When I arrive for dinner at Korean restaurant 8 Korean BBQ, it’s barely 6pm on a Saturday evening, before tables begin filling up with diners. While at the door, I witness a moment of playful banter amongst the staff as they prepare for the impending war that is weekend dinner service.
The waiter taking my order is outstandingly familiar with the menu. He explains that the staff here, whether front or back-of-house, get to eat what’s on the menu for their staff meals, too. “Sometimes, not all the time,” he adds, when he detects the tinge of envy on my face.
But it’s good enough. I can’t help but think the camaraderie that I had just witnessed would be a lot harder to forge if not for the chance to bond over mealtimes – better yet, with good food from their own restaurant. While the staff may not be best friends for just that reason, they’re at their best when they’re friendly. And, indeed, the service I received at the restaurant was stellar.
Staff meals are important – they’re about way more than just food. As an important part of workplace culture and employee welfare, it’s vital that the F&B industry as a whole works towards improving mealtimes of employees while they’re on the job.
All the more so, given Singapore’s labour crunch in the service sphere – in fact, in the 2015 DBS BusinessClass survey, the lack of manpower was cited as one of the biggest obstacles to growth for F&B operators. While providing nutritious, restaurant-quality meals wouldn’t miraculously solve this issue, it would certainly make the F&B industry a more welcoming workplace.
Furthermore, tons of evidence suggest that happy staff treat their customers well. And what’s in it for restaurant owners? Countless studies also say that diners are willing to pay more when they’re treated better, so employers have got as much to gain as their staff!
The importance of providing employee welfare through food is also echoed by other F&B establishments in one way or another. For instance, staff at Ramen Matsuri are also given the option of having ramen from their own restaurant menu during their mealtimes; Vietnamese restaurant Wrap & Roll offers generous staff discounts.
Of course, this isn’t to say that staff should be given a free pass to whatever’s in the kitchen, from cabbage to caviar. Restaurants that provide meals for their workers almost always have policies in place – for instance, how meals are provided based on the number of hours worked in that particular shift.
Equipping your salespeople
And when front-of-house staff in particular are seen as ambassadors or salespeople of their restaurant, this adds another compelling reason to familiarize them with the menu – and what better way to do so than to taste it for themselves?
As I peruse the menu at Greenwood Fish Market, I hardly know where to start. They’ve got more kinds of fish than I’ve even heard of, from the usual Atlantic Salmon and Spanish Mackerel to USA Cobia and Patagonian Tooth Fish, and that’s just one portion of the entire selection of seafood they offer. What normal person, no matter how much of a foodie, would know the difference between all those fish?
Thankfully, the waiter does.
When I ask if he gets to pick from what’s on the menu for staff meals, he replies instantly, “Oh yes, of course! All the time!” He proceeds to dish out recommendations animatedly – his favourite of the 30-over kinds of fish that he has tried is the wolffish, which apparently has the texture of lobster. And it also happened to be the catch of the day.
Verdict: Wolffish really does have the texture of lobster.
Meanwhile, for several higher-end fine dining restaurants, staff meals are often a time for experimenting with new dishes and fine-tuning them for their eventual debut on the menu. This not only benefits the kitchen, but also lets all of the staff feel more invested in their work by allowing them to contribute, informally yet significantly, beyond their job scope.
The importance of staff meals
Sure, employees are only legally required to be given the time to consume their meals, not the meal itself. But staff meals are about more than just physical sustenance – it’s about creating a time and space for community-building, making it an extremely important part of workplace culture. Most significantly, it’s a gentle reminder that, in the words of chef Luke Armstrong of The Kitchen at Bacchanalia, “at the end of the day we are all just guys and girls trying to achieve one very special thing, and that is to have a very nice restaurant.”
After all, restaurants are in the business of feeding people. Why not start with your own staff?