• Erika Adams

How The Smith Measures Employee Happiness


What does a successful restaurant team look like? How is it built? What are its values? These are the questions that restaurateurs are grappling with now more than ever. The ones who devote significant time and effort to seeking answers are the ones who will succeed in an constantly-changing industry.

The Smith's Penn Quarter location, in Washington D.C. / The Smith

Ask any restaurateur what the most valuable part of their business is, and that answer is likely going to be their people. Building the right culture and seeking out the right staff hires is critical for a restaurant’s success. It’s also never been harder: 75 percent of restaurants were constantly understaffed this year and turnover rates are at their highest in decades, according to research from data analytics firm TDn2K.

At the Corner Table Restaurant Group, which owns The Smith, founder and chief executive officer Jeff Lefcourt devotes much of his time to figuring out the best ways to attract, hire, and retain the right people who naturally display a hospitality-first mentality. Lefcourt oversees 1,000 employees who serve millions of guests each year at The Smith’s six locations across New York City and Washington, D.C. As he puts it, “if they are not successful, it’s me that’s failing, not them.”

At Skift Restaurants Forum on September 24, Lefcourt will discuss best practices around hiring and staff retention alongside Ellen Yin, founder and co-owner of High Street Hospitality in Philadelphia. Lefcourt sat down with Skift Table ahead of the Forum to briefly discuss some of what he’s learned about staffing throughout the years at The Smith.

Skift Table: Describe The Smith’s approach to hiring and staff retention.

Jeff Lefcourt: One of our core values is ‘wait for great.’ We really want to wait for people that believe in the same things that we believe in. Especially when it comes to managers and chefs, but really, everybody. We have these postcards that we show people when we’re interviewing that list our purpose and our core values as a company. We really want to only bring on people that we feel enjoy making other people happy, which is our organization’s purpose.

The way we make all of our decisions has that as the backdrop. That’s the most important thing. If we could find people that love what they do, have fun coming to work every day, and really enjoy making the rest of the team that they’re on feel good and happy every day, and certainly, get a lot of pleasure out of taking care of guests, then we’re competent that we could teach them about food, and wine, and cocktails, and all of that kind of stuff. It really starts with believing in the same things.

Skift Table: Do you think that’s specific to restaurants, needing to find people that want to work in an organization that they feel good about?

Lefcourt: I think, in general, there’s this problem in many cities and, perhaps, lots of different places in the country, where people are spending time together in bars, restaurants, and on the subways, or trains, or people’s backyards, and so often you hear people complain about their job and complain about their boss. It hit us years ago: ‘I hate my job, I hate my boss, I hate my job, I hate my boss.’ It’s what people talked about all the time.

In our first orientation with people, we tell them that we’re very aware of that and we really want to be different. We really only want people working on our team, in our restaurants, that don’t say that. That we don’t want to have any bosses, or any peers, that people don’t like, and we want people to enjoy what they do. It’s another one of our huge beliefs, that you should enjoy what you’re doing and have fun at work.

And, I don’t think it’s just the restaurants. I think in tons of different industries there’s a problem where people are not engaged in what they do. They don’t feel like part of a team, they don’t feel part of something bigger than what they’re doing. We find it easy in restaurants to give people a real sense of purpose and really make sure that everybody feels like what they do, whether you’re cleaning the bathrooms, or doing dishes, or you’re a prep cook, or a line cook, or a server, or a bartender, that you’re part of, hopefully, touching people’s lives in a positive way.

Skift Table: What does a successful team at The Smith look like to you?

Lefcourt: We think about this all the time, how every single day, everybody in the restaurant can measure success. And, when you walk out at the end of the day, regardless of what position you’re in, you can really know whether you’ve had a successful day or not.

For me, I ask myself the question you just asked: what does success look like? It is really about the happiness and the engagement of all the people working in the restaurant. At the end of every shift, employees fill out a communication report. And one of the questions is, “How did you feel when you arrived at work? How did you feel when you left work?” and there’s different emojis that people can circle.

For us, and, hopefully, certainly, our employees, if they leave feeling worse than when they arrived then that would be a not-successful day for us. And we would really want to explore that and figure out what, if anything, we could do differently, so that they at least feel the same happiness as when they got to work. But, if they could leave feeling good about something they did during the day and leave a little bit happier than when they arrived — that’s our goal with every guest that comes into the restaurant and it’s our goal with everybody on our team.

Skift Table: What’s the top labor issue that’s concerning you this year?

Lefcourt: I think it’s really what you asked first, which is how do we attract the best people and retain people? It’s not our way to be concerned about where minimum wage is going, or tips or no tips, or any of that kind of stuff. We are big believers that we’re in this for the long haul, and those little blips will perhaps change how we do things in the future.

But the most important thing, and the reason we will continue to retain great people, and attract great people, is because of the culture that we have in the restaurants and that’s what we focus on all the time. What I’m constantly thinking about is to make sure that we are walking the walk and not just saying that we want to be a great place to come to work every day, but that we are actually doing it.

Skift Table: In an interview in 2016, you talked about aiming to be the best restaurant company to work for in the country. Do you think you’re there yet?

Lefcourt: I feel like we’re there on lots of levels. I don’t know who’s making the decision on it, handing out the awards, but I feel really confident that we look at things differently. One of the ways that we have been talking about things differently in the last year or so is, if you envision a normal company structure, you picture a pyramid with the senior leadership on the top and then the hourly employees on the bottom, and maybe middle management in the middle.

We have been talking about this upside-down lately. So the senior leadership is at the bottom of this upside-down pyramid, and it’s really all about how managers and leaders can serve everybody in the organization. It’s very powerful when you bring on a new group of people and you tell them that it’s my job to take care of everybody, and support everybody in all the restaurants to make sure that every chef, every manager, every server, every cook, every busser, every dishwasher has all the support they need to be successful. And, if they are not successful, it’s me that’s failing, not them. It changes how we talk about what it means to be a leader and to be a manager in restaurants. I think it creates a different energy and we’ve been really excited about that.


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