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Friend That Cooks issues challenge to food service industry

It’s time for paid maternity leave

by Brandon O’Dell, Founder Friend That Cooks

Friend That Cooks Personal Chef Service has added paid maternity leave to the benefits package for our personal chefs in Kansas City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Wichita, Omaha, Des Moines, St. Louis, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Denver in an effort to pressure the food service industry to adopt paid maternity leave as a standard benefit.

The food service industry has a long history of using up and burning out employees. I’ve been there myself. I worked the 60+ hour weeks as a low level manager, and 80-100 hour weeks as a general manager. I’ve spent years consecutively missing Easter celebrations with the family, and other holidays. As a food service consultant, one of my primary focuses in helping food services has been teaching them how to get the most out of their employees by giving the most to their employees. It only made sense when I started Friend That Cooks that I practice what I preach when it comes to my own employees.

Benefits in a small business are very difficult to budget for. We don’t start out with the economy of scale our larger counterparts have, and government regulations like The Affordable Care Act create a large hurdle for companies looking to transition from small businesses into large ones. They create a “barrier to entry” making it so expensive to be a big business, that it becomes impossible for most small businesses to get there. We small businesses compete with those same companies for employees though, so it is very important for us to pay as well or better, and to offer comparable benefits if we want to compete for those employees. For companies like mine, it means starting out offering what benefits we can, then improving them as you can afford to.

From the day I started Friend That Cooks I treated our company like it was going to become a large business. I created our services with a 8-5, weekday work schedule in mind for myself and our future chefs. I wanted cooks and chefs to have an option if they didn’t want to sacrifice their personal lives for evening, weekend and holiday hours that are mandatory with most restaurants, caterers and other food services. I knew we were going to have to offer benefits as we grew to keep those employees from leaving to work for other food service companies, so as we’ve been able to afford it, we’ve added a healthcare bonus to help pay for health insurance. We added flex hours without restrictions so employees could decide whether to use them for sick days, holidays, personal days, or just to pad a light paycheck. We added a fuel supplement because our employees work off-site at our client’s homes. Most recently, we’ve added paid maternity leave for both female and male employees and a retirement plan. I also came up with a pay scale that allows our cooks to earn around 50% more per hour than they can on the line at a restaurant, caterer or meal delivery business.

No matter how big or small you are, all the businesses within a sector, like food service, are competing for the same employees. Usually the big names get the top talent, and the rest of us have to spend more money training to create talent. Within the food service industry though, employees at both big and small companies have to sacrifice a lot to have an actual career, missing dinners with friends, birthdays and holidays with the family. Usually without benefits.

Friend That Cooks does NOT accept that employees have to sacrifice their personal lives to have a career in the food service industry. We do NOT accept that holidays are just another mandatory shift, nor Friday night or Saturday night. We do NOT accept that the best employees should have the most work put on them, making up the slack of less productive employees, nor make the same pay as less productive employees. We do NOT accept that our industry is one where you shouldn’t expect benefits. We do NOT accept that mothers and fathers in the food service industry with new children shouldn’t have a few months to bond with their children before choosing to return to work, just as they do in some other industries. Most importantly, we do NOT accept that government force should be required to make the food service industry adopt employment policies that are beneficial to itself if done voluntarily, because they can be very detrimental when done by force. That’s why we’re going to apply some pressure to the industry organically by offering more ourselves.

We are challenging our food service industry counterparts to do the right thing. Consider the needs of your most valuable asset, your employees. We challenge you to start with an inexpensive and easy to implement benefit, then build off of that. We are challenging you to offer paid maternity leave of some sort to both female and male employees.

Paid maternity leave is a huge benefit for an employee. As a two-time father, I realize how important it is to have time to bond with your new son or daughter. You can never have back those first few months to build the foundation of your relationship with your child. Especially in a job where 60+ hour weeks are mandatory like most food service management jobs, and missing your family is expected.

For an employer, paid maternity leave is not a huge expense. It’s really fairly affordable. It’s maybe 1/2 or 2/3 pay for one, two, or three months. It can even be extended to indefinite leave beyond that without pay or cost, as long as it’s also without penalty. Consider how few times you have an employee welcome a new baby. It’s rare. If you don’t retain that employee, or others that leave for better benefits, you have to hire and train a replacement which might mean $250 in help ads, $100+ in new uniforms, and several hundred in training labor expenses. Not to mention the hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost productivity until that new employee is as good as the lost employee. I think we all know that it’s cheaper to retain help than it is to replace them.

Even if they don’t include maternity leave, your benefits are one of your most valuable tools to retain employees. Your food service employees want a quality of life they see other people enjoy, and that doesn’t always mean more pay. In the food service industry, especially full service restaurants, many employees already enjoy good pay. But what happens when they need time off? Especially extended time for something like having a baby?

Friend That Cooks recently experienced this dilemma when we faced our first occurrence of an employee planning a birth. We decided that the right thing to do for both the employee and for ourselves was to offer paid leave. Our employee got 2/3 of their average paycheck for the first two months after their leave started. They got 1/2 of their average paycheck for a third month, and began light duties part time to ease back into work and maintain more pay. Our employees also have the opportunity to have indefinite unpaid leave after that, without penalty, and we will hold a position for them for as long as they need.

From our employee’s perspective, this is a safety net. It provides stability for a new parent during a time that I personally know is incredibly crazy. It provides piece of mind to know there is no chance of losing their job, their seniority or momentum in their chosen career. From our perspective, we save the cost of replacing a valuable employee. In some instances, we will likely have to hire a new employee to pick up some of the extra work, but it won’t be because we lost someone good. We also won’t have to pay for help ads, uniforms and training for the next new hire because we will have one returning to us from maternity leave within a few months.

This is my challenge to the food service industry, both large and small businesses. Reconsider what you are offering for benefits. I know that health care plans have skyrocketed in the last few years, so you can only do so much on that front. There are many other things important to employees though, and many benefits you can offer that truly are affordable. Stop thinking in terms of “This is just how it is in the food service industry”, and think of non-traditional perks you can offer employees, or different ways to offer traditional perks. Create a small budget and build on it as you can. Do the small things until you can afford the large things. Offer paid maternity leave as a start.

Friend That Cooks is still a fairly small, but growing operation. We aren’t 100% where we want to be with our benefits program yet, but we are close and we have a plan to get the rest of the way. In the future our healthcare benefit will increase, eventually to a full blown group health plan when possible. For now, we do what we can until we can do more. The rest of you should do the same, and a HUGE pat on the back to those of you who already do.

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