DanceWhen you think of innovative company cultures, your mind probably jumps immediately to the tech giants of the world: the eternal summer camp vibes of Zappos, the “20 percent rule” at Google, and Airbnb’s $2000 travel stipend all shine pretty brightly as examples of game-changing approaches to culture.

Or maybe you go smaller. Maybe, for you, agile startups represent the epitome of unique company cultures.

One place your mind definitely doesn’t go, however, is the restaurant industry. Known more for high turnover rates and intense pressure, restaurants don’t typically get much credit for their company cultures. In fact, this very website published an article back in August about how the restaurant industry is failing its workers when it comes to company culture.

But there’s always an exception to the rule, isn’t there? In this case, it’s Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, a Texas-based company that operates three restaurants and, surprisingly, emphasizes employee happiness above all else.

When you really think about it, it makes a lot of sense: Happy employees means happy diners, and the restaurant industry is all about making sure your customers walk away satisfied.

To learn more about Del Frisco’s innovative approach to company culture, I engaged in an email Q&A with April Scopa, the company’s vice president of people and education. Scopa’s title itself should be a hint that Del Frisco’s does things a little differently – how many restaurant companies can you think of that have a “vice president of people and education” in the first place?

What follows is a transcript of our Q&A, minimally edited for style and clarity. What does the relationship between happy employees and happy customers mean for Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group?

April Scopa: For Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group (DFRG), high employee satisfaction has a direct effect on guest satisfaction, sales, retention, and the overall success of the business. When the team is happy, there is energy in the restaurant, promoting a great place to work and dine. In the hospitality industry, our guests look to get away from the day-to-day grind and enjoy dining in an environment where they can forget about the worries of the day in the comfort of a happy team.

BubbleRC: What are some of the most unique initiatives Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group has used to engage employees and boost their happiness? Can you tell us a little about how the initiatives came about and the results you’ve seen?

AS: We are a company that truly believes our people come first, and we make every effort to demonstrate our philosophy daily in the benefits we provide and the way we treat our team and guests.

In 2012, DFRG built on the strong foundation of “people first” and defined our culture, which we now call FEED. FEED stands for Far Exceeding Expectations Daily, a philosophy we live and breathe. We look for opportunities to FEED our employees and guests and make sure we recognize our team for creating FEED moments. We share our FEED stories throughout the company as a way to strengthen the culture, which is a key factor for supporting our strong growth plan.

Our motto is “Do right and FEED everyone.” In every experience with our team or guests, we are first going to do the right thing by them and then take their experience and exceed expectations. Through our FEED philosophy, we look for opportunities not only to FEED our team and guests, but also our community and shareholders.

RC: What are some challenges Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group has come across while trying to create a happier, healthier work environment? How did you overcome these challenges?

AS: One of the biggest threats to diluting our strong culture of happy employees is in the hiring process for both salary and hourly employees. Making sure we hired the right leaders who exemplify our culture and will uphold it on a daily basis is our No. 1 priority.

In facing these challenges, we introduced assessment tools on both the hourly and salary levels to measure hospitality, attention to quality, and how each individual will fit into our existing culture. We also reinforced our interview process by involving multiple departments to ensure we hire the right individual in the long term, rather than hiring to fill a spot in the short term.

RC: What role does employee happiness play in your recruiting/hiring efforts?

AS: At DFRG, we hire based on attitude for our team. We take pride in hiring someone who comes to us with no or very little restaurant experience but a great attitude and a positive outlook on life. With the strength of our training programs, we feel we can train an individual on the skills and knowledge they’ll need to excel in our company. Our belief is that we can teach an individual to be a great manager, chef, server, host, cook, or bartender, but we cannot train someone to smile, be hospitable, and have a positive attitude. As simple as it sounds, a smile goes a long way.

WalkingRC: If you had to give one piece of advice on employee happiness to an entrepreneur who is just starting their first company, what would that advice be?

AS: One piece of advice for someone who was starting their first company would be to be very selective in the hiring process. Don’t just “hire” – select each individual who joins your team. Hire for attitude. Hiring happy people is the key to upholding a positive environment and culture!

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