Insights / Interviews / How the Pandemic Led This Chef to Completely Rethink His Staffing Strategy
How the Pandemic Led This Chef to Completely Rethink His Staffing Strategy

After weathering the pandemic with the help of a dedicated team, chef Peter Prime found himself wanting to change the narrative on how restaurant staff are treated, both financially and mentally.

“I watched our staff who were there with us through the whole pandemic, risking their lives and allowing us to continue to be the restaurant we wanted to be,” says Prime, cofounder of Trinidadian hotspot Cane in Washington D.C. “From that experience, I knew going forward, whatever I wanted to do, I wanted it to be a more sustainable model – for the business, as well as for all the people working in the business.”

The experience forced Prime to think about the value of labor and the future of restaurants, and ultimately it led him to step away from his own restaurant, which he ran with his sister. The two were also in the process of opening a new spot, St. James, which Prime left simultaneously.

After his departure, Prime announced he was taking some time to work on a cookbook focused on the foundations of Caribbean cuisine. But it wasn’t long before he returned to the industry, three months later signing to become partner and executive chef at Washington D.C.’s Bammy’s. Here, Prime plans to bring his Trinidadian perspective to the already established Caribbean-inspired menu.

We chatted with Prime to learn more about his pandemic takeaways and how they’re changing the way he works, plus what steps he thinks the industry needs to take now in order to become more sustainable.

Earlier this year, you left Cane, also stepping away from your partnership with your sister and St. James, which you’d been working on opening together. Can you tell me about that decision?

I don't want to go into a lot of details, but there were definitely different visions for the role of staff in the restaurant that we were opening. Some of the stuff that I wanted I guess is unproven, but I wanted more of a career path for the front and back of house and more of a managerial path for more people, and to charge food costs that make a high-end restaurant sustainable.

Three months after leaving Cane, you signed on to become partner and executive chef at Bammy’s. What played into that decision?

I’m still in love with restaurants. There’s still a lot I want to contribute. My level of ownership is different at Bammy’s than it was going to be, but we’re coming from the same place in a lot of ways. They have a lot of people in the restaurant who have equity and ownership and are a real part of the team, and I’m excited to be a part of that. Then the food is obvious, and I’m a fan of what Chris and Joe have done throughout their careers. 

As you start this new role, how do you see your takeaways from the pandemic changing the way you work?

I’m going to be more vocal about the value of food and what it takes to both employ people and have a vibrant restaurant scene. I don’t want there to be a situation where there’s another pandemic, or another crisis, and people are suddenly out of work, and we’re way behind in rent. The whole system has to start to implement the lessons we’ve learned. I definitely don’t have it figured out yet, but that’s the direction I want to go.

Do you envision this changing your hiring strategy in the future?

I’m not sure how it’ll change the way I hire, but I think more in terms of how I treat employees. I want to better express how they can be a part of the organization, as opposed to just hiring people for a job and asking how many hours they can work. I want to include people more in the business.

It’s about having conversations and finding what’s important to different members of the team, and allowing people to do what they ask for. 

Everything we hear about best practices in HR and the way Fortune 500 companies hire, all of those are applicable to our business. Pay people really well, and create a space where it’s a viable career, and not just for general managers and the executive chef. Part of that is we may have to charge more and let guests understand why that’s happening.

There has to be more of a lateral structure where you allow people to shine. I always try to give credit to the people who are actually doing the cooking and most of the work. Any press I get, I try to include them as much as possible. I know I have some cooks who are even better than I am, and I want to provide a platform for their skills. One of the things I’ve wanted to do is have the younger chefs do late-night menus that can give them a showcase. 

You’ve said you have a mission to create fair salaries for both BOH and FOH. What changes do you think are important to be able to achieve that?

Profit-sharing is a great way to incentivize, but it depends on the ownership structure, and that won’t necessarily work for everyone. 

When tips fell through [during the pandemic], a lot of waitstaff fell through the cracks, but previously, servers would come in for a few hours and make more money than managers, so the system is broken and it doesn’t make sense. In a lot of ways, servers are working for the guests, not the restaurant. So it needs to be restructured, whether that’s actual profit-sharing or having everyone more involved in sales, from the kitchen to the front of the house.

There’s such a big disconnect with the back of house and the guests. One of the things I love is when you make a dish, and you take it to the table. You have more ownership of the food, and you’re connected to the person you’re serving. Sales are definitely tied to the efficiency of the back of house, so they need to be part of the whole tip structure. We may need to move away from tips and just charge with the food costs. Ideally that’s what I would want to do, where tipping becomes something you do only if you want to give something above and beyond.

So it just has to be changing a lot of things we’ve accepted as “this is the way it’s done”.

Do you think the no-tipping model is a strategy that’ll eventually become the norm across the industry? 

I am optimistic. The pandemic definitely created a shift in mindset, and the labor shortage is a huge issue right now. Some people are going to figure it out, and some people aren’t. And this could be a strategy people take to figure it out. It’ll happen easier and it’ll happen better if restaurants come to that consensus together. We need to be in sync on how to move forward.

What else do you think it’ll take to reverse the staffing crisis?

Increase menu prices to raise salaries. The industry can be very financially inconsistent, and the hours aren’t flexible, and there’s this “get it done, suck it up” mentality. But that’s not something you can do while you go and raise a family. So we need to make the money more consistent and equitable and make more of a career path. I don’t think people want to go back to the same old, same old. We’ve got to make it sustainable so people can have a healthy life outside of it.

I want to expand upon manager roles. For servers, that’s part of making a career path, allowing them to learn and help with other parts of the business. The job has to be more than just showing up, selling food for a few hours, and then leaving.  You might not be able to have as much staff, but that’s the situation we’re in right now anyway.

It comes down to giving people added responsibility – having people involved with getting people in the door, involved in conversations about food waste and seeing the invoices. It’s going to take more transparency and letting go a little of control so that others can help, but with the right people, it takes some of the burden off of you, you have extra eyes, and people are more invested.

What initial goals do you have for yourself as you take on a new role at Bammy’s?

I want to be a better mentor and more well-rounded. I’m just really excited to share the breadth and depth of Caribbean food and am excited to start cooking again. I definitely don’t have everything flushed out, but I do know we need to make some changes moving forward. 

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.

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