Reconsidering Your Staff Meal Policy

calm waitress with plate serving restaurant guest

Most food service businesses, including even the smallest restaurants, cafes, and snack bars, must eventually establish some sort of “staff meal” policy that dictates how and when staff can feed themselves.

Every establishment tackles this differently; some higher-end restaurants designate more formal staff meals featuring items from the menu, which has the dual purpose of feeding staff, and helping them to be more informed about the various items being offered each day. Some create lower-cost versions of a meal designed to feed a crowd; these staff meals don’t run up huge costs, while making employees feel special and cared for.

At the other end of the spectrum are the places that don’t provide any food at all for employees. These businesses may impose strict “you pay for what you eat, and you’d better not be eating” policies, often without so much as a discount, with some restaurants even going as far as to force employees to clock out and sit in the corner before they can enjoy the food that they’ve paid for.

All of these approaches aim to solve just one problem: Keeping employees happily fed and on the property (there’s nothing worse than a staff member disappearing for an hour to go get lunch at a restaurant across town), while minimizing the revenue lost due to “grazing” employees who can’t help themselves from tasting a little nibble of everything they make, and at a cost that hopefully does little to affect the bottom line.

Stricter approaches to staff meals make sense for large restaurants, with dozens of people on staff at any given moment. After all, a free meal for employees during a shift may not seem like a big spend, but when you multiply that cost by 10, 20, or even 30 employees, for every day of the week, the cost can be significant.

For smaller establishments with just a handful of employees on the clock at a time, I’d like you to consider a radical new staff meal policy: Let them have whatever they want, on the house, whenever they want it.

At my restaurant (which again, has only four people clocked in at any given moment), staff is invited to make themselves anything they’d like from the menu, at any time of day. If they want to eat twice, they eat twice. If they want a handful of chips or a portion cup full of the chopped nuts that go on this week’s salad in the middle of the day, so be it. And if we’re doing a carryout dinner special that seems particularly tasty? They can bring one home. Hell, they can even bring an extra one home for their boyfriends or girlfriends. Our policy regarding employee eating is incredibly liberal. So liberal, in fact, that it’s practically nonexistent. Here’s why:

Most of the people we’re lucky enough to have on staff come from a long line of similar jobs, where they’ve endured varying levels of intensity from management regarding food costs. Some of them have home lives that may be just barely hanging together; weekly bills may be an issue, or growing families may be stretching household budgets thin. They’ve sat in their cars in the parking lot, miserably chewing on a turkey sub that their boss gave them a 10% discount on, with just ten minutes to eat. Or they’ve been forced to inventory and account for every last slice of cheese that leaves the kitchen by tyrannical number-crunching managers whose quarterly bonuses are tied to how few tomatoes they use in a given month. They’ve been treated poorly before, and it’s made them miserable.

male cashier in gloves preparing order

How have they responded? Your staff will, believe it or not, find a way to eat for free in your restaurant. They’ll become increasingly unhappy with coming to work every day, and resentful toward you as an employer. They’ll pinch scraps of food at every opportunity, no matter how carefully you monitor the kitchen. Some less-savory employees may take this a step further, and start pocketing cash transactions or raiding the walk-in freezer after hours. And eventually, they’ll quit, only to bring their talents and passion to another competing restaurant, wasting the time and money you have spent training them and building a relationship.

And why? To protect a few dollars worth of food cost? I think of it like this. On a $12 entree in my restaurant, my food cost is ideally sitting at the $4 mark or below. The labor cost for preparing that food is the same, whether you are making 100 portions of a particular dish or 101. But the drastic uptick in loyalty and commitment you receive from a staff that feels well cared for is worth every single one of those 400 pennies.

If I gave each member of my staff a $4-per-shift pay raise, it would go completely unnoticed. It wouldn’t change their budgets for the week, and it wouldn’t make them feel more like a part of a team, or like they have an employer that looks out for them and provides for their well-being. Give them that same $4 in free meals, however, and you’ll inspire loyalty that far exceeds the money you’ve lost on that particular dish.

If your staff continues to be excited about what you’re producing in your kitchen, if the size of your team allows for it, and they want to eat your food, let them! Feeding your employees well, and at no cost to them, keeps them engaged in what they’re doing, it involves them in the creative process of dreaming up new dishes, and most importantly, keeps them coming back and working hard, day after day. There is, in my mind, no less expensive way to help create a smilier level of devotion from your staff, and to show them that you have their backs, for such a meager amount of money.