Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: restaurants

Shake Shack’s 4-day week experiment

Yahoo Finance has a piece about Shake Shack’s experiment with 4-day, 10-hour days, which started earlier this year and appears to be expanding.

The better burger joint began testing a four-day workweek for its restaurant employees at several of its Las Vegas locations earlier this year. Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti tells Yahoo Finance the test has since expanded to some of its restaurants on the West Coast.

While there is a cost component to a four-day workweek, Garutti says it’s the right thing to do for often overworked restaurant workers with families. And in this tight labor market, keeping employees healthy and happy is important to ensuring they don’t grab a gig elsewhere.

“I have been working in restaurants since I was 13, the restaurant business is super hard on families as our people work a lot of hours,” Garutti explains. “Why does it have to be that way is the question we have asked. We don’t know if it will work, it’s something we are testing at our West Coast shacks. We want to see if we can attract, retain and develop more people by changing how we think about how the restaurant business works.”

“I have had some new moms in the company come to me and say I have one less day of childcare. I have one less commute, this is amazing,” adds Garutti.

There are a number of world-class restaurants that have moved to 4-day weeks, and the movement has been slowly spreading from places whose reservations fill up in hours, to casual dining establishments. It’s good to see it moving to fast food, where some of the noisiest answers to “how to do we keep our workforce” have been along the lines of “screw them all, the robots are coming, bitch.”

It’s not just Michelin-starred restaurants that are doing 4-day weeks

Some of the world’s best restaurants– Noma and Relae in Copenhagen, Maison Baumé in California, Attica in Melbourne, Aizle in Edinburgh– are shortening working hours for their chefs and staff. But they’re not the only ones, and the examples of more casual restaurants are, arguably, more important than the big names.  A two- or three-star Michelin restaurant can pretty much charge what it wants, since they can be booked months in advance and have huge waitlists. But all other restaurants live and die by razor-thin margins, and it’s easy to imagine that they can’t afford to shorten working hours for chefs and staff.

However, I’ve been finding a fair number of casual dining places that are experimenting with four-day weeks. In Brisbane, Australia, for example, Sasquatch Bar, a casual craft beer bar and restaurant (they boast of “international cuisines that have been interpreted into our idea of great drinking food”) has implemented a four-day week for chefs. Casey Poland talks about it in this interview that I just came across. He started working in kitchens at 15, and almost 15 years later, he’s worked as a head chef and restaurant consultant.

Having 3 whole days off a week is amazing. It’s changed my life. It has changed the lives of the chefs I have at work.  I have chefs who have kids, I have chefs who have businesses on the side that they run.

I have a wife and I’m trying to start a family, and the most important thing, I’d like to say, before my work is my wife. I need to be at work on Saturday and Sunday, and if I only have two days off and it’s the middle of the week and my wife has to work late, I only end up having dinner once a week with my wife. It’s terrible. Just the opportunity to have one more dinner with my wife a week has been amazing, you know?

Recently, Baumhower’s Victory Grille, a 10-restaurant chain in Alabama, shifted its managers and staff to a 4-day week, apparently with no reduction in pay (I’m trying to verify that). Baumhower played football for Bear Bryant at Alabama (if you don’t know American college football I can’t explain how significant this is, but it’s huge), then went on to a career with the Miami Dolphins, before getting into the restaurant business; and for them, it’s about recruitment and retention. As Baumhower says in a press release,

So much of what we do is about celebrating, making memories, and enjoying amazing food… [and] we want our teams to be able to enjoy those things too. Allowing our managers to have the life-work balance they desire while being able to better serve our guests at the same time makes this revolutionary concept a no-brainer. It’s funny how ideas come to you, and you wonder to yourself – ‘Why didn’t we do this years ago?’

There are other places doing it– AO Pasta in Stratford, Ontario, Model Milk and Pigeonhole in Calgary, for example– and I’m sure there are many others that I haven’t heard about.

It’s important to note that for restaurants, a 4-day week doesn’t necessarily translate to a 32-hour week: you might still be working 12-hour days normally. But there’s still a significant difference between 48 and 60 or more hours, and having three days in a row off is huge.

