How Ming Tsai Gives Back to the Staff at Blue Dragon

By providing health insurance and charging a 2% kitchen appreciation fee — and by saying "thank you" every day — Ming Tsai shows his staff he cares.

“My grandfather said it best. Haoren, haoba. Hao means good. Haoren is good people. Haoba is good fortune. If you're a nice guy, you do not finish last, you finish first. You have to be nice to everyone. Respect everyone. Good things will happen to you. It's that simple.”

Ming Tsai is perhaps best known for his cooking and travel show, “Simply Ming”, which is currently on its 17th season. But for 19 years, he also ran Blue Ginger, a restaurant in Wellesley, MA, And since 2013, he’s run Blue Dragon, an East-meets-West Tapas restaurant in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood. 

Tsai is an advocate for people dining out with allergies. When his son was diagnosed with seven severe food allergies, he realized how truly inhospitable many restaurants could be for groups like his family. 

That’s why he created Blue Dragon as an allergy-friendly, nut-free restaurant, with gluten-free menus available, along with a team trained to accommodate all guests. They use a Food Allergy Reference Book, where the ingredients of every dish made at the restaurant are listed out, so guests can feel confident that an allergen isn’t present in whatever they’re ordering. 

Tsai has also created a set of downloadable templates for any restaurant that wants to be more allergy-friendly and create an allergy reference book of their own.

Listen to our interview with Ming Tsai

The hospitality that Ming offers to all guests that walk through the door also extends to his team.

When it comes to keeping staff morale high, Ming says it’s about much more than holiday parties — connecting with all the staff is a daily task. He and his managers and chefs greet every single staff member when they walk in, and more importantly, he says, they say goodbye when they leave, no matter if it’s 7:30pm or 2:30am. 

“It’s even more important to say goodbye. Don't sneak off. [Say] ‘thanks, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’ You have to do that. And I try to get my managers and everyone else to do that,” he said.

Photo by Blue Dragon Restaurant

One of the very tangible ways that the management team at Blue Dragon shows appreciation to their staff is by implementing a 2% kitchen appreciation fee on every bill. 

When Ming was dining out at Boston restaurant Chickadee and noticed they instituted a 2% kitchen appreciation fee, he asked his server how it had been going. The server said there’d been an overwhelmingly positive response from guests, but that a few times, he’d had to explain why they didn’t just increase the menu prices.

If you just raise the prices, it's [the owner’s] money and [they] can elect not to give it. By giving it directly to the cooks, there's no wiggle room. There's no gray area. It goes to the cooks, period. It doesn't matter if the restaurant is doing awesome or poorly, it still goes to the cooks.

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Ming Tsai, on the 2% Kitchen Appreciation Fee

“He said ‘Well, the problem there is if the cooler goes out, the owner has X amount of money. And if he has to drop $10,000 to replace the cooler, there goes the extra money that was supposed to go to the cooks,’” recalled Ming.

“If you just raise the prices, it's [the owner’s] money and [they] can elect not to give it. By giving it directly to the cooks, there's no wiggle room. There's no gray area. It goes to the cooks, period. It doesn't matter if the restaurant is doing awesome or poorly, it still goes to the cooks,” he continued. 

The 2% kitchen appreciation fee was implemented last year at Blue Dragon. Since then, there’s only been one guest who said the 2% kitchen appreciation fee was “ridiculous” — but when the server tried to explain that it was an opt-in charge and completely voluntary, the guest quickly corrected him. She meant it was ridiculously low, and she tipped an extra 10% on her bill to give to the kitchen. 

Photo by Blue Dragon Restaurant

It goes to show that small changes like this can spark important conversations with the dining public. And Ming says that though the 2% bonus is small on every paycheck, it adds up to thousands per employee by the end of the year. 

The fact that this financial boost to the kitchen staff comes straight from customers also bodes well for the owners, he said — especially those who are still trying to work towards sustainable profitability. He said “there's restaurants teetering right there at the cusp. They really can't give 2% more to the cooks.” 

He added that the 2% works well because “If you're eating in a Blue Dragon, you can afford to eat at Blue Dragon. So 2% is barely a rounding error.”

He’s also been able to support staff members in need with small loans in emergencies. “If you're in need, we take care of you. I embarrassingly have loaned cash out numerous times. Not big, but you know, $500 — I mean, enough, to help people that something happened to, that have emergencies.”

Ming seriously values his long term employees, especially because the labor market is tighter than ever in the restaurant industry. And in a mid-size city like Boston, he’s had a harder time than ever finding great staff, especially since Eataly and the Encore Casino opened and hired a combined 6100 hospitality workers in the city. 

One of the ways that Blue Dragon goes above and beyond to make sure their staff are happy — and to attract the best talent — is by providing health insurance. They cover 50% for all their full-time employees.

“I'm one small restaurant. Bluntly, it’s money off the bottom line,” he said. But the payoff is massive. “But you weigh that with ‘What do you get in return?’ You get long term employees, so that's much cheaper and better for everyone.”

I'm one small restaurant. