Canada’s Best Employers 2015: How The Keg keeps its sizzle

How it made the list 13 years running

 
Servers at the Keg Restaurant
Employees at the Keg stay for years—an eternity in the food-service business and a testament to its work culture. (Liam Mogan)

The stately dining room at the Keg Mansion in downtown Toronto is empty—for now. It’s 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and Stephanie Brownridge is setting up her section for the night. Like all the other Fridays, it’s going to be a busy one. The 29-year-old is doing the usual: rolling up the silverware, setting down the wineglasses, dimming the lights way down low. In her head, she’s going over the “sizzle.” That’s Keg-speak for the exhausting features spiel servers have to memorize and recite for each table. She’s got three, maybe four, different versions in her arsenal. This month, it’s all about the pistachio-crusted salmon. Her first guests arrive at 5 o’clock. They sit. She sizzles: “If you’re not feeling the steak tonight, the salmon is my favourite,” she says. “It’s so yummy; it has maple butter on it.” They look impressed.

First one down. That night, Brownridge will say her sizzle at least 15 more times as the restaurant fills up with suits, tourists and giddy young couples who saved up all week for a fancy night out. And that’s not even the most repetitive part. “It’s the ghost stories,” she says. The Keg Mansion is housed in a Toronto heritage building once occupied by the prominent Massey family and, according to lore, a servant hung herself in the front foyer. “Every other table will ask if I’ve seen the ghost,” Brownridge says. “Am I tired of telling the story? Absolutely. But it’s part of the job.”

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Sizzling, storytelling, serving: Brownridge does it until her last guests leave, often in the wee hours of the morning—all for $9.50 an hour, plus tips. Evenings and weekends might be the rest of the world’s playtime, but it’s her nine-to-five. “The long hours are not my favourite,” she admits. Yet despite the stressful nature of the job, Brownridge has been doing it for seven years—an eternity in the food-service industry. And she doesn’t plan to quit any time soon. “Even if I got a better-paying job somewhere else, I’d probably keep this job a couple days a week because I actually really love it,” she says, her gaze becoming fixed. “Seriously, I’m not lying.”

Her love of the job isn’t just thanks to a great team or a great boss—it starts with her boss’s boss’s boss. Keg Restaurants Ltd. CEO David Aisenstat is one of the executives who not only understands why it’s important to engage employees—he knows how to do it. Aisenstat may now oversee a successful chain of 107 restaurants in Canada and the U.S., but boyhood memories of making milkshakes and bussing tables are still painfully entrenched in his brain; he understands how gruelling the business can be. It’s one reason why the Vancouver-based company has placed such strong focus on engaging its workforce. The Keg has made the list of the 50 Best Employers in Canada for 13 straight years; this year, some 85% of its front-line workers reported high satisfaction with their job, and turnover rates are well below industry average. Tenure like Brownridge’s is not rare. The Keg’s secret is deceptively simple: people at the Keg aren’t just told that they matter, they are shown exactly why, and that is a serious driver of engagement. Every employee, from the greeter to the griller, is made to understand how integral their work is to the success of the company. “There are no second-class citizens here. You can’t serve a dish without a dishwasher and you can’t seat a customer without a busboy,” says Aisenstat. “Our people are the most important factor if we want to succeed. I’d say they’re even more important than our steaks.”

It sounds nice to equate good staff with good sales—it’s what a CEO is supposed to say. But pleasant platitudes don’t create an army of merry journeymen. Action does. And that’s where the Keg excels.

Cocktail hour is over and the medium-rares start coming out of the kitchen. The pace is frenetic, but Brownridge’s energy is still as high and her sizzles as peppy as they were earlier in the shift. It’s all that “Kegger” blood, the moniker given to the 6,900 people who work at the company in Canada. Brownridge is what you’d call an exemplary Kegger. She’s pretty, talkative—the kind of girl who was probably popular in high school but nice to the nerds, too. In fact, a lot of the Keg’s employees are like that, even the guy who preps salads in the back, thanks to a hiring process that prefers personality over experience. The firm’s favoured recruiting tactic is to ask current staff to recommend their like-minded, extroverted friends. “Keggers are people people,” the Keg’s HR director, Dean Sockett, says. “They’ve got a sense of humour and they’re lots of fun to be around.”

