Business Smart: Katie Button Restaurants

5.31.19

At Katie Button Restaurants, which includes the popular and acclaimed Asheville restaurants Cúrate and Button & Co. Bagels, the journey to family-friendly benefits has been a gradual and intentional process.  

“We didn’t try to offer the full range of benefits we offer now when we first opened, because we needed to make sure we were creating a sustainable business model,” says CEO and Executive Chef Katie Button. “But we’ve been committed since the beginning to providing valuable offerings and supporting workers through every stage of their lives.”

Button says she started by paying a living wage as soon as financially possible. In Asheville, a living wage is $13.65 per hour or $12.15 with employer-provided health insurance.

Though living wage isn’t a benefit, per se, it is important, especially in an industry where the majority of workers make at or just above minimum wage, Button says. At North Carolina’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, a full-time worker’s annual pay is just over $15,000. That’s simply not enough to live on, Button says.

“If you have a financially viable business and are offering a job that doesn’t pay a living wage, then it’s not a job. If you can’t pay people what they need to live in a certain region, then you can’t expect them to stay,” she says.

Paid time off was also a top priority, in part to ensure employees would have time to care for themselves and their families and would not work when sick, Button says.

“When people are living paycheck to paycheck without paid time off, you’re incentivizing them to come to work sick, and you’re not giving them the tools they need to take care of themselves and their family,” she says.

Next, the company launched a health insurance and wellness incentive program, and benefits have grown from there. Two years ago, Button began surveying employees to gather feedback on what benefits were important to them, and that process helped her decide to offer a 401K and an improved “family meal,” or meal provided to employees before or between shifts.

“We ask employees if they are satisfied with their current benefits, list benefits we could feasibly offer and then ask them to score what they want or need,” Button says. “We want to make decisions that best impact the majority.”

Frank Muller, Cúrate’s chef de cuisine, appreciates the ability to enroll his two-year-old son in the company’s health and dental insurance program.

“My wife is self-employed, so it has been invaluable having employer supplied health insurance,” says Muller, who has worked for Katie Button Restaurants for over eight years. 

Frank Muller with his family

 

In addition to what Katie Button Restaurants is currently able to offer, Button says she often thinks about the challenges of child care in the restaurant industry.

“It’s extremely challenging, both because of the hours and because of the days of the week. It’s nights and weekends. It’s holidays. Our employees are working at all the times when normal child care is not available,” Button says. “I want that to change. I’m trying to figure out how we solve that problem.”

Consistent scheduling is important, along with listening to people’s scheduling needs, she says.

Cúrate General Manager Nathan Lanham, whose daughters are eight-years-old and nine-months-old, started at the restaurant as the lead bartender when it first opened in 2011. He says he’s watched the demographics of the staff shift to include more parents over time as the restaurant has gotten older, and the people who have been working there shift to different stages of their lives.

Nathan Lanham with his family

 

Though he’s worked different schedules over the years, Lanham says he’s typically home by 6:30 every night but Wednesdays, when he works the night shift, allowing him to have dinner with his family most nights of the week. He is also able to avoid working weekends by coming into the restaurant on Mondays, when it’s closed, to do administrative work.

Working out a schedule that allows employees to see and care for their families is a particularly tough part of being in the restaurant business, Lanham says.

“You get home at midnight or 1 a.m., and your partner has been with the baby or child all day. Or you find yourself on a close shift one day and an open shift the next. There are some big swings,” he says. So working in a place that helps him keep a more consistent schedule is key.

In an industry with nearly half a million workers in North Carolina and nearly a 73 percent turnover, nationally, being family friendly gives employers a big edge, Button says.

“It definitely reduces turnover,” says Button. “Hourly workers have a higher turnover in general, but within that sector you can do a lot of things to reduce it. Thanks in part to the benefits we offer, we have seen that people stay longer.”

Offering a range of benefits helps attract employees, especially in an industry where those benefits are harder to find, Button says. Only 52 percent of service industry workers have access to paid sick leave to care for themselves and their families when they are ill, and only 9 percent have access to paid family leave to care for their children immediately after a birth or adoption.

“We think these benefits say right up front that we care about our employees and, most importantly, that we’re constantly improving,” she says.

Cúrate Assistant Manager Liese Freund, whose daughter is three, says she first learned of the assistant manager opening from a Craigslist ad and knew right away it was the job for her.

Liese Freund with her family

 

“I kept reading about Katie and the things she stands for, and the more I read the more I figured I had to work for her,” says Freund. Freund, who lived in Seattle for 12 years before briefly relocating to New Jersey, says she’s been “in the restaurant business forever.”

Freund works nights so she can care for her daughter while her husband works during the day. She says she feels heard and supported by her managers and the company, which makes her feel valued as a person and as an employee.

“To be seen and heard and respected just feels so good,” she says. “I 100 percent see myself with this company long term. I hope I can do a good job for them.”

Button says she hopes the restaurant industry at-large will shift so more workers have access to a living wage and benefits that are prevalent in other industries.

“Employers in the restaurant industry have a tough time combating high turnover and finding high-quality employees because we have earned a reputation of being a low-paying industry with no benefits or career path. We owe it to our employees to change the status quo, and we’re working hard to do that.” she says.

Muller agrees.

“At the end of the day, restaurant workers put an effort—both physical and mental—into their jobs that is often not proportional to their pay rate,” he says. “Supporting workers in other ways such as paid sick leave and vacation time, health insurance, dining discounts, retirement planning, family meals, etc. is not just a nice thing to do, it is the right thing to do.”  

Sample Benefits – Katie Button Restaurants:

  • Medical, dental, vision and short-term disability, accident, critical illness and life insurance for full-time employees
  • A $300 wellness incentive for employees who complete a personal health screening questionnaire, a primary care well-care visit and a dental screening
  • An employee assistance program for all employees through Employee Assistance Network—a confidential program that provides professional assistance to employees and their family members to help with financial problems, stress, problems at work, addiction or relationship problems
  • Family Meal (twice daily) for all employees
  • Dining discounts for all employees
  • Paid time off for all full-time employees, with the exception of tipped employees
  • Sick leave for salaried employees
  • Volunteer time off for all employees after one year of employment
  • 401K with employer match after one year of employment