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Why Vacation Time Is the Key to a Better Restaurant

Christine Cikowski

November 05, 2018

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Christine Cikowski
Photo courtsey of Christine Cikowski

In our ongoing op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.  

Our latest piece comes from Christine Cikowski, chef and co-owner of Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Sunday Dinner Club in Chicago. Below, the Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership program alum explores the structures and cultural assumptions of the industry that disincentivize taking time off, and why she and her co-owner Josh Kulp decided to make the benefit of paid leave a top priority.

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Working in the restaurant business means long hours and harsh conditions. It also often means low pay, no benefits, and very little, if any, time off. Even if workers want to take a vacation or just an extra day, it’s a difficult decision to make when you have to choose between time off and getting paid.

Before I started my own business, I worked on the kitchen line, and I remember being reluctant to take time off because that meant falling short on rent. Even when I was sick, I usually went to work. I just couldn’t afford to miss a day. Vacations or even a few days of rest were rare—forget holidays or family birthday parties. Sadly, this is reality for the majority of the professionals working in the restaurant industry.

So when my business partner Josh Kulp and I opened our first restaurant, Honey Butter Fried Chicken, we decided that it was imperative to have paid time off for our employees. We didn’t want our staff to have to decide between coming to work sick and paying the bills. It was also important for them to be able to have good lives outside of work, and a major part of that was their ability to take vacation or sick days without suffering financially.  

At HBFC we offer health benefits, up to two weeks of earned PTO to all hourly staff (salaried staff accrue 10 days per year at a set weekly rate, and get up to three weeks after four years on the job), and we have a paid parental leave policy that allows up to 12 weeks off for new parents.

While ethically we believe providing these benefits is just the right thing to do, in our experience, we’ve also seen a huge return on the investment. What started simply as a pledge to take care of our people has gifted our small business back with big benefits. Staff are happier and healthier when they have the resources to care for themselves. They come to work with higher energy, and give better service. They stay with us longer, which yields less turnover. They take trips and come back refreshed. They take time off when they have a child, and are grateful to do so without worrying about not getting a paycheck or not having a job when they return.

We encourage everyone to take time off at HBFC, and we view this as a benefit not just to staff, but to the restaurant itself. It’s smart business for our team to experience what it is like when their co-workers are out: how to cover positions and how to run lean. Sure, this is challenging, but ultimately, it has made us stronger. Our team has embraced a culture that supports time off. We all pitch in and work a little more when people are out, because at some point it will be our turn, too.

Through this process, I’ve learned that I need to lead by example. Turns out, it’s good business for me take time off, too. It allows me to rest and reset, have a personal life, do yoga, hang out with my dog, cook at home, and travel—all of which have made me a much better business partner, leader, and human. It’s beneficial for all of us: not just in terms of my own health as an owner (see above regarding long hours and harsh conditions), but for my staff as well. It gives them the opportunity to run the business, to troubleshoot and fix things. It allows them to grow into their roles and shine on their own. If we owners and chefs never take a day (or even an hour) off, our teams won’t gain these experiences.

It does require a fair amount of training, trust, and faith in our people. But heck, I didn’t know how to be a restaurant owner when I opened my restaurant—I learned by trial and many errors. We have always declared HBFC is a safe place to make mistakes. So we need to let staff make them, just like we do, so they can learn and grow.

That said, there is never an ideal time to take off. There are always events, regulars to chat with, questions to answer, and never ending to-do lists. But at a certain point we just gotta do it. It's valuable training for our staff and shows that the restaurant can function without us. It’s also good for our customers to get to know the wonderful people who work for us.

It takes a village to run a restaurant—so we let them run it. I don’t believe we are, nor should be, crucial to the daily survival of our kitchens and businesses. Especially if we want to be in business for five, 10, or 20-plus years. And if we want our amazing staff to stick around and come on that journey with us, we need to make sure they’re taken care of. We must provide them the means to take time off when they need to—so that they can be strong and healthy along the way.

Cikowski and her partner Josh Kulp are cooking at the Beard House later this month: buy tickets now.

Learn more about our Women's Leadership Programs.

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Christine Cikowski is the chef/co-owner of Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Sunday Dinner Club in Chicago. Learn more here.