How a common daily meal brings restaurant staff together
Shortly before the dinner service begins at Sanford, the front desk staff sits down at Table 5 for their own meal. A long-standing tradition in many restaurants, the âfamily mealâ is when staff come together to eat, socialize and shop. At this tiny East Side dining establishment, it’s a critical time of day. On the one hand, employees perform better when they have been fed. It is also an advantage for a job which is often incredibly stressful. âIt absolutely strengthens that team and that family element,â says co-owner Justin Aprahamian. “They talk about the night, and there is a social element as well.”
The day I spoke with Aprahamian, the family meal menu was pork sandwiches with a green salad and roasted potatoes – not the four-course tasting menu that the chefs prepared for restaurant patrons. Because cooks put a lot of effort into their work, the meal tends to be relaxed. âWe eat a lot of tacos,â says Aprahamian, and this particular handmade creation seems to have a Sanford history. When Sandy D’Amato owned the restaurant, âher dad used to come down and joke, ‘More tacos? You should open a taco stand, âsays Aprahamian.
Bay View’s Odd Duck handles his family meal differently, spreading it out as a buffet in his basement workspace after the catering service is over. The reason is practical, explains co-owner Melissa Buchholz. Between finalizing the menus and having the pre-team meetings, there is simply no time in advance. While kitchen staff arrive earlier in the day, many front desk workers arrive only a short time before the bar opens. It is therefore only at the end of the work shifts that the staff break bread together and make up for it.
Daily tradition creates a tighter team, says Buchholz. âWe are a human machine in several parts trying to work together to prepare the meal. This camaraderie and mutual respect that develop [through family meal] is part of building a culture that also works for customers.
When a dish goes off the menu at Odd Duck, any additional items are placed on the family meal shelf, such as hummus, salsa and pickles. The line cook or chef responsible for that evening’s meal can prepare a dish of personal interest or a dish they want to see on the ever-changing Odd Duck menu. It could also incorporate a technique the chef perfects or just be a left fielder like meatball bombers or a baked potato bar.
The very informal setting of the basement arises from the space constraints on the restaurant floor. Staff members take a plate of food and stand (or perch on a cooler or random cabinet), chat and eat. âIt works great at the end of the shift to recap the night,â says Buchholz.
All restaurants owned by Bartolotta serve a family meal of one kind or another. And the labor shortage ravaging the food industry has only strengthened the resolve of company owner Paul Bartolotta to take it seriously.
âIt’s a commitment to your employees, your most valuable asset,â he says. At Bacchus, for example, executive chef Nick Wirth âalways has a salad, a potato and often a simple roast chicken with garlic and thyme. There is no shortcut to doing it. Our industry is tough. How to improve it? I double the family meal.