Top Ops: How a Waffle Joint Progressed from Mom-And-Pop to Engagement Expert
Editor’s note: Top Ops is a monthly column that grapples with the prominent operational quandaries facing restaurateurs in the 21st century—employee retention, the rise of off-premise, etc.—and explores how top brands are employing innovative mobile and third-party solutions to tackle them.
What’s more gratifying than a griddle-fresh Belgian waffle slathered with whipped Ricotta, lemon curd, and fresh pepper nuts?
Try all of the above heaped onto a plate and hand-delivered by a server who: A) Cares about your dining experience, and B) cares about their restaurant.
Thirty years ago, these details were taken for granted; not so with the influx of the dreaded millennial generation into the ranks of restaurant frontlines. Between distracted young people and the technology that distracts them, it’s harder than ever to get our hourly workers to care about their jobs and strive to improve.
For Taste of Belgium, the burgeoning Cincinnati-based home of “The Authentic Waffle,” the response was clear: challenge accepted.
JT Riley, ToB’s director of operations, was up to the task.
Riley is a perfect storm for engagement, starting off his career in an hourly role and then working his way through the management ranks at an Irish Pub concept before settling in a director of training tech role. From there, he was snapped up by Taste of Belgium to open and helm a new location before taking over as Ops lead.
Understanding and empathizing with the frontline mindset is a crucial first step to developing an engagement platform, Riley says, and it’s the root of the first of his three strategies for engaging the heck out of hourly workers.
1. Make work more than a way to pay the bills.
Fundamentally, work fulfills the basics of the hierarchy of needs: it allows us to provide for ourselves and our families. But this is far from the entire story, and the best employees derive much more from their jobs than just a payslip.
Elevating work to something meaningful is easier said than done, but Riley has a recipe.
“When I speak to employees who are bought in and believe in the company, they value a brand that values them—a brand that knows who they are,” he says. “And it’s a two-way street: we get to know them by keeping them engaged in what Taste of Belgium is doing, really getting them involved in who we are and what we do.”
In practice, this means that ToB employees have clout: they take part in company decisions, helping to decide on new specials and even creating and pitching menu items.
They are also the face of Taste of Belgium to the broader community: when locations host monthly charity happy hours, servers and bartenders can volunteer to cover shifts for organizations that are close to home.
2. Don’t just focus on the upper crust.
Most organizations have a performance based incentive structure in place—for managers.
That’s a big caveat, because as Riley puts it, “the people who go unnoticed are the people on the ground actually making those goals happen.”
That means kudos—whether delivered verbally or via tangible reward—can’t flow exclusively to the top of the unit hierarchy. Rewards and recognition must be delivered to the frontline workers who are interacting with guests on a day-to-day basis.
“People want to work where they feel valued—they want to hear ‘great job on this, great job on that, and can you work on these things?’” Riley says.
To this end, ToB has committed to multiple avenues of rewarding frontline employees. After analyzing sales figures from last year, they are assigning each location 15 specific days on which to exceed historical sales. If the restaurants nail their quota, the company will provide that store with a hefty bonus to be split amongst the hourly employees who were part of that successful shift.
The Belgium team also prioritizes public recognition. If a specific employee is named in online reviews, for example, the owner sends it out to the entire management team, and the details are posted on the communications feed of the company’s mobile engagement platform for hourly workers.
3. Connect and communicate via myriad avenues
When it comes to millennials, “you’ve got to be multifaceted,” Riley says.
“Millennials communicate in many ways and they prefer that. They don’t want a single feed. They’ve got Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat—there’s not just one way they talk to each other, so we have to use all the tools available.”
ToB has landed on the chat feed of its mobile engagement solution as a primary medium of communicating updates via device without bogging down text feeds with work content or bringing private social accounts into the mix.
“Mobile communication makes it much easier. Not everyone has an email, and not everyone who has one is checking it. Plus, no one wants to bog down their phone with work contacts.”
Bottom Line: Focus on the Frontline
“It’s impossible as operator to be the only person working towards a goal. In the restaurant industry, if you don’t have frontline buy in, you’re always fighting an uphill battle,” Riley says. “You can believe in them all you want, but if you don’t engage them and align your goals, it will be extremely difficult to succeed.”
Ashish Gambhir is an entrepreneur and 15-year veteran of the restaurant and hospitality industry. He is the co-founder of MomentSnap, a mobile-first frontline employee engagement platform optimized for quick-service and fast-casual environments. He previously co-founded NewBrand Analytics, a social media listening tool that was acquired by Sprinklr last summer.