How Brenen’s Restaurant Group Retains Its Best Employees

By Brian Hernandez

Attaining and retaining quality employees is one of the key ingredients to running a successful business. But it has become increasingly difficult in the restaurant industry to find these diamonds in the rough. Unless they are truly happy, odds are that your gems will end up in a rival’s hands sooner or later. U.S. Pizza Team member Kyle Rosch of Brenen’s Restaurant Group—a Durham, North Carolina-based company that oversees Brenz Pizza Co., Enzo Pizza Co. and Il Forno Italian Kitchen—has given this matter an abundance of thought. Rosch sat down with me to explain how he has created a comfortable—and motivating—environment for his employees in several concepts throughout North Carolina and beyond.

Hernandez: Why are employee relations so important these days? 

Rosch: When it comes down to it, your employees are the lifeblood of your business. As an owner, general manager or manager, you will never be the one taking all the orders, answering all the phones, and cooking and delivering all the food. You need to develop a great culture in your business so that employees are on the same page and have the same goals and mentality. This is absolutely crucial for making sure your business runs like you want it to in your absence and for your long-term success.

Related: Employee-focused chain has kept 90% of workers on the payroll during the pandemic

Hernandez: Does a strong employee relations strategy affect employee retention, or will they come and go regardless?

Rosch: At the end of the day, most everyone wants to do a good job. If they’re working in a business that values them and gives them the tools to be successful, along with positive affirmation, they’re going to want to come to work. You don’t want them to be counting the hours until the shift ends. Building that culture in your restaurant will most definitely lead to a higher retention rate in the long term. Also, some of our best employees have come from referrals by current employees. No one wants to refer someone that is going to be bad at the job. That reflects poorly on them, so referrals are usually some of the best employees you will find. But as marketing guru Tom Feltenstein says, you have to go through about six turkeys before you can find that one eagle.

Hernandez: You’ve mentioned the “pyramid effect.” Can you explain that and how it applies to our discussion?

Rosch: I think it’s better termed as “triangular hospitality.” It’s a concept I learned from Cameron Mitchell at the Mid-America Restaurant Expo in Columbus, Ohio. At the top of the triangle are the owners and managers. At one of the bottom corners are your employees who laterally deal with your customers (on the opposite point of the triangle). For example, a manager has a direct relationship with the employees. They train them and give them the tools they need to be successful. The employees have the direct relationship with our customers. We rely on them to take care of the customers the way the company needs. The customers, in turn, take care of us at the top of the triangle with return business, word-of-mouth and brand loyalty. Then we, again, take care of our employees, and the cycle continues on.

Related: How to create an employee handbook for your pizzeria

Hernandez: For those who are just starting out in the pizza restaurant business, what do they need to know to start forming great relationships with their staff right off the bat?

Rosch: You have to develop a plan. Build a training platform and a code of ethics. You need to define exactly how you want your customers treated when you’re not around. From there, it’s leading by example. Take your top 10 tenets [of good service] and make posters and place them around the kitchen so they’re always visible. But always be watching, both your managers and employees. Talk with them. If you see an issue, give them 80% affirmation, but 20% constructive criticism: “Hey, you’re doing great, but I noticed you did this. Perhaps try doing it this way.” 

Hernandez: What’s the best way to manage disciplinary actions without damaging employee relations?

Rosch: It’s definitely a case-by-case basis, depending on how serious the issue is. But set your standards, whether it’s a three-strike policy, written or verbal warnings, etc. After the first infraction, you sit them down and explain to them what they did that wasn’t in line with your standards. Have them sign something saying you’ve had a discussion, and then talk about what you’re going to do to remedy it going forward. In that same breath, I’m also looking at myself as an owner, asking, “What did I neglect to do to prepare this employee for this scenario?” A lot of times, the fault is not all on them. If you didn’t prepare them or lead by example, you’ve set them up for failure. You have to take an unbiased look at yourself first. If you can look in the mirror and honestly say that you have done everything to prepare them for that scenario, then it’s all on them, but let’s still find a reasonable solution to the problem.

For the second go-round, give them a full written warning, and it could lead to a brief suspension, like three to five days. By the third time, you might have to just let them go, because at this point it’s habitual. And if you don’t deal with it, other employees will see that. They will either try to get away with the same behavior because they see there are no consequences, or they will feel unappreciated because they are upholding your standards while the others are not—without any repercussions.  

Hernandez: How do you empower your employees and make them feel a part of the culture?

Rosch: Training and trust. Empowering employees is a key for your culture. If a cashier has an angry customer that wants a refund or a different dish and that cashier is not trained to handle that, she has no power. If you train her on how that situation should be handled and give her the power to rectify it without a manager always having to be there, she is now in control and will make that angry customer happy. You don’t want everyone in your restaurant to be able to give out free food all day, but empower them to handle situations unique to their position and the ship will run smoother.

Related: The Dos and Don’ts of Terminating Restaurant Employees

Hernandez: Any last thoughts on employee relations for the industry?

Rosch: Create your culture. Know your standards and stick by your standards. Surround yourself with good people. Lead by example. Make your restaurant a fun, welcoming environment to work in, and you will have happy employees that produce happy customers, which, in turn, leads to happy owners.  

To see Brian Hernandez’s full interview with Kyle Rosch, visit PMQ.com/rosch.