Employee Meal Policies That Work

The cost of feeding your staff pays off in higher morale, teamwork and loyalty.
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Approach shift meals from a cost perspective, start with a moderate meal policy and let it grow if budget allows. (Photo: George Rudy/Shutterstock)

The shift meal is a time-honored tradition at most restaurants. However, this fringe benefit can quickly nibble away at profits if it spirals out of control. 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.

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“It’s much less expensive to do it family style than letting staff order off the menu.” -Steve Zagor (Photo: Steve Zagor)

Family style or made-to-order?

Many restaurants like to create a defined 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.”

However, 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.

Related: How to Test Your Restaurant Menu

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.

Related: 3 Things That Keep Restaurant Owners Up at Night

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

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Make sure your employee meal policy details which items are exclusionary for employees. (Photo: hlphoto/Shutterstock)

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.

Related: 7 Tips for Developing an Effective Employee Handbook

Sometimes staff would rather eat at home. Should you let them to 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.

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.

Related: 6 Cool Employee Perks Your Small Business Can Afford

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.

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