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Shift meal cost perspective

Published May 18, 2021

Giving free meals to your staff, without breaking your budget

Food, it’s one thing that can bring people together pretty quickly and if it’s free while at work, that’s great, too. And some companies take free food to impressive levels, like Facebook. Employees at their Menlo Park headquarters enjoy unlimited free food from onsite specialized restaurants and even a Philz Coffee shop.

And while some employees might be concerned about overeating if they had access to that much free food, it’s still a big perk that pays off. According to Indeed, 67 percent of employees who receive free meals at work say they are “happy” or “extremely” happy with their jobs. For restaurants, giving employees free meals can make sense on a number of levels, but there are cost considerations they should make when deciding what meal plan to offer. 

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of offering free meals to workers and the types of meal plans to consider—and deciding which one works best for you.

The advantages of shift meal plans for restaurants

Of course, restaurant owners and operators have to consider the costs of giving employees free meals, but the following benefits make a good case for at least having some type of shift meal plan.

Helps retain employees. Going back to that 67 percent stat, happy and extremely happy employees means you’re less likely to lose them. And that can be a big cost incentive. According to Indeed, the average costs of a new hire is $4, 245 plus you need to consider how long it takes to replace an unhappy worker and the burden it places on remaining employees and operations as a whole.

It can be cost effective. You may actually increase your bottom line with free or partially free shift meals for a couple of reasons. Happier employees are usually more productive so that can mean quicker table turns and increased sales. And when they don’t have to leave work to get food or a beverage that’s more time they can spend working. What’s more, free meals for your employees are 100 percent tax deductible.    

Improve customer service with knowledgeable staff. If your employees can’t answer your customer’s questions about what’s on your menu, that’s doesn’t reflect well. And by eating and drinking what they serve they’re much more likely to remember what’s in it, how it tastes and be prepared to make pairing suggestions. So if your staff comes across as experts regarding your food that can make a big difference in providing better customer service.

Related: To win the hearts of young consumers, businesses need to put frontline workers first

Help them get to know each other. When people eat together they are much more likely to interact with each other—and even bond. Famous foodie Anthony Bourdain said that he was able to bond with people who had different backgrounds all over the world by sharing meals with them. And the same can likely happen with your employees which can be an effective team building practice.

Take on food waste. It’s a stat that likely drives you crazy, in the U.S. alone restaurants waste between 22 and 33 billion pounds of food every year.  Giving your employees free meals can be an effective way to reduce that number (at least in your restaurant). And your employees are likely to mention your concern about food waste to their family and friends and Gen Zers in particular may choose to eat at your restaurant for that reason alone.

Related: Digital transformation drives sustainable business practices in 2021

Increase your competitiveness. When your employees brag about the perks they get at work what they’re actually doing is promoting your business. That good word is bound to spread and your competitors who don’t have free or partially free shift meals can pale in comparison.

What’s the best shift meal plan for your business and your employees?

The benefits of offering free shift meals can be convincing that if you don’t already offer one, you likely should. But this fringe benefit can nibble away at profits if it you’re offering too much. So how can you take care of your staff without breaking the bank?

To find out, we checked in with Steve Zagor, dean of the School of Restaurant and Culinary Management at the Institute of Culinary Education. Here, he shares advice on using shift meals to boost morale and loyalty, keeping the costs of employee meals low and the exclusions you should consider for your meal policy.

Family style or made-to-order?

Many restaurants like to create a moment when everyone in both the front and back of the house come together for a meal, said Zagor. Offering this family-style event at the beginning of the shift has a number of benefits for restaurants, including being a cost-effective way to make sure no one starts the shift hungry.

“It’s much less expensive to do it family style than letting staff order off the menu,” Zagor explained. “You can prepare food specifically for the group, and it can be something different from what’s on the menu.”

But some restaurants choose to let staff order shift meals from the regular menu. While this style tends to cost more, it comes with its own set of benefits, he said.

“The staff can be continually aware of what the restaurant is selling if they can order off the menu.”

Whether everyone eats as a group or workers order individual meals, there’s one rule that applies to all shift meals: You must feed your staff something delicious.

“You should never serve anything from your kitchen that you’re not proud of, whether that’s to an employee or a guest. The positive effects of employee meals can quickly get reversed if you make it a lousy experience,” he said.

Should you charge for shift meals?

Restaurants shouldn’t profit from shift meals for employees, but they don’t have to take a total loss, either. Some restaurants choose to charge staff a small amount to cover some of the cost of their food.

“In a perfect world, the shift meal should be free, but it depends on the restaurant’s financial status,” said Zagor. “It’s very common to have a nominal deduction from workers’ paychecks, usually a few dollars.”

However, charging for the shift meal can complicate your policy. If an employee doesn’t want the meal for any reason, you can’t charge them for it.

“There are employees who will say ‘I keep kosher’ or ‘I’m vegetarian,’ and that can make the policy difficult,” said Zagor.

Another thing to consider: Who’s required to pay? Zagor advised against charging back-of-house staff for an important reason.

“Kitchen employees should be tasting the things they cook. Many restaurants keep the meal policy for back-of-the-house employees fairly informal. You shouldn’t have a strict policy for people who are required to eat as part of their jobs,” he said.

Must-have details in your meal policy

After you develop the general framework for shift meals at your restaurant, you’ll need to nail down the details about exactly what’s included. Start by determining if any foods should be off-limits to the staff, said Zagor.

“There are always items that are exclusionary for employees. Racks of lamb, lobster tails, steak — basically anything that’s labor intense or high in cost.”

Next, think about beverages. Obviously, staff need access to water, but what else is allowed?

“Generally, the policy is that staff can have coffee, tea, soda from the gun and tap water. Anything else starts to create cost concerns,” said Zagor.

Sometimes staff would rather eat at home. Should you let them take their shift meal to go? Not a good idea, said Zagor.

“You don’t want employees in the habit of carrying food out because you don’t want to be constantly wondering what’s in everyone’s bags and whether the food’s an employee meal or something they grabbed from the kitchen,” said Zagor.

There’s no right or wrong answer to any of these questions, but you need to make a decision and put the policy in writing.

Related: How to staff correctly for restaurant online order volume

Let the benefit grow

Everyone on staff works hard to keep your guests happy. While you might want to show your appreciation for their efforts with a generous shift meal policy, it’s a good idea to start with a modest offering, said Zagor.

“Remember, this is a benefit, and it’s very difficult to take away a benefit after it’s been given. Make sure you’re comfortable with your policy before you offer it to staff because taking away benefits creates a lot of negatives,” he said.

So if you start off with policy that shift meals cost a nominal fee, and you’re able to offer the food complimentary down the road, your staff will be thrilled. But if you reverse that, and start charging for meals that used to be free, morale will plummet.

“You never want staff to say, ‘I work in a food business and they don’t want me to eat.’ But you have to do what’s comfortable for you from a cost perspective,” said Zagor.

Make a shift meal win-win plan

Now that you know about the benefits and you can see that you have some choices, you’re ready to put together a shift plan that makes your employees happy (remember that 67 percent stat), doesn’t break the bank and may increase your bottom line. And the power of food shouldn’t be forgotten. Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives,” and for many restaurants their workers do become family.

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