Long-term employees


Listening to Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” the other day made me wonder whether I have this problem in my company towards our employees (I am weaning everyone off using the term “staff” – it’s very Upstairs, Downstairs, no?)

Recently I visited a friend’s restaurant in the City which has been going for 20 years and I commented that he still had some people working there from when he started. “Yes,” he sighed. “It’s both a blessing and a curse.” The blessings are obvious – employee retention means less time recruiting and training, and regular customers like to see the same faces whenever they visit.

A curse, or at any rate a challenge, of people staying for long periods is that when they get good at their job, they expect to be promoted. But is that always a sensible thing to do? I’ve seen good newspaper reporters promoted to the role of news editor. But I know more who have refused such offers because they feel they would hate being desk-bound, even if it was for more money and the prospect of climbing the corporate ladder.

Guess who is the highest-paid person in many West End restaurants? Not the chef or manager but often the head waiter or maître d’, who knows the customers well and they visit knowing that they will be looked after by him or her. The owner rewards this with higher salaries and the customers tip them the most. The question of promotion rarely arises from either party.

But what do you do if your main manager runs a really tight ship – delivering on sales and profits targets you have set? You could – as I did for a few years – revel in having created such a cohesive team and brand that only now needs minor meddling from me. Once a week he and I would chat for 30 minutes and he would tell me everything I needed to know about what was going on in the company. I’d ask him if he needed anything from me, how his family were, and then go off to lunch.

Sounds great, eh? Then two things happened. First, I announced internally that we were about to grow the business significantly, and second, my main man who’d been with me for 15 years – starting as a waiter at the Cinnamon Club and then becoming general manager of Roast – said he was leaving to work for another company that had made him a hugely attractive offer. I didn’t even start to try to keep him. He probably needed something more challenging and I decided that I did too.

In common with many of you, I don’t come to business with an MBA and clutches of management books to inform me what is the right thing to do in such situations. Heaven help the publisher who asks me to write one because it would be short: I’d call chapter one “Do what feels right” and chapter two would be “Listen carefully when people leave.” One female star performer, whom we lost to a five-star hotel, told us the main part of the allure of her new role was that she would be allowed to wear heels! I’ll never stop learning, that’s for sure.

There’s a sound business case too for looking at how your employee base connects with the demographic profile of your customers. There’s a crusty West End restaurant which some of you have probably visited but can’t quite remember when – the waiting team are as old as their customers. When the latter group dies off, so will the former and then the business will do the same. It’s a slow-motion time bomb that will go off with a whimper rather than a bang.

So the unexpected departure at Roast has served not as a piece of disruption but more of a heads-up: long service is what you want from a battery or a lightbulb – it’s not necessarily foremost in your expectations of your front-line team.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast



About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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