem to keep filled is dishwasher, and it has only gotten harder in the past few years. Parking is a big part of the problem as employees with cars just can’t afford the $20-plus per day parking fee. Varallo himself pays $135 a month to park near his business, and he picks up one of his employees on the way in each day.

“Most of them have to ride the bus,” Varallo says. “And then you’re dependent upon the bus.”

It’s a tight ship for the rest of the staff too, and if one of them is sick the others really feel it.

“What hurts for me is I’m only open breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, so we’re not doing weekends or dinners,” Varallo adds.

“You don’t have multiple employees that you can rotate, so if somebody doesn’t show up, you can’t call another one. You’re kind of dependent upon what you have.”

Construction has been a big barrier to customers finding parking as well with four hotels going up on the block near his small chili parlor, but he has found it to have its plusses.

“All the construction workers eat,” he says.

A Tinder mindset

Just like younger people have been able to swipe right on dates, they can currently do the same with restaurant gigs. There are so many you don’t have to put up with any flaws, perceived or real.

“They’re more likely to want immediate gratification,” says Kathleen Hawkins, president of the Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce. “The millennial demographics have the entitlement piece of the puzzle, too.

“They’re job-hopping more frequently. That creates a whole other training problem from a human resources perspective. Because you don’t even have a chance to really train people enough to increase their pay or to give them the raise that they’re looking for, because there’s not stability there.”

Hawkins says she has had chamber members complain that there is a hospitality work culture in which employees call in whenever they want to call in, or just don’t show up. “So, they’re having to really look at management, and how you manage a staff 15 years ago is not how you manage a staff today,” Hawkins explains.

“How do you reward the ones for doing what you need them to do, and retaining them and trying to elevate them to the next level,’’ she asks.

Her own teen daughter works at Panera Bread, where the majority of the workforce are other teenagers. The starting pay was a bit higher than minimum wage, but the owner also offered creative scheduling and a great discount program.

“You really have to figure out how to make your place cool so people want to be there,” Hawkins adds. “How to reward your employees so you can retain them. And how to recognize and motivate millennials.”

Finding the right fit

Koon’s education is primarily in religion, and he was only six hours from earning a master’s in theology before realizing it wasn’t for him.

Hospitality offered him a chance to enter a career he liked and move up quickly while pursuing other interests at the same time.

“I think you’re either made for it or you aren’t,” Koon says. “If you like people and you like to work, you can excel fairly quickly.’’

He’s the kind of dream employee today’s restaurant owners are looking for – he takes his job seriously but still holds other interests that make staying on staff much more appealing than leaving to open his own restaurant.

Pellegrino tries to make Mangia a good environment and offers flexibility to his staff. With his own musical background, he found the same flexibility when he was an employee of Tom Morales’ TomKats Catering back in the 90s while gigging. But he also wants people working for him who do want to run their own restaurant one day.

“Talk about a great place to work,” he recalls. “Tom Morales would always make people feel like they were part of something. And that’s what I want people to feel like here, that they’re part of something really cool that’s happening.

“There’s no shortage of people who’ll work food jobs, but there’s definitely a shortage of the people that want to be career chefs and want to do their own thing one day. And I want those people, I want the people that want to do their own thing.”

Dan Piotrowski, general manager at the Omni Hotel downtown, says his staff likes to promote the hotel’s culture as a place to grow first and foremost when hiring. They want people who want to stay and become a part of it.

“Our saying is, we don’t hire for the position, we hire for the next position,” Piotrowski says.

“What we offer is career growth opportunity. Hopefully someone who’s looking for more than just a job but a career in hospitality.”

They are also able to offer schedule flexibility because they need people 24/7, 365 days a year.

The opportunity to grow within the company is high thanks to employees feeling empowered. The 700+ associates are supervised by 60 or 70 managers, leaving them to make their own decisions to make the guests’ experience genuine and authentic.

“They appreciate that,” Piotrowski adds. “They feel like they have a direct impact on somebody’s stay in Nashville. I don’t know if all industries can say that, and that’s something that’s really fun and exciting.”

Some of the benefits that come with the Omni is travel with the opportunity to stay at other Omni hotels for steeply discounted prices which gives them the ability to take their family on some vacations they might not otherwise be able to afford.

And they offer the potential to go into several different career paths under one roof, including finance, accounting, sales, human resources, engineering, mechanics and more.

But as a new hotel supply is coming online, Pietrowski says wages will continue to increase to remain competitive. But they still rely on their culture to keep employees.

“There’s been hotels that have opened up over the course of the last year,” Pietrowski notes. “We’ve lost very few associates to those hotels and we’re very proud of that. On many occasions, they could have left for a higher hourly wage and they chose to stay with us. We really view our culture as the main reason.”