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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — September 15 — 10-Minute Manager

The 10-Minute Manager's Guide To...
Making the Most of Side Work

SERVERS GROUSE ABOUT DOING SIDE WORK, the litany of small tasks—such as filling condiment bottles, rolling silverware and attending to dozens of other details—that keep a restaurant running smoothly. “There’s nothing hospitable about side work,” says Barry Katz, owner of Katz’s Deli in Houston. Not only is it inhospitable, in most states, side work doesn’t pay more than servers’ minimum.

Smart servers know that a well-run restaurant is a busy one, and that they’ll make more tips in an active restaurant. Still, smart operators devise ways to take the drudgery out of side work. Says Katz: “It’s easier to lead with a carrot than a stick.”

An Arty Reward for Hard Work
Waiters at Luna Park, an 80-seat bistro in Los Angeles, get their fill of side work. Each waiter rolls 100 sets of flatware to keep up with high table turns. And, to serve 150 mojitos a night, day-shift bartenders must pick enough mint leaves to fill five large buckets.

Owner A. J. Gilbert tries to ease the pain, however. After their shift ends, waitstaff usually disappears behind the curtains of private booths to roll silver, have a glass of wine or a beer, and chat. “It’s like a knitting circle,” Gilbert says.

This summer, he tried to reward his crew by having them judge a weekly art contest. In order to beef up Sunday and Monday dinner business, Gilbert launched an “inner child” promotion, featuring upscale versions of mac-and-cheese, fried chicken, meatloaf and other childhood classics.

To further the kindergarten spirit, Gilbert covered tables with butcher paper, put out crayons and invited guests to draw pictures of each other and their meals. Each night, the waitstaff chose the best portrait and the best food picture. Winners received a gift certificate for dinner for two.

Aside from giving the staff something fun to do, the judging taps into their natures, Gilbert says. “They’re all really creative people—screenwriters, actors, costume designers,” he says. “They’re really good at [judging].”

Keeping Things Fair
At Mercy Wine Bar in Addison, Texas, servers take turns doling out side work. Each week, a different server is in charge of assigning post-shift tasks. “We rotate lots of responsibilities,” says Glen Agritelley, owner of the 110-seat restaurant. Having different staffers assign side work ensures that one person won’t be stuck with the most boring tasks week after week, he says.

Since the rotation system began a year ago, Agritelley says he has noticed an improvement in the staff’s attitude. “There’s more ownership and they’re more aware of what’s going on,” he says.

To further reduce the drudgery of side work, Agritelley rewards staffers who perfectly complete their tasks with a glass of vintage wine to enjoy after their shift. It’s a fitting and appreciated reward for his staff, he says.

“These are people who are knowledgeable about wine,” he says. “Anything to do with wine is a perk for them.”

Put It in Writing
Twenty years in the business have taught Chris Mars a crucial lesson about side work: Servers won’t get it right unless it’s written down.

Mars learned that the hard way when she helped to open a restaurant in Oak Brook, Ill. To attract the best waitstaff, the manager declared that servers would do no side work, Mars says.

The result? “We opened the restaurant and were completely in the weeds,” she says. Even with hostesses wrapping silver and busers filling condiment jars, “we just couldn’t keep up,” she says. The restaurant operated much more smoothly after the manager revoked the no-side-work rule, Mars says.

Now that she’s general manager of The Melting Pot fondue chain’s Chicago location, Mars makes sure that side work tasks are written down, and in detail. For example, the list doesn’t direct servers simply to put out sugar caddies. It tells them to make sure there are 10 sugar caddies at the wait station.

The list also reminds staffers to make iced tea before the lunch shift. Otherwise, “the first person who orders iced tea will have to wait,” Mars says.

At first servers balk at the detailed list, but stop when they realize that completing it helps them do their jobs better. “It helps them be more efficient,” Mars says. “They say [side work] is tedious, but in the heat of the moment, if it’s all done, you’ll be successful.”

Get Out of Side Work Free
It’s easy to get out of side work at Katz’s Deli in Houston: Just be on time for a month straight.

The idea came from one of the servers at the 24-hour, 165-seat deli, and owner Barry Katz (l. at r., with Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper) decided to try it to make side work less painful. “Nobody looks forward to it; there’s nothing hospitable about it,” he says.

That’s especially true in an operation that never closes, where an endless stream of customers needs full salt and pepper shakers and fresh flatware. The pay for side work is servers’ minimum wage, or $2.13 an hour. The staff doesn’t seem to mind, because, counting tips, the deli’s servers earn $12 to $15 an hour, he says.

The 35-person staff quickly warmed to the idea of a side work-free day. Three months after launching the card system, employee tardiness dropped “dramatically,” to the point where Katz hands out 20 to 25 cards each month.

Servers who use their card usually do so because they’re tired after staying out late the night before, Katz says. When they do, managers pick up the slack or the other servers pitch in, he says.

Doing Work, Doing Good
Waitstaff at Rock Bottom Breweries and Old Chicago Pasta & Pizza would rather not roll silverware. “It’s at the top of the list of hated things,” says Jules Stewartson, training manager at Louisville, Colo.-based Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc., which operates the concepts.

To free waiters for more palatable side work, such as filling condiment containers, 10 Rock Bottom and several Old Chicago locations hire developmentally disabled adults to roll silver. The restaurants locate and hire the adults through agencies such as Labor Source in Colorado and Community Options in La Jolla, Calif.

Work arrangements vary from location to location, Stewartson says. At the San Jose, Calif., Rock Bottom Brewery, three or four adults come to the restaurant for two hours a day to roll silverware. They’re accompanied by a coach from their agency.

Payment arrangements vary as well. In some locations the restaurant pays the workers, and in others, the restaurant pays the agency, which in turn pays the workers.

The situation benefits all involved, Stewartson says. The workers gain a sense of independence and purpose, not to mention some extra cash, and the waitstaff is freed from rolling silverware. “They don’t have to spend as much time doing non-guest-related duties,” she says.

Waitstaffers’ pay for side work is the same as their regular pay, which varies from state to state. To date, servers haven’t balked at being paid sub-minimum wage for side work. “It’s not been an issue—yet,” Stewartson says.

Lisa Bertagnoli is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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