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: Luke Buchanan, Bartender
Restaurant: Poole’s Diner, Raleigh, North Carolina
Year Joined: 2007
A lot has changed since Luke Buchanan joined chef-restaurateur Ashley Christensen on the opening team of Poole’s Diner in downtown Raleigh in 2007. The closest drink you could get to a hard seltzer was a clear bottle of the infamous malt beverage Zima. The first-generation iPhone had just debuted, but the launch of Instagram was still several years away.
Nowadays, Poole’s Diner delights a dedicated fanbase that includes over 30,000 Instagram followers and an evolving menu highlighting local producers, including Key Lime Pie Hard Seltzer from nearby Westbrook Brewing. As the first restaurant to launch Ashley Christensen’s highly successful mini empire in Raleigh, Buchanan is grateful to have met Christensen when he did in 2006.
“I was working at a bar and didn’t like it,” Buchanan recalls. “I was dead broke, like couldn’t-pay-my-bills broke.” After graduating with a degree in architecture in 2002, Buchanan had been focused on growing his career as a painter. He turned to jobs in the hospitality industry to supplement his income but struggled to find the right fit until meeting Christensen.
During his nearly 15 years at Poole’s, Buchanan has alternated between working behind the bar and managerial roles based on both his and the restaurant’s needs. In his current role as bartender, Buchanan has been able to balance his time between work and his artistic career. “I work in the studio all day, and then around 3 or 4pm, I change my clothes and go to my other job at Poole’s.”
Buchanan attributes his longstanding loyalty to the culture Christensen has created at Poole’s and its sister locations in the AC Restaurants group. Mutual respect and a dedicated work ethic are essential. During the pandemic, Buchanan took over cleaning the toilets, never wondering if he was above the task after 14 years at the restaurant.
That kind of dedication often breeds opportunity at Poole’s and the other AC Restaurants locations. While Buchanan can name several employees that have grown upwards as the group has expanded, more unconventionally is that growth at Poole’s can, in his case, mean moving in the opposite direction when requested. Many restaurants encourage upward mobility; less common are ones that adapt to an employee’s desire to step back. “Because I’m pushing and growing in my other job as an artist, I went from manager to bartender to have less responsibility.”
He also notes that Christensen’s restaurant group was an early adopter of employee benefits. “PTO, sick leave, health care: things you expect to get at a sit-down office job.”
Another tactic that Christensen employs to create a positive team environment is assigning tasks based on employee strengths. “Ashley finds a person and figures out what they can do, rather than the other way around,” Buchanan explains. “Early on when I was a manager, I told her I was having the hardest time doing the schedule. She said, ‘Okay, then we’ll find someone else to do the schedule. You don’t have to be good at the schedule because you have a different strength: When I ask you do something, I know I’ll never have to think about it again.'”
This culture of trust, communication, and respect has allowed Buchanan to thrive as an artist and bartender, savoring the dichotomy between his solo time at the studio and the nightly bustle of Poole’s. “Working at Poole’s is a great way to socialize, meet people, and network,” he says. “I figured out during the pandemic that I have a kind of addiction to restaurant work. I love the thrill of it.”