Insights / Interviews / These D.C. Restaurant Owners Share Why Building a Robust Benefits Program Pays Off
These D.C. Restaurant Owners Share Why Building a Robust Benefits Program Pays Off

Back in 2014, two budding food professionals walked up to a farmers market in Washington D.C. and found themselves both reaching for the same carton of eggs. 

“It was the last carton, so we had to negotiate,” says Andrew Dana, recalling the time he first met Daniela Moreira, who months after the small, but monumental moment would become Dana’s business partner, and years later, his wife. 

The two decided on splitting the eggs. And in between negotiations, Moreira found out that Dana recently started a wood-fire pizza food truck operation. Moreira, a trained chef, was waiting on a job at a soon-to-open, fine-dining restaurant. So she asked Dana if he needed any part-time help in the meantime. He took her up on the offer, and not long after, Dana was recruiting Moreira to become his pizza operation’s full-time chef. He also wanted to make her a business partner.

“It took six months to convince her,” he says. “Then it took another couple of years to convince her to be my wife.”

They’ve since grown Timber Pizza Co. from a food truck into two brick-and-mortar locations. They also started Call Your Mother, a Jewish-style bagel and deli that has expanded into seven locations. Together, the couple’s nine restaurants now employ dozens of people. And it’s those people that Dana and Moreira largely credit for their success. From the very beginning, employee happiness has been a key part of their business model. This has led them to offer a robust benefits program, ranging from health insurance to language classes to a fund where employees can take out zero-interest loans.

We chatted with Dana, along with Moreira chiming in from the back of the kitchen, to learn more about their benefits program, and how it’s helping them succeed.

I’d love to hear what first drew you to the restaurant industry.

Dana:  My dad’s a lawyer, but growing up, he used to always say, “Oh, I should have opened a Jewish deli”. As long as I can remember, he was saying that. So I co-opted that line, but switched it to pizza. In college and grad school, I'd be like, “Oh, I'm going into marketing, but really I want to open a pizza restaurant”. The idea was ruminating in the back of my mind for decades. I just love food and hospitality and people.

Moreira: I’m from Argentina, and growing up my mom and grandma always had some sort of food business, selling food out of our house or a restaurant. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I knew how to cook. I figured I could travel the world and get a restaurant job anywhere. So I fell into it by mistake. But then as soon as I started culinary school and working in restaurants, I fell in love with it, and that became my passion. 

I went to culinary school in Argentina, and then here at the CIA. Then I worked at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, did a lot of catering, and worked at restaurants in Argentina.

Tell me about the inspiration behind each of your concepts.

Dana: I generally envision the finished product as a vibe before we come up with it. So for Timber, I always went to summer camp in Vermont growing up, and I had this vision of [Timber] being very woodsy and campy and basically reminiscent of spending summers in the Adirondacks, centered around simple, classic comfort foods.

For Call Your Mother, I grew up visiting my grandparents in Boca Raton, eating at Jewish delis and experiencing South Florida and its bright pops of color. So I envisioned this Boca Raton meets Brooklyn vibe, and built [Call Your Mother] from there. It's also simple comfort foods based around great baked products. 

You’ve vocalized the importance of creating a positive work environment. Was this something you cultivated from the start, and are there ways your philosophy or culture has evolved over the years?

Dana: Both our unique backgrounds help with this. Dani always came from the back of house, and she saw how sometimes the kitchen crew wasn't treated the same as the front of house, and wondered, “Why does the front of house team get all these tips and the back of house doesn’t?” So she had her perspective, and I just never really worked in restaurants, so I was like, “What do you mean there's no paid vacation?”, and “Why isn't there health insurance, that just seems crazy?” I basically thought, this industry should have all the perks that any other industry does. And then Dani was saying, “Let's try and make it fair and equitable across all parts of the restaurant because the dishwasher works just as hard as the front of house.” So that was the foundation with Timber, and we started that from day one. I think our ethos remains the same. But as you get bigger, you have a couple more resources, and we’re able to add more perks. 

Could you outline your current benefits program and how it’s grown over the years?

Dana: We offer health insurance, vision, and dental. We offer paid vacation. It depends how long you’ve been with us and your position, but it spans from unlimited to three weeks paid [vacation] for hourly employees. We have a 401K, and we have an employee fund, so if you ever need help with a down payment, for example, we basically give a zero-percent loan. We have three months maternity and paternity leave, free gym membership, language classes, and free food.

We started doing unlimited sick leave during the pandemic so people wouldn’t come to work if they were feeling under the weather. And the employee fund was born out of the pandemic, just in case someone got sick and needed help, and now it’s evolved into a more robust program. We just put a small percentage in every month so there's funds to help staff out. I got a private message just the other day from someone saying, “I love working here. Because of the employee fund, I was able to buy a car and a house that I wouldn’t have been able to do without that.”

