pidjoe/Getty Images

At Baro, the employee retention rate is two-and-a-half times the industry average

Lindsay Burgess
November 28, 2017

If you don’t use “party” as a verb, Toronto’s King Street West can be a scary place on a Saturday night.

As the city grew out of its clubbing phase and into a more food-obsessed one, the drinking and dining options along this stretch of the entertainment district turned more legit—but it’s still where girls who brave blizzards in heels and the dudes who bomb their selfies go to eat, drink and spend money.

One of King West’s newer hotspots is Baro, a hybrid restaurant-snack bar-speakeasy-event space arranged over 16,000 square feet and helmed by Top Chef Canada alum Steve Gonzalez. To a casual onlooker, Baro is another night-out destination, where the mood is directed by strong tequila cocktails, hip-hop jams and cooks in branded snapbacks. But behind the scenes, the restaurant’s partners are working towards a goal that has nothing to do with food, drink or parties.

In the next year, Baro hopes to be recognized as one of Toronto’s best workplaces. This ambition might seem unlikely in an industry known for long hours, low wages, tensions between front- and back-of house teams and kitchen culture frequently crossing the line into harassment. But partner Michel Falcon says that Baro’s retention rate is already two-and-a-half times the industry average; he credits this success to "employee engagement."

If you cut through all the jargon, employee engagement is mostly about treating your people well, not only because it’s nice, but also because doing so benefits your business. Listen to staff, show them how to thrive and make them feel appreciated—in return, they’ll work harder (earning you more) and probably not quit (saving you money). Despite associations with the corporate world, engagement sounds like an obvious answer to issues like burnout in the kitchen and turnover in the dining room. So why aren’t more restaurants trying this strategy?

Jen Agg, the Toronto-based restaurateur, author and advocate for conquering shittiness in the industry, offers a glimpse into one of the cultural hurdles for change in the industry in her book, I Hear She’s A Real Bitch. Agg describes a familiar construct—an old-school approach to kitchen life, handed from one generation to the next, that’s big on obedience and silence and acceptance of Really Bad Shit—and shows, through her own experience, that this stuff doesn’t stay only in the kitchen. (You really should read the book; Agg explains it better in her own words.)

Courtesy of Jenna Marie Wakani

But, even amid grumbles about “back in my day,” there’s a growing movement to do more to improve the lives of food and drink industry staff in Toronto: local food reporter Corey Mintz, whose work on restaurant labor and employment sheds light on the pressing issues in Toronto kitchens, writes that more restaurateurs are now offering benefits to improve staff retention. Employee engagement takes this trend one step further.

At Baro, the strategy is largely about amplifying the voices of staff, providing more educational opportunities and doubling down on positive reinforcement. “I always kept it in my mind that when I had my restaurant, we would do some things different,” says Gonzalez. In his 30(ish) years in the kitchen, the chef says he’s seen the good and the bad. He reckons that employee initiatives are positively regarded in the industry—they just never get done; people are too busy.

Natalie Trochanowski, Human Resources Manager at Oliver & Bonacini (affectionately known as O&B)—a restaurant group named to the Greater Toronto’s Top Employers list in the first two years it was published—points out that in the hustle and bustle of the restaurant world, communication is easily forgotten. (In some of those old-school kitchens, more likely discouraged or ignored.) But if you’re looking to improve the workplace experience, she says, you need to “listen to your staff and take actions based on what you hear.”

Baro’s answer to better communication is called the “Voice of the Employee” program (like the “Voice of the Consumer” you might know from the corporate world). In true employee-engagement style, VoE includes surveys to gather data on the employee experience. There’s also an “Employee Advisory Board,” made up of non-manager representatives from every team, that meets on a monthly basis to discuss what’s working—and what’s not.

For Laura Grant, a member of Baro’s front-of-house team with ten years of industry experience, VoE is a big deal. “Companies I’ve worked for in the past basically will never ask you for your input, or if you do end up giving it, it’s essentially brushed off,” she says. “But here they really take what everyone’s saying and see if they can use it to make changes.” The program’s not just hype, either. (I checked.) Based on Employee Advisory Board feedback, the partners stepped in to resolve a situation with a senior manager whose goals weren’t aligned with the company’s. That was tough, Falcon says, but “we’re very protective over [our culture].”

And as Jen Agg says, in reference to the support system she maintains for her own staff, “Logs and training manuals don't mean shit if there's no one there to set an example and lead the culture toward its best self.”

Baro’s learning and development initiatives also diverge from the old school. When you think of traditional restaurant training, you probably picture endless days of repeating the same task until you get it right, then better, then perfect. But employee engagement theory suggests that different kinds of education can improve drive, performance and retention—so Baro takes a more 360-degree approach. The business shuts down every three months for a two-hour workshop on a subject determined by staff. Last quarter, they learned about networking and how to find a mentor—next up, a panel of three entrepreneurs will be speaking on, um, “entrepreneurship.”

Of course, there’s also value in education that hits closer to home. O&B is an approved WSET provider and a proponent of “experiential learning,” the grown-up word for “field trips.” Trochanowski points out that when O&B servers talk about a wine they tasted the previous week, for example, they can share their excitement with guests and increase sales that way.

At Baro, employees are encouraged to dream bigger than their current workplace. ”I know for a fact that our marketing manager wants to start his own digital marketing agency in two to three years,” says Falcon. So he’ll encourage that employee to use his education stipend (every manager gets one) for a conference on digital marketing. Progression might be a little more linear in the kitchen—Gonzalez says that he’s starting to pull dishwashers up the ranks—but Falcon looks forward to the day a Baro chef alum wants to start their own restaurant. “For me, I would just be honored to have them ask me like, ‘would you invest?’”

Supporting employee ambitions—even the ones beyond their current roles—is something the engagement approach does seem to have in common with the old school. Plenty of chefs remain close with their mentors, even if their experiences together weren’t entirely warm and fuzzy.

But engagement is also about continually recognizing the contributions of staff. Jen Agg, whose affection for her team is well-documented—literally, if you’ve ever read the bios on her company website—says that twice a year, her staff come together for events where she’ll “blubber at them how much I love them.” At O&B, managers distribute special pins to employees who “live” the brand’s core values. Baro gives away Flight Centre gift cards to top frontline performers: “I so badly want a dishwasher to get one,” says Falcon.

All of this—the rewards, the education, the surveys—can get costly. Baro spends around $350 per month on each team member, once you add up the extras like benefits, staff meals and a “premium” onboarding process (every employee receives a gift on their first day). The early retention rate looks promising, but returns on employee engagement could take a year or two to show in the company’s bottom line, says Falcon. “I’m now betting on humanity.”

That ROI is untenable for many Toronto restaurants, especially in today’s climate: If the condo developers aren’t coming for you, the minimum wage increases will. In Ontario, minimum wage will jump from $11.40 to $14 in 2018 and $15 in 2019. 95% of local restaurant owners foresee negative impacts for employees, including layoffs.

But employers who do invest in their teams—especially at a human level—do stand to gain from those efforts.

“There is nothing better you can do as a boss than relentlessly pursue the best people and then give them the tools and the space to shine,” says Agg, whose empire now spans two cities and three neighborhoods.

“It sounds like one of those sentences that doesn't really say anything, but I mean it,” she says. “The best long term investment I've ever made is in the core group of people that help me run my little company.”