Ashish Alfred is Chef-Owner at three restaurants in Maryland. His number-one tip for aspiring owners of multiple restaurants? Comfortable shoes.
Duck Duck Goose Baltimore, Duck Duck Goose Bethesda, and George’s Chophouse are where he spends most of his waking hours, and the thread that links the three restaurants is how Ashish approaches managing his team.
“We try to just treat people like they're not disposable,” he said on a recent episode of The Garnish Podcast. “When I first got into the restaurant industry, there was very much a culture of, ‘Alright, well, this barback doesn't want to show up, or this bartender, or this waiter — whoever doesn't want to show up, whatever, we'll hire somebody new.”
Instead, he keeps an open line of communication with everyone who works for him and aims to create a more sustainable work environment where staff are treated like family. “We talk to our people. ‘Hey, what's wrong, what's going on? You seem like you're not okay.’ If you need a personal day, or if you have something going on, we're not going to dock your pay for it. If you're sick, we'll find a way to compensate you for the days that you missed.”
We talk to our people. ‘Hey, what's wrong, what's going on? You seem like you're not okay.’ If you need a personal day, or if you have something going on, like, we're not going to dock your pay for it. If you're sick, we'll find a way to compensate you for the days that you missed.
Chef Ashish Alfred
He also makes sure his staff knows there’s a way to grow their career at his restaurants. “When I promote [someone] to manager, I try to make that person understand that [they’re] more than just a manager, I'm looking for them to kind of grow into being like a business partner for me. To use a food reference: The cream rises to the top. We take somebody that we think has some potential and kind of pull them through the ranks. That's what's worked better for us.”
Ashish himself has come a long way. “I feel like my life experience — from the drugs to jail, even my adolescence — it's put me in a position where I can kinda chop it up with anybody from any walk of life, whether it's the trash guy or the dishwasher or the bartender, whoever.”
He shared his story of a lifelong struggle with mental health, addiction, and alcoholism in a 2019 interview with Baltimore Magazine. He’s been sober for five years now and has managed to stay sober while still working in the industry, which is no small feat.
He says that for restaurant people trying to get sober, there should be no shame in stepping away from the industry. “If you've worked in a restaurant for a year, you can literally do anything in the world, short of, like, brain surgery. So if it's not for you, it's just not for you. And don't stress yourself out because of that.”
“My biggest piece of advice around sobriety in the restaurant industry is that it's not for everybody. I do believe that anybody can do it. But also, don't make yourself miserable if it's not for you,” he said.
Ashish says there are, of course, many people like him who manage to stay sober while working in the industry, but that it’s important to choose your workplace wisely.
“Just kind of be careful with the environment that you put yourself in. If you go to a restaurant and your first day there, there's a huge shift drink culture, where everybody’s like, ‘Alright, let's have a drink before shift and after our shift and maybe a couple during our shift,’ then that's not a good place for you to be. And just because the restaurant that you’re in is maybe not a healthy environment for you, that doesn't mean that another restaurant won't be.”
“There's a whole world of restaurants out there that appreciate people that do treat restaurants as a professional environment,” he added.
If you're a restaurant worker trying to get sober, Ben's Friends can help.
He attributes his success, and his huge progress over the past five years, to the people around him. “The truth of the matter is I'm one guy. I'm one guy with a crappy knee and a bad shoulder. So I really, truly depend on the people that I have around me. I've been really fortunate to have really loving, doting, loyal people surrounding me.”
Because of this, he tries to make his three restaurants as rewarding to work in as possible. He greets every single staff member as soon as he walks in, checks in with them and sees how they’re doing. “It's really just about being in tune with the people that are there. These people are giving you 12, 16 hours of their day.”
“It's really just about being in tune with the people that are there. These people are giving you 12, 16 hours of their day.”
Chef Ashish Alfred
“Don't get me wrong. There's seven day work weeks. There’s 14 days straight that you're working sometimes. But I think the difference is having somebody who looks at you as more than a number — who looks at you like you're a person.”
He encourages his team to talk out any resentments before they reach a critical point. “There's so much built up tension between front of house, back of house, the manager and the chef — the chef feels like, ‘Oh, the manager's getting two days off a week. I haven't had a day off in two weeks.’ These are all like little nuances that I think that if people just addressed them, even just with a conversation, it has a tendency to make people feel a lot better.”
It appears that his approach is working. His staff member with the longest tenure is one of his dishwashers. He’s been on Ashish's team for nine years. “Whatever I've needed from him, he's come through for me. He's helped me move apartments... I've got no words. If I had seven of that guy, I'd have 25 Michelin stars,” he said.
When it comes to work-life balance, Ashish advises that — though it’s easier said than done — there has to be a time where you let go of work and rest. “It gets hard to turn things off,“ he said. “I would go to bed and wake up in the middle of the night, 3:30, 4 o'clock in the morning, like ‘Shit! Did I order onions? Did I order potatoes?’ But there has to be a time, I think in this business and maybe in any other business, too… You have to kind of close the briefcase.”
To Ashish, talking through issues and unplugging when off the clock isn’t just important for his staff’s mental health: He says guests can feel when staff members are burnt out, resentful, and over-stressed.
“Think about what we're doing, right? We're feeding people, we're nourishing people, we're welcoming people. If you’re not doing it from a place of love, if you're doing it from a place of just anxiety and stress — and I'm guilty of this sometimes — but if you're doing that, it's like, imagine going over to your friend's house, and he lives with his girlfriend, and they've just gotten through a miserable argument. When you walk into that house, you can cut the tension with a knife. And I feel like this is what happens so often in restaurants.”
Cooking food, running around between restaurants, and delighting guests comes easily to Ashish. But those are not the toughest parts of his job. “The hardest part of my job is getting 65 people to come to work every day, clock in, and want the same thing for our clients that I want,“ he said. “65 people come in every day with their own bills, their own problems, their own issues, their own whatever.“
But it’s also the people that make it all worth it. “There's nothing more gratifying for me than seeing somebody start as a food runner and see that person turn into the best waiter I have ever seen,“ said Ashish. “There's nothing more rewarding for me than seeing a new prep cook and teaching her how to make pasta. When she started working for me, she’d take the bus in and she was sharing a room with two other people. She now has a daughter and she drives a brand-new Lexus, and she has her own apartment.”
There's nothing more gratifying for me then seeing somebody start as a food runner and see that person turn into the best waiter I have ever seen. There's nothing more rewarding for me than seeing a new prep cook and teaching her how to make pasta. When she started working for me, she’d take the bus in and she was sharing a room with two other people. She now has a daughter and she drives a brand-new Lexus, and she has her own apartment.
Chef Ashish Alfred
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