How to provide the right tools.

If you’re Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House the secret sauce that keeps Joe Fortes on the top rung of city eateries is the ability of its staff to provide all the welcoming, schmoozing and pampering that you pay for when you go to a high-end restaurant. But this important make-the-customer-feel-good attitude doesn’t just happen: It has to be learned by all staff and constantly reinforced. Joe’s, as it’s known, believes its 120 staff members need the right resources to do their jobs properly. So it doesn’t let a sommelier near a glass, a server on the floor, or even a dishwasher near a plate without first undergoing a rigorous training and mentoring program that is unique in the industry. “There is a continual and high level of mentoring that makes a more healthy team in that everybody understands each other,” explains Joe’s managing partner Darren Gates. “We believe that in everyone’s heart is the wish to do well, so the more the staff knows, the more they are engaged.” Joe’s goes against the grain in a notoriously flighty industry by providing staff with the skills to do their jobs as best as they can. This skill building begins at the managerial level and then flows through the organization to all staff. Since 2002, Joe’s has had a training process in place, but it reached a higher level when in January it brought in a business coach from North Carolina, Michael Wolfe, to help managers perform better. Wolfe specializes in showing people how to understand their systems and improve communications, but Joe’s was his first restaurant. It didn’t matter, because an organization is an organization and a lack of familiarity may have helped because the coach could take a neutral view of the operation. Wolfe showed Joe’s super-visors who, like managers everywhere, were always pressed for time, how to efficiently define problems, pull together systems to solve them, and maintain and strengthen those systems through constant communication. The coaching process, which continues to this day (though now virtual, for the most part) also shows managers how to set personal goals that integrate with the company’s customer service goals. Although it will likely cost “five figures” by the time it is completed sometime next year, coaching is worth it, insists Gates, because it ensures managers are working in areas where their particular skills are most useful. The coach took the quality systems we had in place and made them better,” explained Gates. “As thinking about skills development becomes more entrenched in the company culture, it passed on to everyone.” Also, a skills development system eliminates the feeling among employees that they are “guessing” or dealing with situations in an ad hoc way, Gates added. After working with the coach, managers inculcated the same precepts in about 20 key non-managerial senior staff members who were chosen for their strong communication skills, patience, leadership and respect from their peers. These key staffers in turn apply the concepts as they rigorously train the rest of the staff through a series of orientation sessions, training shifts and tests. For example, new servers begin their training by working in guest service, bussing, food running, bartending and finally, serving. Next comes a regime of lighter shifts in ‘off’ hours and less-demanding sections, followed by more tests. Throughout the process, trainers use detailed checklists of required skills to monitor and evaluate an employee’s performance. If a manager notices that the employee is not performing a skill at a desired level, the training process kicks in again. The employee trainers are rewarded for their additional roles with prime schedules that include more lucrative (busy) hours, and incentives such as trips to Hawaii. In fact, rewards such as dinners out in other restaurants, education funding and reimbursement for professional fees are a common feature of working at Joe’s. “The training and rewards system is our point of differentiation,” observes Gates. “We find that maximizing everyone’s potential allows them to be engaged to the fullest point, and [that] helps with our branding. But it also helps us keep staff in an industry that’s usually labelled as transient.” Click here to read Tony's blog.