HR lessons from a collaborative Ottawa kitchen with Ross Fraser

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Few industries rely on happy workers like restaurants.

For Ross Fraser – who, with his brother Simon, runs the Fraser Cafe, Table 40, The Rowan and a new line of frozen foods in Fraser at Home – keeping a growing staff happy is the meat of good business.

Growth has been steady and constant for the Fraser brothers. The Fraser Cafe began as a small, 27-seat restaurant with about 15 staff. Now, at its 7 Springfield Rd. location, the cafe features 66 seats and private dining at Table 40, the result of acquiring a next-door convenience store. Forty staff operate at this location with almost 20 running a brother restaurant in the Glebe, The Rowan.

With all of this expansion, building and maintaining a reliable staff became increasingly important.

“As our team kept building, we realized that each one of these staff, they make such an impact, such a difference, to the atmosphere,” Mr. Fraser says.

In a people-focused and labour-intensive industry like dining, Mr. Fraser says the demands on workers need to be balanced with consideration from managers. To this end, Fraser Cafe staff have group meals twice a day to come together and decompress.

He also tells all new staff that every time-off request will be honoured. He recognizes that it’s a luxury as the restaurateur has enough staff to handle such a rotation. Mr. Fraser makes it a priority, though, seeing it as a way to recognize that workers do have lives outside of the kitchen.

“When you expect so much from your staff, you have to realize it’s a trade,” he says. “That’s just one way we can thank our staff.”

Relying on his people became even more crucial when The Rowan opened in 2015.

“As soon as you start thinking of a new place, you have to start thinking about the people behind it,” Mr. Fraser says.

When the Fraser brothers had to choose a chef for The Rowan who could manage the logistics and staffing decisions at the new restaurant, Kyle Declan, long-time sous-chef at Fraser Cafe, immediately came to mind.

“He is someone who we just absolutely trusted,” he says. “He was the obvious choice.”

In 2016, when an opportunity came up to bring Mr. Declan to Rio de Janeiro with him to provide catering for the Olympics, Mr. Fraser saw it as an opportunity to thank his long-time chef for being so reliable in his endeavours. He believes that demonstrating gratitude in that way is a crucial way to build relationships in a business.

“You’ll get people who stick with you,” he says.

One of the most natural relationships in Mr. Fraser’s business is his partnership with his brother, Simon. The two have worked in kitchens together from their early teens; their first foray into the field saw the brothers flipping burgers together at McDonald’s.

Neither brother went to business school, but they found that their skills evolved naturally to building and managing their kitchens. When Simon would head home at night to spend time with his young son, Ross was there to handle the dinner service. Where Simon excels at establishing new relationships with customers for the Fraser at Home venture, Ross is relieved to be able to focus on the restaurant.

“Simon’s fantastic at that … and it allows me to focus on the staff and the menu, the execution,” Mr. Fraser says. “Being able to work with my brother … I feel very lucky.”

Whether related by blood or part of an ever-growing family in the kitchens, Mr. Fraser has come a long way in the restaurant industry because of the people with whom he has worked. He says that while it’s a great business to be in, it’s also a tough one. You can’t do it alone.

“You have to count on people,” he says.

This article originally appeared in Ottawa HR Update.