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Hiring your first employee - Interview with Will Gould

1-minute read

Hannah Smith

Hannah Smith

19 July 2012

Will Gould opened the Watch House Restaurant in St Mawes in the Summer of 2011. He’s kindly agreed to share his experiences of hiring employees as a first time small business owner.

How did you come to own a restaurant?

I’d been working as a chef in London for more than ten years, but I think it’s fair to say that running my own restaurant was something of a dream of mine; so when the opportunity came up in 2011 I leapt at the chance.It’s been a really steep learning curve, but the restaurant has survived the all important first year and I’ve learned so much in the process.

How did you know you were ready to hire?

When you run a restaurant you’ve really no choice in the matter. The reality is that I just couldn’t do everything on my own – take bookings, prep for service, greet guests, take their orders, get them drinks, cook their food, bring them their food, clear the tables, bring them the bill, wash up – not to mention all the other associated tasks – accounts, tax, ordering supplies, devising the menus etc. That made the decision to hire easier I guess!

How did you determine how many people to hire?

This is the scary bit! As a new business owner you have to hire based on a whole stack of assumptions which add up to your forecasted turnover. There’s a rule of thumb in the restaurant industry – essentially you forecast turnover and expect to spend 30% of it on staff; 30% on produce; 30% on your premises and you’re left with 10% profit.  As such we determined that we could afford to spend 30% of our projected turnover on staffing costs and hired based on that.Looking back at our books and wage costs we did over spend, albeit deliberately – service is really important to us so we decided we wanted people (and lots of them) – particularly front of house to take care of our customers. I’d previously worked for a company that was built around the quality of staff and always having enough people to get the job done well, be it running a cafe serving 20 customers or an event for 1000 people, as such my view was you have to have enough employees in the right position in order for things to run smoothly.

How did you determine which roles you needed to hire for?

Basically I sat down and wrote out all of the tasks that needed to be done. These tasks were then fairly easy to translate into job descriptions.

How did you figure out how much you could afford to pay people?

As I said before, when we started it was based on projected turnover but we didn’t adjust our staffing levels based on actual revenue – as such we ended up spending about 70% of our revenue on staff. This led to losses in our first year.We’ve got much better at this now and spend about 30% on staff costs. Each week we figure out how many members of staff we think we can afford based on a combination of the previous week’s turnover, the turnover we did for the same week last year, plus any other factors we think need to go into the mix – e.g. weather forecast / bank holidays etc. In terms of figuring out what to pay individuals we typically look at:
  • Candidate’s experience / ability
  • What the market dictates (i.e. what are other local restaurants paying for similar roles)
  • Information from the staffing agencies we’veused before
We pay people as best we can – we’ve found if you can offer a little over the ‘going rate’ you sometimes attract better candidates. We also offer additional benefits – e.g. accommodation and training.

What would you have done differently?

I would have started skinny. I think it would have been better to hire as few people as I thought I could get away with at first. This would then have enabled me to more quickly identify which additional staff / expertise I was actually missing.

How did your job change as a result of who you hired?

The first time around I made a lot of mistakes. Because I knew how to hire chefs; I hired chefs, but unfortunately this meant that I ended up trying to be business manager / accountant / HR manager – things that I’ve never done before, and to be honest, wasn’t very good at.Now we’re into our second season I’ve hired an experienced front of house manager who also helps me to manage the business. As a result I’m now back doing what I do best - food.

How do you know when you've made a bad hire?

Within a restaurant environment a bad hire sticks out like a sore thumb – they ruin the flow of the service, upset customers etc.

When should you get rid of a bad hire?

As soon as possible. I think in my first year I made the mistake of spending too much time trying to ‘fix’ bad hires. I'm not saying you shouldn't give people chances - you absolutely should; but I think you know when things just aren't working out and there's no way to fix it.

What qualities yo you look for when you hire now?

  • People who are passionate about what they do and share our vision for the business
  • People who are quick and eager to learn
  • People who are flexible in their approach
  • People who have energy and a sense of pride in what they do
Wherever possible we’re looking to hire fewer, more experienced people as we’ve found that works better for us.

Who was your most valuable hire?

I’m going to have to highlight two actually; and I think this is probably true of most businesses. Your most valuable hires are probably:
  • The person doing the thing your business just can’t function without
  • The person doing the stuff that either you can’t do or are bad at
The person doing the thing that my business can’t function without is my pot-washer. I can cook all the awesome food I want but if I’ve no plates to put it on I can’t sell it. Plus without the pot washer clearing down for me – I can’t even cook. The person doing the stuff I can’t do (and am pretty bad at actually) is my Front of House Manager. During service I’m in the thick of it in the kitchen. As such finally finding a great a Front of House Manager was a huge deal. The role is really important because they can see all the stuff I don’t see because I’m in the kitchen. They also help me manage and run the business day-to-day.

How do you feel about out-sourcing as opposed to hiring?

We outsource for various roles – e.g. right now we’re using agency chefs to cover shifts. We also outsource our accounts – we don’t need a full time bookkeeper or accountant but outsourcing this has been massively beneficial for us.We’ve also outsourced other services such as training – e.g. we had our wine supplier come in and teach our front of house team about wine pairing; and our coffee supplier came in and gave us barista training.

Is there anything you wouldn't outsource?

Obviously this will vary from restaurant to restaurant, but something we decided pretty early doors was that we wouldn’t outsource anything to do our food. You can save on chefs by buying in prepared food; but that just didn’t sit comfortably with me. Instead we just bring in raw ingredients and make everything on the premises.

Final thoughts?

Fail Fast \:)        Know that you will mess up. Our revenue forecasts were very ambitious and we didn’t initially have the right processes in place to be able to accurately reforecast. Once we improved that – lots of other things began to fall into place.I guess I’d say don’t worry about failing, just be aware of and take steps to fix whatever you need to as quickly as you can.

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