Changing the way we think about front of house

19 July, 2018 by
Annabelle Cloros

With the staff shortage growing by the day, most people think of dwindling apprentice numbers and the struggle to find a good chef. But what about those magical beings that set tables, talk customers through a wine list, deliver plates of food and complete restaurant experience? It’s time to shine a spotlight on the other half of a restaurant and take note of the successes and hardships experienced by front of house.

The primary reason people go to restaurants is to eat and drink. Food is often the primary motivator to get customers into a restaurant, but there are two forces at play as soon as they walk through the door. The difference between awkwardly waiting a few minutes for a table and a prompt, courteous welcome can make or break a dining experience.

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But it’s up to the industry to change the way we look at front of house from an in-between job to a long-term career that’s just as viable and rewarding as one in the kitchen.

Kylie Javier Ashton from Momofuku Seiobo and The Fink Group’s Jeremy Courmadias are two industry leaders enacting change from the ground up.

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THEN AND NOW

The way we think about front of house has slowly but surely started to shift, both from an internal and external perspective. Diners are increasingly aware of how their waiter or waitress describes the food, if they make suggestions for a wine pairing and even how frequently they fill up their water glass.

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Chefs are also placing more trust in wait staff and there is no longer a divide of ‘us vs them’. But it hasn’t always been this way. “The industry has changed a lot from when I started 12 years ago,” says Javier Ashton. “The focus went to the chef and has been there for the past 10 years. Now, people are starting to understand the value of front of house because you can’t run a restaurant without it.”

Courmadias worked in the UK for almost half of his career, and notes the differences of the value of service compared to Australia. “In the UK, service is seen as a profession and an important part of the industry,” he says. “In Australia, the industry is still very much seen as a go-between job that you do on the way to doing something else.”

The Fink Group general manager also notes the impact of reality TV on the industry.

“The MasterChef factor has had a massive impact on chefs and chef recruitment, mostly for the better,” he says. “I’m not sure if we can create something similar from a front-of-house perspective, but you need exceptional staff to deliver amazing food. Gone are the days of back of house vs front of house — it’s one team with everyone supporting each other.”

SHIFTING A CULTURAL PERCEPTION

For whatever reason, most Australians don’t perceive a front-of-house job as a long-term career compared to working as a lawyer or a doctor. In school, we’re not encouraged to dream about running a restaurant or becoming a sommelier, and instead are conditioned to look at it as a short-term job while studying; a stepping stone to a ‘real’ career.

Changing the way we think of front of house from a young age can play a crucial factor in addressing the skills shortage. Working in a restaurant shouldn’t be regarded as a uni job or a role reserved for overseas workers, and TSS visa conditions could prompt us to start investing at a local level.

“The stigma does make it a challenge to find staff and keep them because they don’t feel their position is validated by society,” says Courmadias. “Government restrictions around employing overseas staff have made it particularly difficult because Australians don’t warm to the service industry as a career, but Americans and Europeans do.”

Javier Ashton says venues should start focusing on local workers rather than relying on overseas employees to fill gaps. “It can be a really viable career, but we definitely have to shift our cultural thinking and look towards Australians,” she says. “Everyone in our team is from all parts of the world, which I love, but we have to look at our resources and get creative while supporting diversity.”

Having access to mentors is also important, as is telling their stories, so Australians can understand the reality of working in the industry. “The change in cultural perception, which is long-term, is about role models and putting them forward so people can look at them as somebody they would like to emulate,” says Javier Ashton. “What I have been working on with several partners in the industry is starting at a ground level in schools, [encouraging them to] not just think of it as a temporary job, but celebrate it as a career path.”

CASUAL VS FULL-TIME PAY

Casual workers dominate an industry fuelled by demand. But sporadic shifts are also a major deterrence for job-seekers who want the security of a salary and holiday leave. Offering staff full-time work is a major drawcard that can assist in attracting and retaining staff.

“Most of the front-of-house labour is casual, which is one of the biggest problems we need to change,” says Javier Ashton. “We have to show our commitment from a business perspective and invest in more full-time positions.”

Working in a restaurant environment is hard work, and fairly compensating employees goes a long way; as is the manner in which they’re acknowledged and respected.

“Treat them like professionals and make sure you pay them well — put them on salary packages with holidays,” says Courmadias. “Ensure they’re not overworked and have a lifestyle around the restaurant. We used to work a ridiculous number of hours because that’s just what you had to do, but now the lifestyle is more balanced. You can get paid very well and have a good lifestyle in Australia as a waiter and front-of-house staff member.”

INVESTING IN EDUCATION AND TRAINING

Gone are the days where front of house only learnt how to polish glasses and set a table — restaurants in 2018 require staff to know the menu back to front, have the confidence to resolve problems before they make it back to the kitchen and ensure a seamless experience for diners.

Creating a positive work environment with educational opportunities and continuous training not only motivates staff, but establishes stronger links within the restaurant.

At Momofuku Seiobo, Javier Ashton has added a twist to the team’s daily briefings. “Once a day, a staff member will give a five-minute presentation on something related to the Caribbean — it doesn’t have to be food — which keeps us connected to the culture we’re trying to represent,” she says. “The Caribbean is so far away and it’s hard to connect with the food if you have no idea about the place you’re talking about, so it’s forcing everyone to find their own story within the Caribbean.”

Javier Ashton has also moved beyond the basics and teaches staff the valuable skills they need to progress their careers. “I’m teaching them conflict resolution, how to deal with customer complaints and health and safety processes,” she says. “It better equips them to have an understanding of what goes into it — it’s not just writing rosters and making sure the restaurant is set at the beginning of the day. It’s about getting them intrigued about what goes into the restaurant beyond their role.”

At The Fink Group, progression is a key part of management, and communicating a clear career path to staff is essential for not only the success of the individual venue, but for the industry as a whole. “It’s important for staff to grow and develop and ensure there’s a pathway from a junior role

to being trained and promoted from within,” says Courmadias. “I started as a waiter who couldn’t carry three plates to where I am now, and I was encouraged by good management along the way.

“It’s a huge responsibility to grow and develop junior staff. Quite often people get involved in the industry when they don’t know what to do, and it’s a great way of nurturing and directing people to what can be a fruitful career for them.”

Courmadias has recently introduced a program for the senior management teams within The Fink Group covering everything from listening skills to conflict resolution and the art of delegation. “It’s been fantastic for front of house and back of house to learn how to get the best out of each other and treat each other with the level of respect needed to create good working environments,” he says.

“The managers who attended the training now have a responsibility to pass on what they’ve learned and are running their own sessions for staff, so there’s a sense of nurturing, growth and development that is passed down the line.”

The industry is in the midst of a crisis that is forecast to get much worse thanks to the continued boom of the food sector, which will consist of 695,000 jobs by 2022 according to the Department of Jobs and Small Business.

If we can change the way we perceive front of house as a career from a young age, these jobs will be snapped up by driven individuals who want to have a fulfilling career in hospitality. “A lot of people in the industry treat it as a lifestyle and that’s one of the greatest things,” says Courmadias. “It’s a lifestyle philosophy as opposed to just a job.”