At 18 years old, Leslie Ann Ciccone had no idea she’d one day own a multi-location dessert bar in sunny St. Petersburg, FL. Back then she spent her days concerned about the safety of airplanes as an air traffic controller for the U.S. Navy.
"It was painful sometimes to work within an organization where how you felt that day or how you were spoken to or what you heard around you, even if it wasn’t spoken directly to you, would hurt my feelings personally," recalled Leslie, saying it wasn't a particularly kind environment.
"The intent always was to have some restaurant or bed and breakfast when I retired from air traffic control.”
Little did Leslie Ann know, kindness would eventually play a huge role in the success of her restaurant business. It’s even scrawled on the walls in their signature turquoise: kindness, family, and compassion.
“We teach it. We model it. We do it every day. We empower our staff to do it to customers that come in,” says Leslie Ann.
The hope is you live it, reward people for doing the right thing, and continue to train them to model great behavior. And after a while, people will want to work for you.
Why Kindness is at the Core of Everything at (swah-rey), in Founder Leslie Ann Ciccone's Own Words
Leslie Ann Ciccone and her husband Greg have created a new kind of restaurant.
The departure from dreaming about opening a bed and breakfast to scratch-made desserts paired with cocktails came up naturally on a long drive through the Tampa Bay area. Leslie Ann and her husband, Greg, were looking to solve the problem of her dessert cravings. Soon, (swah-rey) was born.
Leslie Ann and Greg Ciccone are a restaurateur team. Greg has been in the restaurant industry for most of his life, and together they knew a dessert concept was their best bet to prioritize both a happy business and a happy marriage.
“I use the relationship that Greg and I have together. We don’t raise our voices. We don’t curse at each other. I said one bad curse word one time [at work], and I apologized to the whole staff, because I was out of line,” Leslie Ann admits. “We’re kind to each other. That’s what we want to do for our staff and what we want our staff to do for each other.”
The Ciccones give plenty of reasons for their staff to bring their best, kindest selves to work. Like love languages, kindness appears at (swah-rey) in a multitude of ways, be it through gifts in the form of weekday lunches or cupcakes, words of affirmation to let them know they matter, or acts of service like driving employees home from a late-night shift.
This is done to communicate the culture of (swah-rey), but that doesn’t mean the Ciccones are immune to the industry-wide issue of restaurant employee retention.
The dangers of quick and repeated employee turnover add up. It can cost almost $6,000 to replace an employee, so it’s no wonder restaurant operators are dialing up the retention tactics to find ways to make their staff happier and more successful.
For small businesses, it can sometimes seem impossible to offer incentives to stay in the form of free food or regular gifts. But even without those things, the Ciccones know staff retention in restaurants isn’t an exact science.
“Employee retention has nothing to do with whether you’re a kind or not,” Leslie Ann says. “It might just be our goal since the restaurant business can have a lot of turnover, and we have a younger workforce, between 16 and 24. No matter how long they stay with us, we want them to believe that this was the best place they ever worked.”
This attitude even extends to when an employee decides to leave (swah-rey). Leslie Ann says the role of an employer should always be to offer support and be a good reference. And maybe, if you’re lucky, that employee will realize how good they had it in the first place.
“We’ve gotten quite lucky that a couple of them have come back. It’s a testament to how we are as bosses and the environment that we have,” she says.
We also want to set a standard, especially because we hire mostly women, that this is how you should allow an employer to treat you. This is what you should expect.
As a female business owner, championing women is essential to Leslie Ann. It’s even written into the company’s mission statement.
A 2017 round-up in Eater showed that women only represented 31% of the publication’s chef and owner reviews that year. Despite the monumental strides made by the #MeToo movement to create safer, more supportive, sexual-harassment-free workplaces for women, there’s still work to be done to support women in the restaurant industry. Leslie Ann has practices in place, like early closing time, to protect her female staff.
“When you look at history, and even right now, where [the majority of] kitchens are managed and owned by men. Women had to put up with so much for so long,” she says.
As a woman restaurateur, and talking to mostly women who we hire, we want a place where you feel comfortable. That you’re not going to be harassed, and with that, you can be more comfortable just to be yourself.
To say kindness is woven into the fabric of (swah-rey) is an understatement. It underlines their 26-page staff training manual, decorates their wall, and is exemplified by the people who started it all. The restaurant industry sometimes gets a bad reputation for being cut-throat. It’s easy to picture angry chefs throwing swear words around like finishing salt. We’re used to seeing those images. At (swah-rey), this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Greg and Leslie Ann rely on their employees. And they frequently — and only half-jokingly — ask them to come back the next day.
“I think one of the best things for us is that we’re just who we are, and our staff gets to see that on a daily basis,” says Greg. “When they unlock the front door, they know all we expect is that they be them. That when Anya clocks in, Anya is just Anya. She looks for the same opportunities to be kind and compassionate to people that we look for. It’s not something that she does because we told her she has to do it. She’s genuinely happy to see them there.”
It’s hard in the restaurant industry to keep staff, says Leslie Ann. But if you make people feel good or help them feel good about themselves, they’ll come back, just like your customers.
What’s the one thing Leslie Ann carries over from her air traffic control days? Showing her employees, and everyone, how important they are to her restaurant’s success.
“Some of the newest and best restaurateurs are really taking that to heart. That treating their employees as well as you want to be treated is vital for the next generation of restaurants.”
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