HR in Hospitality needs a unique approach.
Hospitality is a fast-moving industry in every sense of the word. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of people pass through your venue weekly. You serve fast, move fast, staff turnover frequently and profits can be volatile. Hospitality management is unlike any other industry.
I owned and managed the Glow Lounge Cafe and Cocktail bar in London for seven years. I often loved it, I sometimes hated it, I always lived and breathed it.
My partner and I took on a vacant property overlooking Clapham Common. After months of petitioning council, building work and refurbishment, we opened our doors as a cafe.
With a sparkling new venue, a very basic kitchen and well-chosen, loyal staff we collectively felt the pride & joy that came with those initial milestones. The smiles of our first customers, delight in the quality of our products (not least the coffee and brownies) and we had a taste of early success.
I dived into an unfamiliar world of small business compliance and management, the technicalities of book-keeping software and the marketing of our business.
I wish I had had guidance, I wish I had had a mentor and I wish I had spent less time on the paperwork and more time on understanding the customer and employees who would shape my business and my world.
In the fourth month on a beautiful sunny spring Saturday we were slammed for weekend breakfast with over two hundred covers (a ‘cover’ is a diner that is served). Sounds great, but the kitchen was woefully inadequate, we were underprepared, insufficiently competent and in a world of shit.
That’s how it felt.
Turn that around and you could say, that word had spread that our coffees were the best in London & our venue was attractive and welcoming. Our breakfasts were not your average greasy spoon and our enthusiasm and smiles beat any other cafe for miles.
The first 100 customers that day left happily to spread those words and return frequently. I can’t be sure, but maybe the rest never came again. It was a sobering wakeup call. We clambered to upgrade the kitchen and search for more experienced chefs.
Within the year we realised coffee & breakfast alone would never turn a profit. Clapham punters wanted a bar and restaurant and we wanted their business. We transformed into a Cafe and Cocktail bar, extended our opening hours to a 1 am license and never had work-life balance again.
Customer Experience vs Employee Experience
We focused on the customer experience, attracting people with great music, a warm atmosphere, the best coffee & cocktails. However, the ups and downs of business success over those seven years were always down to people.
Every customer experience starts with an employee experience. When the staff were happy and loving life, it rubbed off on the atmosphere & attracted more customers.
The main detractors from the job for the employee were the variation of shifts to fill, unsociable working hours, low pay and a lack of internal career prospects.
Soon we established that the Employee Value Proposition was in the team spirit and the community hub. The sense of belonging was crucial and when the group was united it was an amazing place to be. Lifelong friendships were made, and special memories were created for staff and customers alike. When people moved on and the wrong people were hired, connections failed, and the culture faltered. Personalities were misaligned and the dynamics changed. Learning to navigate this was by far my biggest challenge.
Other factors helped the employee experience. Could we meet their individual needs at a particular point in time? Were we able to give them the right shift work, the flexibility they needed, a month off for travel, free food and drinks?
Negativity vs Energy
My staff came from all over the world, most spoke English, some had permanent residency. They had many different reasons for joining our team but very few chose hospitality as a career. The employees that did were the chefs (arguably one of the most skilled roles in the team). One of those, with the knowledge I needed, within the budget I had, was a restaurant chef who had fallen from grace having falling off the wagon. He had an explosive temperament, a miserable demeanor and he felt that a breakfast cafe was beneath him. I learned a huge amount from him. Firstly on how to manage a staff member with addiction, secondly how a culture could shift with a seriously negative person on the team, and thirdly how to be a decent short-order Chef. I was determined to never be beholden to a staff member again.
I hired and raised up those with energy and sparkle because they brought Glow Lounge to life, they attracted far more customers and they learned fast. But we were often just their backpacking stop, their temporary employment. This had advantages and disadvantages. They came, they shone with enthusiasm and new ideas, and they moved on to have great success in other careers all around the world.
I was guilty of overlooking those employees who doubted themselves. The ones who put in the long hours cared for the business and walked year-on-year through the highs and lows of seasons.
Core People Processes
Generally, the characteristics that allow employees to succeed in hospitality, are the right Mindset and a willingness to fit into and contribute to the culture of the business. Further to that, they needed hard-work, determination & enthusiasm. The core people processes were challenging.
What attracts you to this career?
The great cocktails I’ll learn to make and enjoy drinking, the awesome social life I’ll have access too.
So, recruitment was often about what we could add to their life right now, as opposed to their career.
Tell us about how you work at your best?
I’ll do anything to make enough money to explore Europe and fill in time while I figure out my true career path.
Performance was then about setting clear expectations and making sure all the work was done.
As one of our highest performing bar staff members, how would you like to progress in the industry?
I hope to follow my passion in pharmaceuticals.
Then, how can we develop the service skills and relationship skills to help you do just that!
We had a high staff turnover (as well as long-serving team members). Hospitality is notorious for this and the yearly industry average in Australia sits at 49%, according to findings by Griffith University. In the UK it averages 30%. The business reality of this is excessive hours of training and a massive loss in productivity. I am sure this contributes to the fact that the Hospitality sector tops the table with the highest rate of company failure in all industries. My reaction to this reality was to trust myself but not put enough trust in others.
I am a detail person, not a big picture person and I wanted to understand everything. Being new to the industry I qualified in Hospitality Management. Needing to understand the finances, I completed a Diploma in Accounting. I became a kick arse Cocktail Mixologist, learned how to build our company website and market the business. Never wanting to be up shit creek again by being beholden to my chefs, I became competent in running the kitchen.
Lessons in small business
The most important thing I learned was that we can’t do it all. You can’t grow businesses without being able to remove yourself from the day-to-day running and for it still to function successfully with your team in charge and without you there. I needed greater economies of scale to be able to provide more opportunities, which might have helped retain my best staff. I should have had a people strategy, a growth strategy and a clearer purpose for the future. Beyond keeping my head above water.
In the end, we had a profitable business with no immediate growth prospects. We sold it to the highest bidder and moved on with our lives. Many of the skills I learned, I may never use again. But I do know that while small businesses often throw out established rule books, the one thing that affects them all is people.
If I could do my time again I’d probably lead differently. What I am most proud of though, is that the friendships forged in the Glow Lounge over seven years have affected the lives of many of us who worked there, raised our glasses there and danced until the small hours. It will be an essential part of me for the rest of my life and I’m grateful for everyone who joined us on that journey.