Lots of people have talked about how restaurant life is all-consuming; coworkers become family and the spaces we work in night after night start to feel like home. No two families are the same and no two restaurants are the same. There are certain qualities and characteristics among the staff and leadership of a restaurant, both front and back, that make it distinct. This is called a restaurant’s culture and you can find it at every restaurant, regardless of level of service. Can bartenders buy diners a drink or is it not allowed? What does premeal look like? Is it serious with a lot of people taking notes or is it jovial? Is there music playing in the kitchen during prep? These are all parts of a restaurant’s culture. For hospitality job seekers, being able to recognize a culture and understanding what kind of culture you want to work in is one of the best ways to ensure that you are employed at a restaurant that you love working at. Basically, finding the right culture fit for you is one of the best ways to attain work nirvana, where you actually like what you do and where you do it.
There’s the belief that a restaurant job, is a restaurant job and it’s the same no matter where you are working. That’s not the case. I can say that because I found myself working at a restaurant with a very distinct company culture that I didn’t fit in with and it sucked. The role that I filled in that restaurant was the same role that I had at my previous job but it felt like night and day. My new role was at a restaurant where ‘turn and burn’ ruled the dining room while I prefer to let guests choose their own adventure at their tables- my motto is: hang out for hours or have an entree in a hurry; whatever you do, I am here to help you have the best experience possible. It killed me to watch guest’s faces as a server would drop the check mid-way through their dessert course because we needed the table. There is nothing wrong with this system- it just didn’t work for me and because of this, it didn’t feel right to work there. ‘This doesn’t feel right’ becomes ‘what am I doing here’ very quickly and it impacted my performance with guests and how I interacted with my coworkers and management. I shut down and became more introverted because I put my head down and worked and that’s not great for front of the house. Looking back, I realize that I should have lifted my head up and asked some questions.
Ann Rhodes, author of “Built on Values” a manifesto on how to create an enviable company culture, says that asking questions, during the interview process and during orientation, is one of the best ways that employees can make sure that they understand a company’s culture. She is also one of the original founders of JetBlue and sits on the boards of companies like P.F. Chang’s and Restoration Hardware and helps them create a culture within their teams.
She says that what’s more important than culture fit is ‘values match’; making sure that the candidate and restaurant share similar values. When looking for restaurant work it’s important to look at what you value in hospitality and dining. Do you value organic and local product? Work at a restaurant that has relationships with local producers. Do you want to increase your amount of product knowledge? Make sure you apply for a job at a place that incorporates product knowledge and education into shifts. Are you a line cook with a family and you would like to spend time with them? Work somewhere that values work life balance. If you notice that line cooks work until they’re burned out then that’s not going to be the place for you. Find a restaurant where there’s some staff members with families that they get to spend time with.
Even before accepting a position, Rhoades says that job seekers can ask their interviewer one simple question to get a sense of the restaurant’s values. “Ask what they look for when they hire,” she says. “That gives you a good sense of what that company values in their employees and in their business.” She also says that job seekers need to do their research in the form of talking to people who work for the company. It’s commonplace for businesses to ask for references when interviewing candidates, candidates in turn need to talk to people who work for the company to learn about the culture from someone who knows it first hand.
When looking for a new restaurant job it’s important to look at these factors and it’s important to revisit them over time. As you grow at a restaurant your values may change and you may need to move into a new role to fit them.
Here are some things that back of the house and front of house can look for to get an idea of the culture of the restaurant and a what they value:
Back of the House
-Is there music playing in the kitchen?
-Who generates specials? Is it collaborative or is it decided by the executive chef?
-How long have the line cooks worked there? Is there a lot of turnover?
-Do line cooks move into sous chef or chef de cuisine roles? Are those roles filled outside of the company?
-What do back of the house schedules look like? Do people usually have set days off or does it depend on what is needed?
Front of the House
-How long have servers worked there? Is there a lot of turnover?
-Have any servers ever gotten sick or needed to take some time off? How did management handle it?
-Do any servers have kids? How do they feel about their schedule?
-Have any servers ever been suspended?
-Do any servers come in to eat on their days off?