“It was really unfair that we were being pushed out of the business that we love… because some other people long before us had constructed a system that was broken:” elite restaurants are taking rest seriously

Edinburgh

A few months ago, I came across an article about an Edinburgh restaurant that shifted to a four-day schedule. A couple days ago, I saw the article again in my notes, and thought to myself, I wonder if there any other restaurants adopting shorter hours?

I wrote a little bit about Ferran Adria and his legendary restaurant El Bulli in REST, and restaurants are an interesting case study for me because of the  working-class yet elite culture, the long hours, the perfectionist workaholism, and the demand (among a certain kind of restaurant at least) to be constantly innovative. (Other people do such a great job of talking about working moms and families, I have to stick to my lane, which seems to be Nobel and Michelin star winners.)

My first dinner in Cambridge

Anyway, a little bit of digging turned up a very interesting fact: there’s a global movement among restaurants to shorten working hours.

The mechanics are different than the other companies I’ve been studying, in part because the restaurant industry is so extreme in its work habits. The environment can run to the difficult, exploitative, and abusive, which makes it easy for people to be exploited. Kitchens at elite restaurants are demanding, competitive places, and competing over how long you can work is common. There’s a long history of elite chefs essentially being educated in kitchens– Jamie Oliver, Noma chef Rene Redzepi, and Attica chef Ben Shewry all left school at 15 and went to work– and the assumption is the more you do and the more hours you work, the steeper your learning curve. 

As a result, six-day weeks and twelve-hour days are common. So moving to a five-day week or a 48-hour week may not seem like a lot, but among chefs it’s pretty radical.

Spiced duck with plum, grilled vegetables and potato

Not surprisingly, you see the trend most clearly at elite restaurants, which are already known for reinventing cooking and dining, can sell out their reservation books in minutes (yes, there are people who will arrange a vacation to Denmark or Sweden around a dinner at Noma or Fäviken); but they’re also places that can have even more extreme cults of personality– the celebrity chef is now part brand, part genius, part viral TED talk– and attract sous chefs who want to launch their own careers, so they could just as easily make exploitation and long hours central to their business model.

But you also see it as less well-known places, like Edinburgh’s Aisle, the Raby Hunt in Darlington, Sat Bains in Nottingham, Enoteca Sociale in Toronto, and Model Milk in Calgary– a mix of places that have solid location reputations, and ones with a Michelin star or two.

The subject of working hours also got onto the agenda at Food on the Edge 2017, a Galway Ireland conference about the restaurant industry. Here’s Esben Holmoe Bang talking about how his Oslo restaurant Maaemo (one of the restaurants that people organize vacations around) moved to a three-day workweek:

They started shortening the workweek after labor inspectors got on their case about working hours (they made the mistake of accurately accounting for their hours, rather than being as creative with their accounting as they are with their cuisine), and went to a four-day week. At first, Bang says, “I was very nervous, because I think cooking is about connecting to what you do. And if you’re not there, you’re definitely not connected to what you do.”

But he quickly saw that

They were happy when they walked through the door. They were energized, excited. And we said, Wait, wait a minute. Maybe we’re onto something here.

Interestingly, some of his employees were skeptical, especially when they moved from a four-day week to three days: they said, “Look, we travel to come to Norway and work this restaurant… What’s the point if we were only going to be here three days a week?”

But they all discovered that there were benefits:

If we thought they were energized on the four day, on the three days were looking like ******* Duracell rabbits coming through the door. You know, they were coming in, guys were coming in full of energy, wanting to crush it every single day….

So we started making sure we organize trips to farms to this to go out to visit fishermen travel around Norway, because most of our staff travel to Norway from somewhere. So we started doing trips, kill some reindeers, drink some reindeer blood, you know do all those things…. The staff had time to do it. And they wanted to do it because we try to do it before and the people work five, six days a week. And they say right on your day off, man. We’re gonna say let’s go milk some cows, man…. So now, there’s this, there’s this hunger for more, which I think is amazing.

Not only did they have more energy on the job, they also had more opportunity to do things that taught them about Norway and Norwegian culture and cuisine– which is really important when you work at a restaurant that sees itself as reinventing a region’s cuisine.

