The Good Ship Enlightenment

And how investing in your people keeps the ship afloat.

July 3, 2015 ● 4 min read

{Editor's note} This story originally began as an attempt to define the so-called ROI of industry engagement. When you put x amount of time and money and effort into inspiring your staff, do they really stick around longer? How do training programs make the jump from "this is how you do this, now go do it" style mentorship to laying the foundation for a new belief system, held by one group of people and defined by a specific, dynamic vision? What it turned into, as these kinds of meditations usually do, was an examination of the people within it. Eastern Standard in Boston, which just celebrated ten years slinging cocktails and burgers and late-night munchies to the city's hungry denizens, has become notorious for exhaustive staff appreciation. The ROI in the case of restaurants is hard to tie to a single column in a single spreadsheet; it's more of a feeling. Eastern Standard's AGM EmmyLou Taylor explains. 

I tried to work this out a few months ago (maybe, six?), when I was asked to speak about Eastern Standard to a hospitality class at Boston University. It ended up being a seminar on how to be a good applicant. But it started on why the people are the most important. 

I can't speak for all restaurants. ES is such a particular beast. So I didn't. 

I started with a classic Philosophy 101 question on ontology. Bear with me. If the Ship Enlightenment (seriously) sets sail from Port A to Port B, and along the way it loses every piece of wood, every fabric of sail, & every crew member, yet rebuilds by the time it docks, what about the ship makes it still the Ship Enlightenment?

Eastern Standard is open 147 hours a week. Even the best of us are only pulling 55 - 65 hour work weeks on the regular. That means, not including office time, scheduling time, off time and general "admin" time, no one employee would ever be at the restaurant for half of its operational hours. Making the obvious jump here, but if you really just can't guarantee that one person will be there "manning" the ship (chef, bartender, manager, server) what makes it the ship?

Hiring people that buy into the idea of ES (always open, always available, always a treat) is paramount. You have to ask them about their best friends. About their boyfriends. About whether or not they have a dog (can be problematic, dogs need walking). Most of all, you need people who are at that time in their lives that they are looking to work for, and with, something that is bigger than themselves. The engine that keeps on turning even when they are at home with the lights off, in Mallorca, out to dinner, sleeping in. 

The only reliable vessel we have (to push the ship metaphor) is the spirit, the knowledge and the disposition of any person we hire who directly interacts with guests (over the phone, at the door, tableside, email, bartop). They have to believe that it is "up to them" to communicate the experience of warmth and engagement that many folks have come to expect. But as we all know, it's quite the feat to ask someone who works a job that is filled with repetition, to be regularly in touch with the operating principle of their work. Once muscle memory sets in, the work becomes predictable (or predictably unpredictable) and it is hard to feel as if you are more than just a cog in a machine with no final objective in place. 

So we try to set the objective (which is the work itself) and bring focus and attention back to our original purpose by bringing it into a larger framework. Which is, I think, what we are talking about when it comes to (somewhat unorthodox or over-the-top) training exercises or staff appreciation. The day-to-day training is something we are all pretty myopic about (although we can always be better). It's the big picture stuff that we all have to take the time to step back and bear witness to. Perhaps even vocalize some individual rumblings that will inevitably take place and place them within larger context. 

And the thing is, restauranting struggles are not different than any other professional struggles. I think specifically about Don Draper's professional ennui at the end of Mad Men. He wants to want to solve the big problems, but he's too mired down in the day-to-dayness of his job (Heidegger). But to draw the focus back to the thing itself can help energize the thing itself. Bring new meaning to the same task. Which will translate to better experiences. 

So if new employees, full of optimism and energy, are the ones that don't need the convincing (entropy, blah blah blah), why go to the trouble of reinvigorating the folks who have "seen it all before?" Often the guest experience is rooted in some detail that falls under the canon of institutional memory. The need that guests have to know what "Garrett's up to," or "what it was like when Jamie Bissonnette was here," or what "The Rat" is. Those are the sort of topics that are hard to cover when you are asking folks to memorize cocktails or learn the differences between "traditional" and "natural" wines. 

And because we can't be there all the time (even when we are there), we have to hire and train and sustain folks for whom those questions are personal, even if they didn't live through it. Personal because they care about the guest, and personal because they care about us—and the restaurant—in a living, breathing sort of sense. 

Some of our greatest ambassadors for the restaurant are people that used to work here. I think that's a measure of the ROI. It's as if we are sending disciples into the world to spread the good word on Hospitality as a transformative experience for both folks involved, and, just maybe, Eastern Standard in the process.

And that is The Ship qua The Ship, against all odds, from port to port. 

By EmmyLou Taylor.