While the pandemic and the “big resignation“has created unprecedented challenges for many industries, with the restaurant sector being among the hardest hit. Amid discussions of “leadership excellence,” we are often tempted to look exclusively at examples like governors giving press conferences during a Covid surge or CEOs announcing mergers, but many of the heroes unsung by the pandemic have been everyday leaders like Ashley Piña who worked as the general manager of an Atlanta bartaco restaurant when the pandemic hit in early 2020. Leading a team of over of 80 team members, like other restaurant managers around the world, Piña has faced the thorniest issues of how to continue business operations safely amid the most pressing public health challenge of a generation challenged to retain the staff and protect them while the rest of the world cowered at home for their safety.
Piña credits her senior leadership with creating an environment in which she was able to thrive as a manager amid unprecedented challenges and, in turn, replicate that support for her team. “A big part of our success is due to our senior management who saw bartaco’s vision during the unknown,” she insists. “I feel lucky that through our leadership I was able to continue working at a time when most people couldn’t.” bartaco corporate responded quickly to an unforeseen challenge, providing sites and individual managers with the support needed to enable flexibility and responsiveness. “Fortunately, we were able to go 100% offsite in just a few days by setting up a delivery hub, implementing a curbside pickup process, as well as rolling out new door-to-door offerings. , including family packs, taco packs, margarita kits and cocktails to go,” says Marc Hinson, vice president of people at bartaco. “In addition to our increased sanitation process to help employees and customers feel safe as well as our digital ordering platform, we’ve rolled out a new pooled tip operating model that allows entry-level restaurant workers to start at $23/hour.” To further support employees, the company established the bartaco Famliy Fund (bFF) as an employee relief fund offering grants to team members who endure hardship.” The bFF has also supported team members who have been excluded from work due to COVID-related absences,” says Hinson. “The bFF has awarded over 1,000 grants in the past 2 years.”
While keeping abreast of all state and local mandates, Piña’s location implemented a phased approach that allowed it to avoid having to close the restaurant entirely. “We were first take-out only, then picnic only, with seating available on our outdoor patios, followed by indoor dining based on CDC guidelines. We also kept our bars closed for several months until the interior restrictions were lifted,” she explains. Operationally, the transition to an on-demand service model has enabled continued service while prioritizing staff safety. “This on-demand hospitality approach originated early in the pandemic to keep the experience contactless, but it ended up shifting our operations to better fit our culture,” says Piña. “This idea of streamlining the ordering process and putting that power in the hands of our customers has freed our team members to provide better hospitality.”
Another obvious problem for the restaurant industry as a whole has been the Herculean challenge of protecting and retaining relatively low-paid staff, as most workers quit their jobs or work from home. “Fortunately, bartaco’s first priority was ensuring the health and safety of our employees, which gave our team the confidence to get back to work,” insists Piña. “We have had people applying for jobs because of the extra security measures we have put in place.
Amid unprecedented pandemic-induced stress, Piña understood the importance of nurturing a sense of camaraderie and encouraging high morale. “Enthusiasm and passion are two things that everyone needs to bring to the table,” she relentlessly reminded her team, focusing them on a common goal of delighting customers. She encouraged team members to reject mediocrity and find ways to impress the client. “For example, if a customer has a dairy allergy and wants dessert after their meal, we’ll run down the road and bring them dairy-free ice cream,” he explains. she. She also recognized the importance of working proactively to build and maintain meaningful connections among staff. “A few years ago we started a book club to allow our team to connect and help them grow as individuals, and due to its success, it’s still something we do. to this day, which helps create a greater sense of community among our teams.” Another key to his retention and motivation strategy was to invest time and energy in staff development and management progression. “I also love having constant conversations about what excites my colleagues outside of work and how we can be a resource,” says Piña. “I think it’s important to give them a safe space to make money while having fun.”