Case Study: Milestones’ Leadership Training Turns Perks into Profits

Sometimes, what may seem to be an extravagant employee perk on the surface can in fact be a bonding experience, a skill-sharpening exercise, and a multi-faceted leadership training opportunity — all wrapped up in one simple idea: the getaway.

That’s what senior management at Milestones restaurants have learned through an ongoing training program whereby all its head chefs meet for an annual four-day seminar away from the shop. Says former executive chef Jim Romer, “leadership training is part of it, but it’s also a chance to focus on food quality and freshness, new ingredients, recipe execution and team-building.”

Since the program began in 1990, Romer’s team, which now represents 27 stores, has visited such locales such as Mexico, California’s Napa Valley, Ontario’s Niagara region and Alberta’s beef country. Romer feels keeping it a priority, despite the increasing price tag, is a way of demonstrating to all staff that, “appreciation of food quality and execution are what set us apart from our competition.”

At each getaway, Milestones owner Wayne Holme delivers a visionary address, which Romer thinks is crucial. “It shows our chefs how far we’ve come and how far we intend to go, and addresses what they can do to help us all get there. We’re growing at five stores a year, so it’s very important for us to help them develop their leadership skills as well as their food appreciation.” (The chefs are then encouraged to return to their home restaurants and help instill a sense of pride and enthusiasm, as well as develop the skill sets of those who wish to rise up through the ranks, as they themselves have done). Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the staff are encouraged to interpret the chef’s absence as an opportunity to show their own mettle. “With the chef aways it’s a great time for the sous chefs to step up and show what they can do,” says Romer.

One of the highlights of the getaway is the black box competition. At home, the chefs get to call the shots; now, they have to work quickly and efficiently as part of a team of equals. Romer believes that the competition is an excellent way to “facilitate communication skills and dialogue.” The result is adjudicated by a panel of outside judges, so the whole exercise, “isn’t just satisfying Jim, but they have to please the judges, who are like our everyday customers.” Cash prizes sweeten the pot.

There’s no denying that these trips constitute a heck of a perk, but even that fact alone has instructive value, Romer says. “It’s very inspiring for the chefs to eat in the Napa Valley and see how good food can be. I try to show them that it’s up to them to be passionate about food quality, in-house prep, food sense in general. After all, they don’t just open a box and serve it up. But when you’re doing so much volume, it’s easy to lose perspective. For me, it’s all about helping them be passionate about the food industry.”

Limited Resources?

Not every operator has the resources to take their people off on a trip to scout spices in Mexico or visit the Culinary Institute of America in California. However, there are perks and rewards that can have a similar impact and effect on motivating your staff and keeping the passion for your business alive and well.

Attach rewards in the form of token gifts for exceeding expectations. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Take your team on a tour of your own backyard; chances are you don’t have to go very far to experience the local cuisine and culture. Continuous learning to add to their skills and knowledge is a great perk and costs very little. Try generating enthusiasm with in-house creative competitions and fun activities to relieve the daily stressors of work.

In the end, it’s not about where you go, but about thinking outside the box and using your imagination to make your people feel valued and important and that translates into an engaged and motivated team to deliver an exceptional experience to your customers.