In an industry with an annual employee turnover rate of 74%, what makes some workers decide to stick around for years or even decades? You’re reading Why We Stay, a regular interview series with longtime staffers that aims to answer this question by learning from those who are living it. Find inspiration from their stories to enhance your company culture and boost retention in your restaurant.
Name and Current Role: Rachel Wilson, Server
Restaurant: 1618 West, Greensboro, North Carolina
Year Joined: 2011
“I joke that my daytime job is herding cats,” says Rachel Wilson, a kindergarten teacher by day and server at Greensboro, North Carolina’s 1618 West by night. “The kindergarteners are a bunch of five-year-olds. But my nighttime job is also like herding cats. Because working in a restaurant is about dealing with grown-up kids.”
Wilson spent much of her childhood in restaurants, but it wasn’t until she and her photographer-videographer husband had their first child that she started working in restaurants full-time. “I had hosted here and there during college,” she recalls. “Then when I went on maternity leave from teaching kindergarten, my husband and I knew we needed me bringing in some kind of income. So I went to my uncle who owned a restaurant and said, ‘I need a job.'”
Wilson’s uncle Drew, owner of now-shuttered Bert’s Seafood Grille in Greensboro, gave Wilson a giant tray to practice with. Wilson took it home, loaded it with cans of beans, and walked around her yard for several weeks. She worked her way up the front-of-house ranks at Bert’s, even doing management work, and had another kid. “I could be the mom during the day, then switch outfits and join the adult world while I worked at the restaurant five nights a week.” Bert’s eventually closed, and Wilson worked at a few other area restaurants before landing at 1618 West where she waited tables full-time for years before returning to teaching kindergarten. These days, Wilson does double-duty at both school and 1618 West.
Her 11-year commitment to 1618 West, which opened in 2004 with its beloved seafood-heavy, fusion menu, is linked to the restaurant’s allegiance to flexibility. “Just because you’ve done it the same way for a million years doesn’t mean you can’t change a system,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to change with the world.”
Part of that nimbleness, Wilson says, comes from workers at 1618 West being molded to the 1618 West way: a group of free thinkers who also like to work as a team. “When I started and discovered the restaurant pooled tips, I said ‘Whoa, whoa!’,” she recalls. “Then I realized pooled tips actually work here because we all do work as a team.” She has seen dishwashers become cooks because the restaurant invests in them. “You just have to have staff who have an open mind and are ready to be trained.”
Investing in and appreciating staff is exhibited in more than just paychecks. On New Year’s Day, there is typically an all-company party with food catered from elsewhere. “Great drinks, great food, and door prizes,” Wilson says. “Not little ones either. I’m talking iPads and plane tickets.” There are educational trips too, like when, to celebrate the restaurant’s 15th anniversary, a group traveled to Maker’s Mark in Kentucky and built a bourbon barrel. There is health insurance provided when an employee is full-time, plus gifts for benchmark work anniversaries, like 10-year and 15-year.
After years of only waiting tables at 1618 West, Wilson realized she missed the magic of teaching and decided to split her time. “I love teaching kids things they haven’t experienced. There’s nothing like the spark that comes when, say, they learn to read. Or when they say you’re the best teacher ever.”
But 1618 West has its own allure, too. “I get to put on makeup and a cute blouse and talk to adults. I worked last night and a guy asked me, ‘How do you remember all this?’ when I was taking orders. I said, ‘Well, it’s kind of like teaching kindergarten. Johnny needs a Band-Aid. Lisa needs to work on her phonics. This is the way my brain works.'”