A well-fed staff is not just a happy staff, but a more efficient one.

One standout benefit of working in a restaurant is the close proximity to excellent food. Some of the best meals I’ve ever had came from my time working at a restaurant and enjoying staff meals: pre-service plates loaded with delicious food courtesy of the chef. We dissect three variations of the staff meal and explore how you can choose the right one for your team.

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What’s a staff meal?

The concept of a staff meal is pretty self-explanatory—a free meal given to the entire staff, usually before service. While it is considered a perk, it can have a definitive impact on your establishment’s turnover rates and staff effectiveness.

That doesn’t mean that all staff meals are created equal. There are stories all over the foodservice industry of these meals consisting of food that’s going bad or day-old foods that really shouldn’t be served at all.

Even if you are serving leftovers, this meal shouldn’t be an afterthought. This is an internal event for your team and should be treated with the importance it deserves.

The benefits of shared food

The immediate benefit of the staff meal is the team building effect it has. As you probably know, nothing brings people together like food. It invites conversation and creates connections. Everyone in food service has a work persona, but when you’re in a situation outside of work, it’s simply easier to break down the barrier. Studies show that a team that works together, shares knowledge, and has a cohesive team culture performs more effectively. When they know and can rely on each other, your establishment functions better.

Approaching the staff meal

There are several ways to go about choosing a staff meal, each with their own benefits and drawbacks:

  • The leftovers: We’re not talking about picking food off of people’s plates, but more specifically, this will usually cover the food not used either when made in large batches or prepped out before a shift. The food takes no extra prep time and it’s already paid for—two big perks of this staff meal style. The downside? The meal feels a little less special since it hasn’t been prepared specifically for the staff.
  • Education: If you want to provide a little training, an educational meal is another way to go. During education meals, the entire staff is served items on the menu, or off-menu specials that your restaurant will be serving or are experimenting with. Chefs take time to describe the dish and make sure that servers and bartenders know all the talking points to hit when describing specials. It’s important to remember that the food will come out of your pantry and you won’t see any money coming back. Costs aside, it’s an interactive and enticing way to train. You may also be able to deduct the cost as a business expense for superior service.
  • Family meal: One of the most loved types of staff meal is the exclusive meal, or family meal. Oftentimes, the chef in charge of preparing the meal will rotate through the kitchen staff. This meal isn’t about menu education. It celebrates team camaraderie and builds a spirit of togetherness, hence the moniker of “family meal.” Unlike leftovers, the meal costs both money and time—money spent on the ingredients and kitchen time spent to prep and prepare. While the benefits may not be tangible, a happy, hard-working staff is worth every penny.

The lasting rewards of a good staff meal

A staff meal isn’t required of an employer. It isn’t in any manual of rules or regulations. But going the extra mile for your team counts for a lot. It lets your staff get to know one another better, to gel into a more cohesive unit, and have some fun. It lets you train your staff in a practical manner that’s fun and different, test new dishes, or showcase a staff member’s talent in a low-risk environment. If nothing else, it gets rid of that food in the fridge that’s about to go bad, doesn’t it?

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