Napier’s Bistronomy recently won Best Restaurant at the 2019 Hawke’s Bay Hospitality Awards, and it holds two Cuisine Award hats. Owners James Beck and Amber Linter-Cole are working towards sustainability in all aspects of their business, including the complex area of staffing. Here, James shares some thinking around the move towards the Living Wage and the other ways they’re creating a better workplace.

We didn’t start Bistronomy necessarily thinking sustainability was going to be at the core. 

We’d had Taste café in Hastings for five years and were getting a bit over the task of keeping it all organic, and the preconceptions that came with that – it’s going to be too expensive because it’s organic … it’ll just be chickpeas – when we were doing more. Yes, there was a really good lentil sausage roll, but we had pork belly as well!

Here, I just wanted to do my kind of food – modern, with a lot of modern technique and really good flavours, at a higher level than I was doing at Taste. 

So that’s how it started, and then more and more we’ve been drawn into this idea of sustainability. An ongoing challenge.

In terms of sustainable staffing, it’s come from me having not been the easiest guy to work for. I’ve got high standards, and I expect people to follow them. An ex-staff member said to someone else that I’m “a really good guy and would give you the shirt off his back, but he expects everyone around him to put the same amount of passion into the work that he does.” That may seem like a compliment, but at the end of the day, that staff member had left here as a result of that.

It’s hard to run a business when people are dropping off all the time. We’ve had a plenty of long-term staff, but there have been lots of people we’ve put effort into training, and either they fall out with us, or they can’t be bothered, or it’s not their main job. 

So, we’ve had to stand back and realise we can’t keep doing this; we’ll run ourselves into the ground through the stress of staffing the place. We had to ask ourselves, “How can we create a place where people are happy to be?” And that’s where the living wage came in. But wages are only a part of it.

A big part of it has been me learning, and changing, the way I run service. It’s also about employing the right people, who are really into hospitality and really into what we’re doing. Over the years I’ve found that the foreign staff love working here and are really good. They’re used to high pressure and high standards, and they can easily handle a bit of the ‘angry chef’ stuff. 

But overall, they’re in the minority, and I’ve had to think about how to make things work better for Kiwis, who aren’t used to being ordered around military-style. Traditionally that is how kitchens have been run, but we need to change that, because it’s not working. It’s not working for us, because we can’t keep our staff. It’s not working for the industry because it’s impossible to find staff, as there aren’t enough people coming into cheffing. Why? Because it’s bloody hard work, the pay is usually terrible, the hours are long, and often you’re getting treated like shit. 

The thing about cooking, and the narrative we need to get out there, is that it can be a crazy combination of science, art, creativity, rigorous application of technique and that ultimately each night is a performance. It’s pretty cool and rewarding if you get it right.

I think there may only be one other restaurant in the country paying the living wage, which is a shame, but there is still a difficulty for some people in getting their heads around paying their kitchenhand/dishwasher $20.55 per hour. 

We’re lucky that we can. We’ve had to make some choices and be flexible to make it work. The menu is a bit simpler than when we first opened. And it’s not a perfect fix. It makes us really aware of the hours people are working. They get paid well for the hours they work, but there may be less of them. Luckily most of our part-time staff are also studying or have other jobs.

Another reason we can do it is that we’re a small team, so we’re adaptable. It’s not for everyone and we’re certainly not trying to say that it should be. We’re just trying to figure out a way to make it work for us. The wage cost is my hardest thing to manage. But I want to do that. I want to pay people well. But that cost has to be absorbed somewhere. Prices have to go up. 

Which leads to the question of whether we want to have a really good dining culture? There’s an overall lack of maturity here. I think it’s growing, but we’ve got a long way to go.

Another aspect of the sustainable staffing is training. We do lots of staff training and development. Really, it’s about creating an environment that the staff are proud to be here. We work hard to involve our team in what we’re doing. Then it’s simple things like having them up to our place for ribs on the barbie, or heading along to the Hospo awards as a team.

There’s no way I could call this a sustainable business … yet. We’re just at the start. The world seems pretty stuffed, and there’s not much we can do about it as individuals, so the only way I can rationalise things is by trying to run this business in the best way I can. 


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