By Nancy Wood
How to find a way forward with diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace
Over the past few months, businesses have been faced with a critical challenge: come to terms with the long-standing issues of racial inequity and social injustice.
Historically, the restaurant industry has been considered one of the most diverse. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47% of restaurant employees are minorities. Of those, 25% are Hispanic, 12% are Black and 7% are Asian. In addition, four in 10 restaurant managers/supervisors and six in 10 chefs are minorities as well.
The industry is full of people of all ages, races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, religion and cultures, but those statistics don’t reveal the whole truth. According to a 2014 survey by the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA), while ethnic and racial minorities make up half of all hourly employees, only 31 percent of minorities are in general manager positions. At the executive level, only 8%.
Recent protests and the conversations about systemic racism that are happening all over the country and the world are encouraging owners and operators to take a good hard look at their own diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) programs. And real, lasting change starts from the top.
Where to Start
When the subject is diversity and inclusion, there are a multitude of resources restaurant industry leaders can tap into. Owners can comb through online workshops and webinars, create an internal team to assess their DE&I practices – or bring in consultants for a more objective view. The important thing to remember is that creating a diverse and inclusive environment – both internally and externally – takes work.
Natalie Keng, a multicultural marketing consultant, writer and entrepreneur, says a lot of restaurants and foodservice companies may be navigating this environment for the first time. “They want to be in a different place,” says the Georgia-born Asian American, “but they don’t know how.”
Founder of Chinese Southern Belle, a food and culture company based in Atlanta, Keng’s broad range of experience, including working with the National Conference for Community and Justice and serving on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as her own personal experiences, gives her a unique perspective.
As the only Asian family in the neighborhood growing up, “I was very aware we were different early on,” Keng says. She was introduced to the foodservice industry as a child – helping in her father’s Chinese restaurant in Smyrna. Keng credits her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. to attend college, for shaping her values of fairness, working hard and giving back.
“Those kinds of values shape who you are, how you interact and how you react to people who are different,” she says. “It also shapes how you want to lead your organization.”
The first thing leaders must do, she says, is “recognize what your culture is and own it. Part of that is listening to the people in your culture and people who are not in your culture. If you’re not inclusive or not diverse, you may not even have the voices at the table to listen to.”
Keng’s approach goes beyond ‘who’s at the table.’ “It’s not just who’s at the table and who’s not,” she says, “But who built the table? How many chairs are there? And where is it? Even if a leadership team is more diverse, do those people feel welcome and valued?”
Building on Existing DE&I Programs
For restaurants that have longstanding diversity programs in place, the current focus on DE&I has offered opportunities to reach out with some creative programs to support not only employees, but customers as well. At Willy’s Mexicana Grill, diversity has always been important to founder and CEO Willy Bitter. “Willy is 100% behind diversity,” says Diana Holley, vice president of marketing. “He has always supported hiring people of all races. If you look at our leadership team, you can see that.”
J.C. (Juan) Garcia is president of the company, which has 27 locations in Metro Atlanta plus restaurants in Athens, Cartersville, Columbus and Peachtree City. Before joining Willy’s in 2013, the Cuban-born Garcia spent 27 years with Benihana, where about 50 different nationalities worked at any one point.
“You couldn’t get more diverse than that as a national brand,” he says. “Diversity has always been at the forefront for me. I always say ‘everybody’s blood is red.’”
Garcia joined the company just as Willy’s was going through an expansion phase, opening 10 new restaurants in just four years. “Diversity and inclusion was always here, but we were a much smaller company then,” he says.
As the company grew, it became clear that while they had always had diversity programs in place, it was time to formalize those efforts.
“We invited a diverse group of team members, managers and support staff to help us reflect on words and actions that best represented our brand and our people,” Holley says. “The shared feedback was used to better define our core values and articulate behaviors that we have applied to our communications, training, job
description and decision making.”