Making things fun—getting employees to truly engage—is tricky to do even for “cushy” jobs. Just try doing it in hospitality, where employees tend to defect—or, perhaps worse, go on autopilot—much more often than the norm. Working in a restaurant or hotel often means dealing with unpredictable schedules, long hours, low pay and lousy customers. And it’s work that attracts the young and green, which naturally fuels turnover.

Engaging employees is too often seen as a simple matter that can be fixed with perks and pay, which is why so many bosses in low-paying, unglamourous industries think it’s a futile effort. But at its core, engagement is about a strong foundation of management practices that empower workers and inspire them to excel, says Neil Crawford, a partner at consulting firm Aon Hewitt, which measures engagement levels among firms to compile its annual Best Employers in Canada rankings, which are featured in these pages.Any employer can offer that kind of engagement. “You need to have an environment where people feel like there are more opportunities to improve, that they’re constantly getting feedback and feeling valued,” says Crawford. His research underscores why this matters: Companies with highly engaged employees regularly achieve higher-than-average levels of productivity, customer satisfaction and revenue growth.

That’s why the Keg cultivates camaraderie from the very moment a Kegger gets hired. The company employs a unique approach to training, in which every new recruit is paired with an employee who teaches them how to bartend, bus, expedite, host— pretty much every role short of manning the grill. It’s sort of like a booze-shilling buddy system. After the pair has spent four or five training shifts together, the company gives them snacks and drinks on the house so they can, essentially, hang out. Ta-da, one new friendship.

It’s a smart way to address one of the job’s inherent drawbacks: the hours. “Restaurants aren’t like a normal, nine-to-five business,” says Kelowna-based employee-engagement expert Linda Edgecombe (who, coincidentally, worked at the Keg in the ’80s, and recalls quaffing B-52 shooters with her workplace pals after-hours). “Evening shifts are hard on your employees’ social life and relationships. If you want to reduce turnover, you have to create an environment that they want to hang out in.” Cultivating on-the-job friendships also takes the edge off the grind and underscores that employee experience matters. If it all sounds a bit like a Barney song, it’s worth noting that besties are actually good for business. “If you can have a friend at work, you’re going to be much more engaged and perform better,” says David Zinger, a Winnipeg-based employee-engagement consultant. It’s why Brownridge can’t bring herself to leave. “I’ve left and come back twice because the people make this an awesome place to work,” she says. “I’ve made all my best friends here.”

Kegger friendships are buttressed by a strong element of mutual respect; there’s little of the toxic interpersonal resentments that fester in many high-stress workplaces. (According to the Keg’s Best Employers survey, 84% of its front-line employees have good feelings about their co-workers.) And that’s all by design. The fact that every employee has to learn how to do the job of everyone else helps each one understand—and appreciate—the unique pressures of each role. When the waitress knows not to toss dirty forks in the rinse pit, the dishwasher feels more respected and valued; when the bar-back understands why letting Polar Ice stores run low might anger thirsty patrons, the bartender feels more supported. It’s a virtuous cycle that makes everyone feel important.

This doesn’t stop with co-workers. A full 80% of managers are hired from within, meaning they know what it’s like to work in the trenches. Moreover, Keg managers don’t hide out in the office; they are trained to pick up a scrub brush or a martini shaker if it will de-stress the staff and lead to a better customer experience. This policy is about more than getting the job done; it’s a highly visual way to stress that no Kegger is above doing the work of any other. “This helps everyone see that the hierarchy is limited here,” says Sockett. (Some 83% of Keggers consider their managers to be effective leaders.)

There’s a wine spill in the dining room. There’s always a wine spill somewhere at the Keg. They’re the bane of the restaurant business: an instant killer of customer experience, and a huge embarrassment for the staff.

