How to Cultivate and Maintain Employee Happiness

by thomas nguyen

Thomas Nguyen (pictured center) is the co-founder and Brand Boss of Peli Peli, a Houston-based South African fusion restaurant with five locations in Houston, including the fast-casual Peli Peli Kitchen and Peli Deli concepts, with a sixth Austin flagship slated to open this year. 

Creating and maintaining happy, motivated employees is the most important aspect of our organization.

The restaurant industry is extremely competitive in Houston, and at the end of the day, people have thousands of options to choose from that have great food and great ambiance at a similar price point. But what helps create an emotional connection between an establishment and customers? It’s the people behind it.  

When I entered this industry with my co-founders Michael Tran and Paul Friedman, we brought our respective backgrounds into our leadership styles. I was previously in law, Michael was an entrepreneur in restaurant technology and Paul was a seasoned chef. We thought that establishing a strict hierarchy and ruling with fear was the best way to manage our team. Over the years, we learned some alternative approaches that have been much more effective in building up our employees and creating a positive work culture. 

Whether you’re getting ready to open your first restaurant or have years of experience under your belt, I hope you can gain something from our approach and the lessons we’ve learned over the years.  

Employees Come Before Customers 

It’s a simple formula: unhappy employees equals unhappy customers. Instead of customers come first, its actually the employees.  If your servers aren’t genuinely happy when interacting with customers, customers will notice. 

We take reviews very seriously, and when you look at Peli Peli’s reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor, almost all of them highlight our people just as much as our food. Food can make people feel great, but people feel truly happy when they have a positive experience because of the server/bartender/hostess.  This connection creates a memorable moment that is critical to a restaurant’s overall brand experience.  

Hire for Personality and Heart 

When we made the decision to put people and service at the core of what we do, we quickly learned that it’s impossible to train people to be nice. Someone could have the most impressive resume and know everything there is to know about food and wine – but if they have an attitude problem, that’s nearly impossible to correct.  

On the other hand, if someone comes to us with zero restaurant experience but is extremely kind, passionate and well-spoken, and eager to learn the ropes, we can teach them the fundamentals of food and wine relatively quickly in training. Customers are much more forgiving when dealing with a server as long as that server truly cares about that customer’s needs. If someone is a jerk, or even apathetic at any point during the customer interaction, that damage is impossible to undo.  

Once you’ve hired the right people, it’s crucial to set up review structures and feedback loops so they consistently know where they need to improve – and you understand how you can help them improve. 

It Starts from the Top  

At our first location in Vintage Park, Michael, Paul and I were in operations on a daily basis. As we’ve grown, the three of us have had to learn how to relinquish control and set the tone for our leadership team. It’s completely unreasonable for us to expect our servers to feel fulfilled and have positive attitudes if we aren’t successfully managing the people who manage those servers. We have to walk the walk. 

We also can’t do everything – and we aren’t necessarily the best people to do everything. As your business grows, you must learn when and how to step back and empower other people to lead within your organization. We have incredible managers at Peli Peli, many of whom don’t have any prior management experience and started with us as servers. We trust these managers because we’ve seen their dedication firsthand, and as a result we feel comfortable empowering them to take ownership and make mistakes.  

Cultivate Leaders with the Expectation They Will Leave  

We treat Peli Peli like a family, and in the same way that you would be excited about family members having kids, getting new jobs and generally moving on – we’re excited when our dedicated team members leave us to pursue new professional, educational or personal ventures. 

It’s unrealistic to expect that, just because you invest in someone, they will be with you forever. We focus on maximizing people when they are with us, whether that’s for six months or six years. Focus on the lasting impact you can make on someone’s life who may ultimately go on to lead another organization – it’s not always about what people can do for you.  

For an inside look at Peli Peli’s fun-filled culture, follow Thomas on Instagram: @southafricanasian. 

Note that Thomas provides this blog post for informational purposes only, without promoting or endorsing investments or NextSeed in anyway. NextSeed is not affiliated with Thomas or Peli Peli, and NextSeed is passing along his message for general informational purposes only, without endorsement of his views or Peli Peli. Blog posts should not be construed as an endorsement or recommendation for any purpose. In making any investment decision, investors should rely on their own examination of each issuer and the terms of each offering, including the merits and risks involved.