How 4 Restaurants Support Employee Wellness & Build Culture

Learn how leading restaurants are building strong work cultures to help employees thrive.

13 min read
Mx Blog - Employee Wellness - Hero

With its fast pace and always-increasing consumer expectations, the restaurant industry never seems to slow down. Juggling daily demands can make it difficult for restaurateurs to prioritize employee wellness and a positive work culture over profits.

However, industry leaders are beginning to realize that the vitality of their workforce can serve as a competitive advantage. Employees who are happy and feel valued are less likely to leave, and may contribute to stronger employee retention

Employee turnover is an expensive problem. In fact, the estimated cost of losing an employee is equivalent to one-half to two times the employee's salary. So it may be worth noting that investments into employee wellness and happiness aren't just for taking care of employees; they're also for taking care of the bottom line. 

In this blog post, we'll explore strategies and tips from some of DoorDash's most successful restaurant partners on how to support employee health and team culture.

Zalat Pizza: Prioritizing financial empowerment for employees 

Dallas restaurateur Khanh Nguyen infuses his pizzeria with energy and creativity. A beloved brand known for fun and irreverence, Zalat Pizza caters to a fanatical customer base that appreciates details like its late-night hours (open until 4 am) and eclectic menu.

Zalat Pizza

"We operate differently from a lot of corporations," says Nguyen. "We're very flexible, we move quickly, and we have a lot of fun. We've got a great internal culture." 

With unique flavors like Vietnamese pho, Mexican street corn, and a loaded baked potato with bacon and jalapenos, Zalat is no ordinary pizza. And it's no ordinary pizzeria. Nguyen has made an effort to bring kindness and empathy into every aspect of the business. As he puts it, "It's the love that you put into the product that is going to make this a best-in-class pizza."

For example, employees personalize each pizza Zalat delivers with a hand-written note. Known as pizzagrams, the notes are just one way the pizzeria has won over the locals' hearts. "We have lots of personal touches that we do for our customers," says Nguyen. "We are pretty beloved by our customer base." 

But a significant way that the pizzeria has endeared itself to its employees is through a commitment to financial empowerment — giving them a slice of the proverbial pie. "I was surprised getting into the service industry where folks work so hard and don't get a piece of the action," Nguyen says.

As part of his effort to change that and to foster the financial stability of his workforce, he took Zalat public with a stock offering. "All employees have stock options," he says, a practice he picked up during his days working in tech startups. 

Nguyen shares his passion for helping his employees build their careers. 

Khanh Nguyen

"One of the things we're known for is sharing the wealth with front-line employees. Cooks and cashiers are going to have part of this company, in terms of equity. We want all of our customers and employees to be with us for the long term." 

Khanh Nguyen, CEO, Zalat Pizza

Steuben's: Prioritizing employee health and wellness

Denver-based Steuben's is a modern diner serving regional American classic dishes along with a well-curated craft cocktail and craft beer menu. Regardless of how busy the restaurant is at a given time, employees take pride in delivering a high level of service

Mx Blog - Employee Wellness - Stueben's Photo

Named a "Top Workplace" by the Denver Post, Steuben's enjoys a low employee turnover thanks in part to its focus on employee happiness and mental well-being. 

Emily Biederman

"Company culture is a pretty big deal to us. It always has been. Ultimately, everything that I do — or my management team or my owner do — none of that happens without my team. We want to make sure that we're taking care of our employees in the best way possible."

Emily Biederman, COO, Steuben's

One of the restaurant's benefits is an employee 401k, designed to help workers begin saving for retirement. "I work with a lot of young people and to be able to set them up for some kind of financial success in the future is a big deal," Biederman says.

Additional benefits include volunteer opportunities, subsidized mental health counseling, discount memberships at local gyms and yoga studios for employees, as well as annual staff events promoting exercise and nutrition. "Once a year we'll do a healthy living week, which is kind of a way to reset," Biederman explains. "It's one of my favorite weeks of the year because the spotlight is on health and wellness."

One move with an unexpectedly warm reception was the elimination of shift drink discounts. 

"For a long time, the restaurant industry has been connected with indulging and drinking," says Beiderman. "Since 1997, we have offered shift drinks and discounts on alcohol, and last fall we discontinued that. We wanted to break the habit of going to work and drinking. Even if it's just one small blip in this huge industry, as a company, to be able to help our people have a better relationship with alcohol, it felt like the right thing to do."

As Biederman says, "Culture and benefits cost money, but at the end of the day, without my team, I have nothing, and so I take care of them. We have made a conscious decision to do anything and everything that we can to continue to be an employer of choice and to listen to the needs of our team."

Rosenberg's: Prioritizing employee authenticity

Joshua Pollack, owner of Rosenberg's Bagels and Delicatessen in Denver, opened the store in 2014 after a career in finance followed by a stint at cooking school. A New Yorker through and through, Pollack found himself missing the local bagels, pizza, and deli sandwiches he grew up with.

After starting his deli, he found as much satisfaction from building a happy workplace as he did by filling the need for New York favorites. "Food is my favorite pastime, he says. "It's a connector, it brings families together, and it's always been the core of what brings me joy." 

One thing Pollack has made an effort to do is to communicate strong brand values. In addition, he encourages his employees "to bring their unique essence to what we do." He celebrates each individual's particular personality and unique qualities. And he believes that it contributes to creating a "magical experience" for customers. 

Joshua Pollack

"I want my customers to feel the authenticity and care and attention to detail we put into making bagels the way they've been made for over 100 years."

Joshua Pollack, Owner, Rosenberg's Bagels & Delicatessen

Some of Rosenberg's employee benefits include concert tickets and gift cards to local restaurants. There's also an emphasis on in-person gatherings where employees can enjoy being outside the workplace together. "We're going to Meow Wolf in a couple weeks," he says. "Keep it fun. It's a hard job. Where you can find lightness, celebrate it."

Santini's: Prioritizing employee respect

Mx Blog - Employee Wellness - Santini's Photo

Family-owned Santini's New York Style Deli is a Washington, DC area favorite with a thriving delivery business. With seven locations and a steady expansion, one ingredient to its success is a focus on employee happiness. 

President Bob Lesando drew on his management experience running an IT business when he transitioned into taking over a friend's deli in Sterling, Virginia two decades ago. "I had a lot of experience running a business, managing people, and negotiating with vendors, so once we started, I knew we were going to open up multiple locations and turn it into something bigger," he says. 

The most important lessons he applied from his previous experience were about how to build relationships: with vendors, customers, employees, and Dashers. The foundation for all of this comes directly from the top. 

Bob knows that it's a cycle — when employees are happy, customers are happy.

Bob Lesando

"It's a snowball effect. When customers are treated with respect, they know we expect them to treat each other and our customers the same way." 

Bob Lesando, President, Santini's

Bob likes to tell his staff, "I have no rules, but don't break them." That means he doesn't have a strict code, but his employees know not to do things like eat excessive amounts of food during their shift.

So far, the lesson seems to be working. "Our employees love to work at Santini's," says Lesando. "Treating our employees like professionals has helped us a lot." 

More ways to attract and retain employees

Whether it's through financial empowerment, a focus on fun, a commitment to health and wellness, or just creating an environment where people can truly be themselves, these management strategies contribute to a happier workforce.

A happier workforce is more stable and more productive, and the lower employee turnover saves costs as well. By valuing and supporting employees, restaurants can create environments where staff feel motivated, appreciated, and engaged — ultimately leading to better customer experiences.


Diana Donovan
Diana Donovan


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