5@5 - How to hire a great staff
April 5th, 2013
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Editor's Note: Dan Latimer is the general manager of HUSK Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. HUSK is the second restaurant under the helm of James Beard Award-winning Chef Sean Brock and is often regarded as one of the best restaurants in America.

Hiring a team is one of the most integral points in a restaurant manager’s life; a well-thought-out and executed regiment in hiring can save countless hours of “managing” in the future. I remember waaay back in school learning about the Marriott Management Philosophy on hiring. There were many snippets, but the one that has stayed with me the most is: “If you don’t hire the right people, we can never make anything out of them."

One of the biggest keys to success in hiring is understanding the culture of your company and finding people who fit that culture. I have encountered many candidates who had plenty of experience and knowledge, but just not the right personality. If we brought that person in, we would be doing ourselves - and that person - a disservice (and this is the service industry after all).

The environment during an interview is important to keep in mind. We all have to remember that every potential team member is also a potential guest. Even if they aren’t the right fit for an employee, they are still the right fit for a guest. We try to make everyone feel welcome and warm; it is hospitality no matter what the outcome might be.

I have highlighted key aspects of this nuanced practice in the following five points. Remember, there was a lot more in the stockpot when I began. And, I am not going to give you all my secrets because then all of my future candidates would have a leg up on me.

1. “Tell me about yourself.”
This used to be my favorite opening question until I realized that is what interviews are all about. We are trying to get to know the potential team member and, in turn, they are trying to get to know us. I’ve learned this question is too vague and will actually work against your goals.

Most people will tell you what they think you want to hear about their work ethic, etc., but some will tell you they like kittens and clovers. I feel like the questions you ask need to be direct enough to get inside their heads without being leading. This brings me to…

2. Avoid the guided question
Too often interviewers will ask a question that leads the interviewees into the answer we want to hear. “How well do you work with others?” is one example. What in the hell do you think they are going to say?! "No, I hate people and I am a complete introvert, but I will make your guests feel right at home.”

The questions we ask are designed to allow people to answer them in a way that shows their true personality. One of my favorites is to begin a conversation about a previous job and then have the candidate tell me about a manager from that job, then flip the question and find out how they think that manager would describe them.

3. The lead
David Howard, the President of The Neighborhood Dining Group and my esteemed leader, told me once that “in an interview you want to dissect the person's head, get in there and look around for 45 minutes or so and then sew them back up like nothing ever happened.”

To do this, I like to let one question lead into another, sometimes I feel like a 2-year-old because I just keep asking why, why, why. For example: “I really like working with people.” “Why do you like working with people?” “Well, I like meeting new people.” “What is it about meeting new people that you like so much?” “It gives me an opportunity to learn new things and create new stories.”

This really helps weed out the canned answer, too. For example, if someone tells me they like to read in their free time, I will always ask what they are reading right now. If they don’t have an answer straight away, then they probably don’t like to read as much as they wanted you to think they did. This gives me pause…

4. The pause

Somewhere in the midst of the interview, after we have gotten into a rhythm, I like to have a contemplative pause before the next question. I will break eye contact and “think” for a minute. I already know the next question I want to ask, but the pause will typically cause the person across from me to relax mentally for a minute. As soon as I sense the “mental drop,” if you will, I will come in with one of the deeper questions. Ninety percent of the time the answer I get after the pause is one of the most real and raw answers I get during an interview. It really lets you get inside a person and find a path to the way that they are.

5. Certified organic
At Husk, we cook with the philosophy that the ingredients will lead us into a dish. Chef Sean Brock taught me that the product inspires the execution. I like to approach interviews the same way. Each interview is different in its own way. If you have genetically modified questions that are asked the same way, in the same order, every single time, you wind up with the same interview, and who needs that?

I approach each interview with a common goal, but the means of achieving that goal change with each candidate. Q&As need to have an ebb and flow. I am a firm believer in letting the interview find its own direction. One thing leads to another and the next thing you know, it has become a conversation. Conversations allow you to find the person you are looking for; interviews only let you find the answer they think you are looking for.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Restaurants • Sean Brock • Service • Think


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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. husksucks

    this is just one aspect of husk, it pretty much sucks and way over rated...

    May 28, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  2. get redirected here

    Thanks for helping out, good info. "If at first you don't succeed, find out if the loser gets anything." by Bill Lyon.

    April 17, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  3. AleeD®

    Daaaaamn! How did I miss this? ~_~ There's a reason why "thy rod and thy staff comfort me." ~_~

    April 12, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  4. Dan

    When will we stop rewarding and admiring this kind of corporate capitalist culture? This kind of stuff is incredibly demeaning and awful.It should be strongly looked down on.

    April 11, 2013 at 1:44 am |
  5. sputnick1

    This guy needs a life

    April 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  6. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Sweet Sideburns

    April 9, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
  7. GBarton

    Dan – I loved your article! Having come from a background in restaurants myself, I really believe in building a culture and finding the right people to make that culture a reality. The National Association of Sales Professionals (http://www.nasp.com) has a really cool free tool for assessing both an employee's seller style and company's culture. You can take a free assessment online – I'd love to hear your thoughts. You really seem to get that culture plays a role in every aspect of a company...from hiring to sales performance, and not everyone does. Really well done.

    April 6, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  8. DDante

    Previous comment is just wrong and dumb – misses the point.. Dan from Husk takes a truly 'organic' approach to hiring. He admits it may not work for every restaurant. In fact, only a psychopath would suggest that one hiring model works for every restaurant. Hiring for a place, particularly a truly special place, is much like a recipe. It's about that place and its aspirations and balancing the creativity v. the operational needs to create the best staff possible. I was the primary hiring manager in a vanguard food business for a decade plus. I have a few dozen theories at hand myself but I found this interview very enlightening and inspiring. Thanks Dan.

    April 6, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  9. restaurant guy

    I have been hiring, employing and growing spectacular individuals in this industry for more years than Dan has been growing his mutton chops. This is some of the most misguided, thoughtless and certainly the least empathetic "top 5 hiring tips" for our industry I have seen in print in a long time. Novice might be a word that would give him too much credit as there would be some implied hierarchy of study as apposed to this one person's terribly id driven rules. "The Pause" is offensive. If you are ever interested in hearing about truly thoughtful and tested ways of hiring front of house employees just let me know and I would be happy to share all of my "secrets" as he so closely guarded them.

    April 6, 2013 at 5:28 am |
    • kinglaius

      hey there restaurant guy, I'm pretty interested to hear or read your style of interviewing.

      April 7, 2013 at 9:16 am |
      • restaurant guy

        Anytime. There are no more great secrets left in our industry, only people doing things well in a thoughtful way and then everyone else. Post your email and we can have a dialogue about it.

        April 8, 2013 at 4:01 am |
    • akj

      Offensive, I'll say. I hope that I never work for someone who plays mind games like that. Open and honest – that's what I give and hope to received in return.

      April 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
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