“It wasn’t a huge change,” says Garcia. “It was a simplification.”
“Our brand is diverse naturally,” says Dominque Davis, who joined the company as Training and Culture Manager in 2019. Looking beyond just gender, race and sexual orientation, Davis says they hire based on age as well. “We truly believe that in all the spaces we create, we have all forms of diversity in the room.”
“There haven’t been enough minority opportunities in our field,” says Garcia, “even though the majority of our employees are minorities. You have to try to make a difference and change that perspective. You can’t do it by having words on a wall. You do it through actions.”
Davis heads one of the company’s biggest initiatives, an effort to put together development and career paths for everyone in the organization. “We want to make sure that everybody in our organization has a career path going forward,” says Garcia, “with extra development and upward mobility. That’s the only way you really move the needle forward.”
The company also has a high-potential program to identify people who are ready to be promoted in the field and a tenure recognition program for longtime employees.
Another example of inclusion has been the development of the company’s Warrior Program, which grew out of their effort to revisit its culture and core values. These are team members who live the company’s core values and act as ambassadors both to other employees and to guests. They wear a different colored hat and T-shirt while working in the restaurant in recognition of this designation.
Last year, the Warrior program continued to grow. “We created a curriculum team members can go through, including volunteering and supporting events,” says Davis.
Right now, there are 32 Warriors in the program. “We look at Warriors as internal ambassadors,” says Garcia. “They understand our values and can disseminate them to our 550 employees.”
Those values serve as a guide for everyone who works at Willy’s: Quality Crazed, Bring It!, Fueled by Fun, and We R Family. And those values (see above) include some key concepts – caring for others, embracing individuality, owning your actions and being respectful of each other – that tie into the idea of diversity and inclusion.
During Willy’s onboarding program, those core values are center stage, and the current group of 32 Warriors serve as internal ambassadors who can disseminate the values to all 550 employees.“We have cool core values,” Davis says. “It’s easier for our team to align with our values because they’re colorful and they’re not square.”
Beyond building and supporting a diverse, inclusive workforce and environment, Willy’s reached out externally this summer to customers with a creative response to the social unrest in the community. Through their longstanding partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta (BGCMA), they created a 5-week Family Taco Talks program intended to spark dialogue and conversation about diversity and inclusion with children and teens. Each week, a different card with questions developed by BGCMA was put inside every taco box.
“The youth development professionals at the Boys & Girls Club came up with the questions, and we produced them to put in the boxes,” Holley says. Each card includes two questions and invites people to share their stories and tag Willy’s on social media so they can join in on the conversation, too.
Willy’s also donated $1 from each Taco Box sold during the five-week period to BGCMA.
“We are community-driven and inclusive,” adds Davis. “Because the kids in the Boys and Girls Club are mostly minorities and mostly in poverty, it was important to partner to create something that affected the kids.”
Another foundation of the inclusive environment at Willy’s is their open-door policy. Any employee can email the president or vice president, and before the pandemic, Willy himself went to each restaurant on a regular basis to meet with each team. Although that isn’t occurring right now, both Bitter and Garcia are hand-delivering customized 25th anniversary gifts to each employee supporting the inclusive environment that began in 1995.
Committing to being a diverse and inclusive business has also positively influenced the company in other ways. “We’ve definitely seen an impact on our results and culture as we continue to navigate the diversity and inclusion initiatives that we’ve rolled out over the last two to three years,” Garcia says.
More people are jumping online to rate Willy’s, and those reviews are increasingly more positive. In 2017, there were 2,354 reviews cumulating in a 4.06 star rating out of five stars. By 2019, there were more than 9,260 reviews that year, and the rating had moved to 4.25. This year, before the pandemic, the company already had 1,398 reviews and a 4.41 rating.
More importantly, turnover has decreased significantly. The quick-serve and fast-casual segment is one where 150% turnover is considered the norm. And according to the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University, turnover costs restaurant businesses about $5,864 per person.