Many of these expand beyond traditional benefits, not just within the industry but at large. How’d you choose the benefits you offer?

Dana: At its core, happy employees who feel taken care of lead to a successful business. So some of it's like the chicken or the egg question – do you build a big business and then offer the benefits or do you offer the benefits from the beginning and hope the business can support it? We went with the latter. If employees are super stoked to come to work, and they give great service and make great food, it leads to a more successful business. 

For the language classes, back of the house is traditionally from Central and South America, and front of the house maybe doesn't speak Spanish, and for a happy, cohesive work environment, we want people to be able to communicate. So that was a natural perk. And then the gym membership, we’re into working out, and it leads to a healthier mind and body and soul, and we just wanted to give everybody access to that.

Moreira: For the language, I came here not knowing English. The worst thing that can happen is not being able to communicate. And a lot of our team members have skills that are unbelievable, but they can’t get farther because they can’t communicate. So that was a great way of saying, “Hey, you can grow with us. Here's a tool to help you do that.” And to add to that, our team is lifting bags of flour every day and the delivery drivers do a lot of heavy lifting. If you don't know how to do it, you can get hurt, so we also offer classes on how to lift a bag of flour, and how to build that strength so you're healthy and don't have to take a month off. 

I read you’ve also offered classes on how to open a bank account, buy a house, get a loan – who teaches all the classes?

Dana: It depends on the class. For language classes, we were doing them at the Argentinian embassy, and then we hired a teacher. We basically use our networks to find good teachers who are stoked. Pre-vaccine, we had a couple different doctors come in to explain the vaccine, and explain it in Spanish to all the Spanish-speaking staff. We have a Director of Community and Health on our team who also owns a gym, so he helps people with their health goals and has one-on-one sessions about exercise and diet. So all sorts of people.

Can you talk about the value this has added to your overall business?

Dana: Employees stay for a long time. It’s institutional knowledge when people have been there for a long time, it’s invaluable. They know the ins and outs of the businesses. And it allows us to grow in a sustainable way because we have very low turnover. Then it's this cycle that feeds off of itself – we tell the story to our local communities, and then the local communities want to support the business because they know we're treating our employees really well. Then by supporting us, it allows us to support our staff even more. So it feeds off of itself.

How do you make it work financially – and do you have any advice for other operators?

Dana: We’re super, super blessed that we have these busy restaurants, which allows us to do this, and because we treat our staff well, they’re giving great service and making great bagels, and it feeds off itself. Customers in this day and age are looking for a 360-degree experience where they want great food, great sourcing, and [you] to treat the employees well. You have to build that from the get-go. It’s really hard to build the plane while you’re flying the plane. Invest in the stuff from the beginning because the employees are the heartbeat of the business.

We always do a gut check. Would we be happy with these perks? Is this enough to have us want to work here? If you wouldn't be stoked about working for you, why would somebody else be stoked about working for you? 

Are there any kinds of additional benefits or training you hope to offer in the future?

Dana: We’re always keeping our ear to the streets and seeing what else we can offer. Some of it’s just what we’re hearing from staff. Like the checking account [class], we were hearing from people who moved here from Central America that they didn’t know how to open a checking account, so we said, “Oh, great, we’ll teach a class on that.” 

Have you found it challenging at all to maintain the positive environment you’ve built as you grow?

Dana: We’ve had so many staff who’ve been with us since day one who get the ethos, and it makes it easier to grow with that ethos. That being said, we hired 60 employees in the last four months, and we had to do an audit. There were some staff who were being hired and didn't know about all the perks, so we had to do a better job of messaging to our own staff. It’s also about always looking under the hood and seeing how you can be better and making sure your staff is actually feeling the perks. If they’re not, then what’s the point? 

Do you market perks to attract new staff?

Dana: The best way to hire is referrals and word of mouth. Our best employees are friends of friends, and that’s because staff are the best at saying, “Hey, here are the perks, and they’re actually real.” Happy employees are going to tell their friends to come work with us.

Where do you see yourself growing in the future?

Dana: When we first opened Timber and Call Your Mother, we told a lot of staff, “Don't look at this as just a restaurant job. Look at this as a startup. I want you to think you can really build a career here.” And in order for me and Dani to hold true on that promise, we have to grow so we can offer new opportunities and new positions. We now have director of marketing and head of HR positions, positions that didn't even exist three years ago. So I think we want to continue to grow. What exactly that looks like, we don't know. But if people want bagels on the moon, we'll take bagels to the moon. We're looking to create more jobs and more opportunities.

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

[Photo courtesy Tim Casey]

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