How a Daily Communal Meal Brings Restaurant Staff Together

The experience of a daily ‘family meal’ is crucial to making restaurant staff feel like more than just cogs in a wheel.

Shortly before nightly dinner service begins at Sanford, the front-of-house staff sits down at Table 5 for their own meal. A long-standing tradition in many restaurants, “family meal” is the time when the staff comes together to eat, bond and talk shop. In this small East Side fine dining establishment, it’s a critical part of the day. For one thing, employees perform better when they’ve been fed. It’s also a perk for a job that’s often incredibly stressful. “It absolutely builds this team and family element,” says co-owner Justin Aprahamian. “They talk about the night, and there’s a social element, too.”

On the day I spoke with Aprahamian, the family meal menu was pork sandwiches with a green salad and roasted potatoes – not the four-course tasting menu the chefs were preparing for restaurant guests. Because the cooks are putting so much effort into their work, the meal tends to be relaxed. “We eat a lot of tacos,” says Aprahamian, and that particular hand-held creation seems to have a Sanford history. When Sandy D’Amato owned the restaurant, “his dad used to come down and joke, ‘Tacos, again? You guys should open a taco stand,’” says Aprahamian.

Photo by CJ Foeckler

 

 

Bay View’s Odd Duck handles its family meal differently, spreading it out buffet-style in the work area of its basement, after dining service has wound down. The reason for this is a practical one, says co-owner Melissa Buchholz. Between finalizing menus and holding pre-shift meetings, there just isn’t time beforehand. While the kitchen staff is in earlier in the day, many front of house workers don’t arrive until shortly before the bar opens. So it’s not until work shifts are ending that the staff breaks bread together and catches up.

The daily tradition creates a tighter team, Buchholz says. “We’re a multi-part human machine trying to work together to get the meal out. That camaraderie and mutual respect that develops [through family meal] is part of building a culture that also works for guests.”

Photo by CJ Foeckler

When a dish comes off the menu at Odd Duck, any extra product gets placed on the family meal shelf, things like hummus, salsa and pickles. The line cook or chef responsible for that night’s meal might craft a dish of personal interest or one they’re vying to have featured on the ever-changing Odd Duck menu. It could also incorporate a technique the chef is honing or simply be a left-fielder like meatball bombers or a baked potato bar.

The very informal basement setting stems from space constraints on the restaurant floor. Staffers grab a plate of food and stand (or perch on a cooler or random piece of furniture), chat and eat. “It works really nicely at the end of service to recap the night,” says Buchholz.

Photo by CJ Foeckler

All of the Bartolotta-owned restaurants serve a family meal of one kind or another. And the labor shortage wracking the food industry has only strengthened company owner Paul Bartolotta’s resolve to take it seriously.

“It’s a commitment to your people, your most valuable asset,” he says. At Bacchus, for example, executive chef Nick Wirth “always has a salad, a potato and often a basic roast chicken with garlic and thyme. There’s no shortcut to doing it. Our industry is hard. How do we make it better? I’m doubling down on family meal.”

Photo by CJ Foeckler
Photo by CJ Foeckler
Photo by CJ Foeckler

 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s October issue.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.