More broadly, the experience has made him rethink some of the basics of the culture of cooking:

I think it’s a crazy notion that we, as cooks, focus so much on sustainability, but we kind of forget ourselves in it….

I can’t, you can’t, I can’t demand of people to like, forget their lives, basically forget who they are, and all they can identify with is this dream that I created, basically, you know what I mean?…

All I want to say is this obsession of ours, let’s make it healthy guys, you know, let’s not kill ourselves in the process. Let’s make sure we can last the long run. Let’s not do our five years or 10 years, or whatever it is, and then we got back problems, or we got psychological problems so we have to stay out of the business, which happens so much. Let’s try and see if we can make this business sustainable for ourselves.

The next day, Magnus Nilsson, the founder of Faviken, talked about how he reduced working hours at his company by growing the staff:

Nilsson talks about his own desire to have a more balanced life than some chefs, but I thought this part, where he talks about realizing that they had to change how they worked or everyone was going to burn out, was really striking:

Karin and Jesper, who were the people who’d worked longest with me, they were beginning to see problems with the way we ran our business. We saw that it was just not going to be able to continue the way it was, partly because we didn’t want it to, because we wanted another part of life as well, but also because it wasn’t sustainable with the staff. It just wasn’t. 

When we really decided we had to change, and we had this meeting where we sat down and tried to visualize where we were going to be in 5 years, none of us, none of the three people who mattered most to faviken, could see ourselves working at faviken, the way did then five years down the line. That’s when we really understood that we had to change.

It started from kind of selfish reasons— we wanted to make change for ourselves, to better our everyday life and our existence— but we quickly realized that running a place like Faviken, it would be a terrible thing if you ran a profitable business where you exploit your team in order to make it better for yourself to the degree we wanted to do. [ed: This is a stunningly Nordic perspective; in America, we would call this attitude “everything they teach in business school.”] So we kind of turned it around and said, all of the changes we wanted to do they have to apply to everyone, they have to be the same premises.

We really felt it was really unfair that we were being pushed out of the business that we love, and that we were pretty good at after having trained many years, simply because some other people long before us had constructed a system that was broken, and that we really couldn’t affect in the way we wanted to.

Nilsson also talks about the creative benefits of this approach. He compares Faviken to the sushi restaurant in the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and how Jiro dedicated himself to perfecting a very specific kind of food– essentially mastering a well-known way of preparing food. This, Nilsson says, isn’t how he cooks, and he needs a different kind of life to do the work he really wants to do:

Creativity is the subconscious human process when our minds put bits and pieces of what we have with us together into new combinations that might prove useful somehow. And if you isolate yourself, and you limit yourself, and limit the amount of impressions that you can take in, then naturally the toolbox for creative combinations and new things to happen will be smaller. And I felt that aside from the human side, i didn’t want this to happen either.

To create the kinds of surprising new dishes that he’s famous for, in other words, he can’t just stay in the kitchen; he needs time to do other things, like work in the garden and travel.

The idea that serious chefs will use their extra time to do things that help them learn about food, or broaden their knowledge, and that saner hours can make them better chefs, is also echoed by Ben Shewry, the head chef at Attica in Melbourne, Australia. (This New York Times article explains what makes Attica special.) He talks about moving to a 48-hour week in an Instagram post in 2017:

We’ve built the restaurant on the values of questioning everything, EVERYTHING. This year I feel we took a major leap forward in the development of our culture by putting the young men and woman who work in our kitchens on a 48 hour weekly roster. 4 days on, 3 days off.

Are the old ways of flogging yourself and having no life outside of the kitchen right? In my opinion no. Do I regret working the hours I have? No, however there wasn’t another option.

Changing the roster structure to accomodate the fact that cooks are humans, not machines and indeed can have lives as well has been cathartic for not only the team but also the business. We get an elite 48 hours out of each one of them and all of our cooks can work on multiple sections at any given moment, becoming multi skilled in the process.

It might sound like an odd thing to say but many Chefs don’t learn how to cook properly at fine dining restaurants. You get stuck on a section, you pick a ton of herbs and plate tons of beautiful looking food but often you don’t get into the real depths of cooking hard. It is very important to me that our cooks to leave here with the ability to cook properly.

So this is a really positive development, and I hope to see it spread.

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