A restaurant owner advises tech companies on how to retain staff

Women in a restaurant clinking their water glasses

No, that’s not the owner who likes his job.

10,000 Hours / Getty

It was, like so many good conversations, coincidental.

My wife and I were dining at a small restaurant when the owner came to talk.

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We have been to this restaurant a few times. The staff always seem to be in a decent mood. Not fake restaurant-decent, but real, actual, human-decent.

I wanted to see if there was a secret in this place. I didn’t start falling into clichés. (As if I would.) However, I said people seemed to be moving a lot of jobs — or quit altogether — but the staff at this restaurant always seem to be the same people.

Your employees are family. They sure are.

“Are they all members of your family?” I asked the owner, with as much ingenuity as I could muster.

“No,” she replied. “They’re not blood relatives anyway. But I see them a lot.’

“We’ve seen the same staff here every time,” I said. “Have they worked here long?”

The owner explained that all the servers and busboys had been there for at least 20 years. The bartender, over 30 years.

“So this is a money laundering operation?” I ventured.

“Funny,” she replied. “No, they must like it here or something.”

“Oh, come on,” I insisted. “You pay them very well, don’t you?”

“No,” she said. “Nothing wild.”

Autonomy is money. Autonomy.

I had to ask, since many people I know jump from one technology company to another, if she possessed a management secret that was somehow beyond money.

“Why do they stay here?” I asked.

“Autonomy,” she replied.

This couldn’t be true. This is a restaurant. There is a boss. There is a chef. There are rules and ways of doing things.

“Come on,” I said. ‘It can’t be. I mean, you decide who takes care of the tables outside and who takes care of the people inside.”

“No,” she insisted. “They decide for themselves.”

“And how do they make those decisions?” I wondered.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“They don’t come to me. They just do it. And they all seem happy about it.’

Management is a people skill.

At this point I wanted to ask her what she was doing in this restaurant. Luckily she volunteered before I had the chance.

“The main thing I do is hire people and then figure out who the lifers might be,” she explained. “It usually takes two weeks.”

“You can’t possibly know that in two weeks,” I said. “Nobody knows that in two weeks.”

“You see how they do their job,” she insisted. “And it’s really important to see what they do when they screw up. Because they’re going to screw up.”

“They’re coming to you, aren’t they?”

“No, they decide among themselves how to handle it,” she said. “The lifers solve that very quickly. Then later they tell me what they did.’

Then let’s pause for an update.

Apparently the secret to keeping good people is to give them autonomy. No ping pong table, no free food, not even excessive money.

This is of course not quite what some experts and the research say† And what exactly was I doing comparing a small restaurant to larger, more complex, more multi-billion-dollar businesses?

But this restaurant owner’s revelations may offer some clues about human nature that are pertinent.

Who likes being told what to do all the time? Who doesn’t like to at least do things their own way and hope it’s appreciated? Who wouldn’t want employees who find a certain kind of home at work, where they contribute to a greater good and see the satisfaction they bring to customers?

This reminded me of Facebook employees for a moment. Do they get autonomy? Can they work in their own way? Do they really think they are contributing to a greater good? Or is their only greater advantage profit?

It was only a fleeting second of Facebook thought as I needed another glass of wine.

I looked down. The server had already brought it.

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