Lucky for Brownridge, the spill didn’t happen in her section. She’s been spill-free her last couple of shifts; the last really bad one was when a ramekin of ketchup flew off a plate she was carrying and hit the floor. It splattered on her guest’s suit. He was miffed. She was mortified—but she also knew it wouldn’t ruin her shift.

The Keg has a budget for incidents like this. Whatever the damage, the restaurant, not the staff, will foot the bill, and offer up an apology letter and cheque for dry-cleaning to the guest. (In one recent incident, a server spilled melted butter on a guest’s $2,000 Gucci purse. The manager cut a cheque on the spot, calming both the stressed staffer and the irked customer in one fell swoop.) “There’s nothing more frustrating on a busy night when you’re scrambling around and you screw up,” says the Mansion’s general manager, Robert Duncan. “We don’t believe in making them pay for their mistakes.” The fund also covers the bills of people who’ve dined and dashed—which many foodservice employers dock from employee paycheques—along with comped extras for customers whom the staff deem worthy. It all tells employees that the company has their interests at heart. “If we’re able to enhance the guest experience, then there’s a much better chance that the staff will get a better tip as a result,” Duncan adds.

As for difficult customers, staff are encouraged to page a manager if things get out of hand, and managers are trained to side with their staff in defusing the situation. According to Alexandria McKinney, who, as one of the Keg’s lead hostesses, is usually the first one to face the impatient and expletive-inclined, this is a huge plus. “It’s a very fearless environment in that way,” she says, “because managers will always have our back.” Even if that means losing a bill. Aisenstat himself once kicked out a belligerent guest overheard calling a server “a fucking idiot.” Gestures like these not only make employees feel supported, they also neatly reverse the “customer is king” mantra that wears down so many front-line workers.

The Keg lends that extra bit of empowerment and control back to the staff in other ways: in allowing last-minute schedule changes (something appreciated by the students on staff during exam time), in encouraging open dialogue practices (employees fill out anonymous surveys of management twice a year) and in promising consistency (if you’ve always worked Mondays, then you can expect to work Mondays). Brownridge found out just how unique these policies are in her dalliances working at other establishments—once in fine dining, the other time at another steakhouse. It only took a few shifts at each to reveal that not every restaurant is so supportive. “Here, it’s more flexible,” she says.

The restaurant starts to clear out, which means two or three Keggers will clock out every half hour until close. At around 11 p.m., it’s Brownridge’s turn. She cashes out, changes clothes, and goes upstairs to the bar to join a couple other Keggers who are done for the night. They drink beer, order something to eat off the menu, complain about a customer or two, decompress. As the night progresses, more Keggers join the table. The empty glasses pile up. “We always joke that we give the Keg back all the money we make,” says Brownridge.

It’s that friendship factor again, and it’s fostered in ways that don’t involve rounds of Keg-sized Caesars, too. There are annual two-day staffer-only ski trips, which cost the firm a cool $140,000 each year. There are softball tournaments, baseball outings and summer barbeques. And there’s the annual Keg Oscars and Kitchen Emmys, a prom-like soiree that celebrates the work of exceptional performers. This year, the Mansion staff all went together, renting a limo and wearing matching red boutonnieres and corsages.

It all transfers into a culture of inclusion, empowerment and support in which everyone is made to feel like a someone. A closer inspection of the restaurant’s Best Employers data shows that culture-related factors are the main reasons workers wrap on an apron and happily clock in for the night—they even trump pay. It’s something that all employers, especially those who struggle to fill physically demanding, repetitive, customer-facing jobs, should take note of before dismissing employee engagement as a useless buzzword. The Keg’s management say its people-friendly policies facilitate better customer experiences, which lead to stronger sales, which lead to happier shareholders. In this context, it’s hard to argue that making the effort to get employees excited about prepping steaks, bussing tables and telling a ghost story about a long-dead maid for the 283rd time isn’t worth the energy.

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