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Staff meals foster camaraderie at area restaurants

  • Bruce MacLeod, chef/owner of Carpenter & Main, goes over the menu for that evening during the staff meal in Norwich, Vt., on Thursday, July 11, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Shannon Hill, of Sharon, Vt., prepares a salad for the staff meal at Carpenter & Main in Norwich, Vt., on Thursday, July 11, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Leah Rutherford, of Sharon, Vt., pops a polenta fry into her mouth during the staff meal at Carpenter & Main in Norwich, Vt., on Thursday, July 11, 2019. Rutherford is the hostess and a member of the waitstaff at the restaurant. Eating with her are manager Mike Novick, of Thetford, Vt. and waitstaff member Kasaundra Landon, of Strafford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2019 10:00:18 PM
Modified: 7/16/2019 10:00:12 PM

The tables were set with white linens, the bars stocked with spirits, seltzers and fruit wedges, the last few mop streaks on the wood floors nearly dry. With 25 minutes to go before Carpenter & Main restaurant in Norwich opened its doors to the public for the evening, just one bit of preparation remained.

“Dinner!” someone hollered from behind the swinging doors that separate the dining room from the kitchen.

Within a few minutes, most of the Friday night staff had gathered at the horseshoe-shaped bar with plates of Cuban sandwiches, potato chips and salad for an evening ritual that many restaurant owners say is a key ingredient in their success: the staff meal.

In an industry known for high levels of burnout and turnover and few company perks, a free professionally made meal and the camaraderie that comes with it can serve multiple purposes.

For starters, a hearty meal fuels the staff for an evening spent on their feet, meeting the demands of hungry customers.

“It’s a cost effective way to fill people up,” said Bruce MacLeod, chef-owner of Carpenter & Main for the past 12 years.

“When we start, we start. And we go straight through,” said Skip Symanski, who owns Elixir in White River Junction with his wife, Jane Carrier. “People are going to be working until 9:30 or 10 at night. I don’t want them to go that long without having a meal. I think it’s the only fair thing to do.”

But the staff meal — also known in some restaurants as the family meal — has more than just caloric value. A shared meal can have an adhesive quality that lasts longer than the 20-30 minutes it takes to eat it.

“It’s so nice that we take a few minutes to sit down together,” said Kasaundra Landon, a server who was getting ready to pinch hit as bartender at Carpenter & Main last Friday evening. “I feel like it helps us be closer.”

That’s important in the restaurant world, where everyone’s tasks are connected and people are working in tight quarters under stressful conditions, said MacLeod, who lives in White River Junction and helped create the Chefs of the Valley fundraiser for the Haven 13 years ago.

He also thinks the nightly meal helps convey a sense of gratitude to his staff.

“I try to treat people well. This is one of the ways to thank them,” MacLeod said. “Everyone seems to appreciate it.”

“It certainly helps with morale,” said Mike Novick, of Thetford, who has served as manager of Carpenter & Main for the last year and a half. “In an industry where there’s no real expectation of getting benefits, this is a benefit you get: a real meal.”

That culture of appreciation can help reduce turnover — a common scourge in the industry.

“I have been very fortunate retaining staff,” MacLeod said. “The staff meal has a lot to do with that.”

Staff meals are common in restaurants around the region, particularly the smaller restaurants.

“If you look at the restaurant as an operation, it makes it easier to offer a meal for everyone together,” said Patrick Dowd, who has just started looking into offering a staff meal at the Latham House Tavern in Lyme.

Staff can currently order off the menu at a 50% discount — another common practice in restaurants — but Dowd, co-owner of the Latham House Tavern for the past three years, likes the idea of having his staff sit down and enjoy a meal together. They seem to like the idea too, he said.

Of course, what the staff meal entails has a lot to do with how well it’s received.

MacLeod, who’s worked in restaurants around the country for more than 30 years, has seen plenty of chefs churn out the same staff meals day after day or utilize the meal to save surplus food from the trash bin.

While he generally keeps his own staff meals simple, MacLeod takes pride in making fun, creative dishes.

“I make what I want to eat for dinner,” he said.

That can range from Asian stir fry to baked potato bar (or mashed potato bar, a recent hit with staff) to ratatouille to grilled cheese and tomato soup.

Landon, who lives in Strafford and also works at the Hanover Inn, where she gets a staff meal that’s more along the lines of cafeteria food, snaps a picture of MacLeod’s staff meal every day and posts it online to show her friends.

“I’m definitely spoiled getting a freshly prepared meal,” she said.

Symanski also believes in feeding his staff well. “We do everything from burgers, chicken, risotto, lasagna, short rib. … (The kitchen staff) almost always makes them from scratch.”

That’s not to say leftovers never find their way into well-prepared staff meals. Just as good home cooks exercise creativity and resourcefulness in re-purposing or using up ingredients, restaurant chefs can view the staff meal as an opportunity to make the most of their inventory for the week.

MacLeod, who is getting ready to debut a new menu featuring mostly small plates, also sometimes uses the meal to test a new dish or give the staff a taste of an evening special. Last Friday, he tossed the side salad with the same dressing he was putting on the special for the evening.

“I had a little extra and figured it would be a good idea to let you guys try it,” he said as he sat down with his staff at the bar.

After getting their input on the dressing, MacLeod got the staff up to speed on the nightly specials, as well as ingredients and preparation techniques that might affect people’s orders, and items he was running low on.

Business thus dispensed with, the group chatted and joked for the brief moments remaining before patrons would begin arriving.

Recently, MacLeod ran an ad for a part-time server/host in a local listserv. In it, he boasted “best staff meal in the Upper Valley!”

For all his enthusiasm, MacLeod doesn’t really believe the staff meal will help him attract new staff. But he stands by his claim. “No one’s argued with me yet on that,” he said with a laugh.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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