This post was last updated on Aug 10, 2020.
DISCLAIMER: This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, accounting, tax, HR, or other professional advice. You are responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. You should contact your attorney or other relevant advisor for advice specific to your circumstances.
Running or working in a family-owned restaurant can be a real challenge, both for the family members and non-family members on staff.
Working with family members can be complicated, as the dynamics between family members can and will have an impact on how your restaurant is run.
As with most things in life, there’s a downside and an upside to working in or running a family owned restaurant. We'll get into both.
Rivalries and Drama
Family conflicts run deep and can really hurt your restaurant by interfering in how big decisions are made. When decisions are made out of spite, the focus shifts from doing what is best for the business to doing what is best in order to put yourself on top.
Rivalries in the workplace (specifically sibling rivalries) create a toxic working environment for all. While most employees will try to stay out of the fray, it is inevitable that some will choose (or be forced to choose) sides. However, allowing rivalries to fester between employees is a surefire way to kill your restaurant.
The attitude that needs to be put out there is that you are all members of one team moving toward achieving a common goal: Creating memorable dining experiences for your guests. Rivalries create schisms in your team, and will quickly dissolve your ability to work effectively as a cohesive unit.
Additionally, if things get really bad and family members air their dirty laundry and past grievances out in front of the rest of the team — or worse, the guests — they damage the restaurant’s reputation. No one likes their meal with a surprise side order of family drama; it throws your whole palate off.
Who’s The Boss?
The power struggle between family members in a family-owned restaurant can be toxic to your workplace culture and your restaurant’s success.
If you’ve recently decided to open a family-owned restaurant — or you’re in the thick of it and feeling some stress — clearly defined roles and responsibilities will prevent the inter-family power struggle from getting out of hand.
If your restaurant is a LLC, you should include the roles, responsibilities, and rights of each family member in your restaurant’s LLC operating agreement. This way, should family members ever overstep their bounds, you can keep them in check by referring to this official, governing, legal document.
While you’re at it outlining each family member’s area of focus, it’s a good idea to designate one family member as the business’s key decision maker. Though most big decisions made in a business involve a multitude of perspectives and stakeholders, at the end of the day your restaurant will always need one person at the helm to have the final say, be the voice of reason, or to settle disputes.
Avoiding Preferential Treatment
It's crucial that you make sure your business is run without preferential treatment, which can be tricky when your team is made up of family members and non-family members. You need to be sure that you're not only promoting family members to higher-paying positions and leaving the other employees behind.
Also, firing a family member is a hard thing to do, but if you run a family business, you may encounter this hurdle at some point. You need to be fair and equal with all your staff members: if an employee does something that you'd fire them for, you have to fire them whether or not they're family. Otherwise, your non-family employees will quickly notice a pattern of preferential treatment, and will question the ethics of your business.
If asked “who do you trust the most in this world”, many will respond with their spouse's name or the name of a close family member (or friend whom they consider family).
In a family-owned restaurant, team members often trust one another to maintain focus on doing what’s best for the brand at all times; they recognize there is more at stake if a poor decision is made, or if the business goes belly up. Everyone has skin in the game. If you’re working in a restaurant that fails, it’s annoying to be out of work, but you’ll find a new job and rebound soon enough. If you’re running a family-owned restaurant that fails, it can have drastic, negative implications on your personal and professional life, as well as those of your family members.
Trust is one of the building blocks of a solid company culture. Working with a family member you trust can be a great way to set an example for the non-family members of the team.
“A real friend is the one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” Same can be said for family — in many cases, they’ll still be there for you no matter what. And in the restaurant industry, having a team that sticks together when things get tough is crucial.
In a family-owned restaurant, there's often an inherent dependability between family members to get everything done, delight guests, and always keep the best interests of the restaurant in mind. This can be a great motivator for the rest of the organization to follow suit.
It’s important that your restaurant staff feel they can rely and depend on one another, because running a restaurant is a true team effort.
Confidants Who've Been There
Bottling up stress is unhealthy; we all need someone to talk to about the things that cause us stress and anxiety. Venting is healthy. Working in a restaurant is very stressful, so finding a healthy way to alleviate that stress is not only beneficial to your wellbeing, but the wellbeing of your business. Family members feel safe to confide in one another about challenges, worries, and stressors because of the trust they share (see above) — and the fact that they work in the same place means they have the context and experience to empathize with what you're going through.
So long as these stress-related conversations stay confidential and don’t affect how the business is run, venting is helpful.
A Shared Purpose
Many family-owned restaurant brands embody shared principles or values that the entire family supports. By aligning your family’s name with strong core values and a passion to serve others, you will win over legions of customers and may find yourselves at the helm of a business that like-minded people come back to over and over again.
By treating your employees like they’re one of the family and living your restaurant’s mission out loud, your family-owned restaurant will leave a lasting impact on your community, and all those lucky enough to enjoy a meal at your establishment.
Opening a restaurant with a partner? Check out the benefits and risks of co-ownership, and how to ensure your partnership works out.
Keep it Professional and Equal
Now, if you have a family member that you don’t trust, is not dependable, or they can’t keep things confidential, or don't share your vision (or core values) then they should not be working with you.
The key to managing a family-owned business is to be fair and consistent with your standards and policies. You must treat family members like you would any team member; just because they are family does not mean they need to, or should, work in your restaurant with you. It also doesn’t entitle them to preferential treatment or being absolved from any wrongdoing.