Before the program, some locations were above 300% turnover; today those restaurants are at 170% or below. Across all locations, the turnover has gone from 194% in January 2019 to 130% this year.
Giving Employees a Real Voice
Listening became paramount at the High Road Craft Brands manufacturing facility in Marietta this summer following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The company, which manufactures high-end ice cream and bakery products for food distributors, chefs, restaurants and consumers, has an 80-person workforce that is 75% Black.
When one of the employees began talking to Human Resources Director Courtney Raines about the deaths, she and CEO and Founder Keith Schroeder set up a series of roundtable discussions so employees could express their concerns.
“Our folks knew High Road was an accepting workplace,” says Schroeder, “but they didn’t understand to what degree their voices would be welcome and celebrated.”
“It didn’t make sense for us to ignore that type of conversation because of the traditional hush-hush type of dialogue in the workplace,” adds Raines. “We’re all watching the news.”
Giving everyone an opportunity to be heard in a safe space not only reinforced Schroeder’s knowledge and belief that the company wouldn’t exist without each employee, but as he put it, “It was a level of encouragement that made people feel
really warm and welcome on the inside.”
When Schroeder and his wife, Nicki, started the business 10 years ago, he didn’t need to be intentional about diversity or inclusion in the workplace. “We were a business born of foodservice professionals,” he says, “and it was just a natural extension of our historic professional livelihood to be very diverse.”
For a company that develops food that’s indicative of authentic, cultural experiences, Schroeder says there’s a net benefit for being diverse. “We believe that having folks from all walks of life gave us a better shot at developing interesting and compelling food products.”
Since the roundtables in July, the employees have continued to talk with Schroeder and Raines – and with each other. “I think it built camaraderie across the board,” says Raines. “We’re more open, and it made us more human – not just ‘go to work and go home.’”
Since Schroeder challenged employees to develop initiatives the company could support, some viable community-focused programs are taking shape. One initiative focuses on exposing kids in underserved neighborhoods to professions connected to food entrepreneurs, while another focuses on athletics and sportsmanship by setting up a soccer camp for employees’ children and their friends.
Creating an inclusive and equitable workforce also means helping employees grow in their careers. As a manufacturing company, some employees hadn’t had the opportunity to learn how to use a computer, so “we started a technology initiative,” says Raines. “And we’ve had language classes.” From a hiring perspective, she says the company is looking at bringing in more talent from areas that impact minorities at a larger rate, helping previously incarcerated people or those who have been out of work for a long time.
For leaders in foodservice who are working to improve their diversity and inclusion programs, Schroeder says this: “They need to shatter their human resources norms.” Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, he thinks the restaurant industry’s criteria are generally classist, “if not systemically racist.”
Referencing the focus on drug tests, background checks and years of experience, he prefers a more old-school approach. “Let’s just hire good humans and train them and nurture them – help them grow in the business,” he says. “Executives need to get in the trenches with their workforce and listen, even if it’s just once a quarter. To know that your employees feel welcome and included usually results in a more engaged and productive workforce.”
Helping leaders make systemic cultural change starts with asking the right questions and “meeting them where they are,” says DE&I consultant Keng. “We don’t all have the answers, and the answers have to be customized to your restaurant and your industry.”
Whether it’s a larger organization or a single independently owned restaurant, if you are considering bringing in a DE&I consultant or making significant changes to how you do business, a thorough assessment must be made, says Keng, to understand the organizational and decision-making structure, how the company functions, their stakeholders and constituents and what success looks like. Identifying the problems – or opportunities – plays a big role in devising solutions. “What companies think they need may not be what they need,” she says.
Achieving systemic cultural change takes time and requires sustained leadership, mentoring, resources and methods so people feel they are valued and belong.
“There’s no magic bullet,” Keng says. “You have to put your money where your track record is, and you have to move beyond apologies and guilt. If you want to make a difference, you have to do things differently.”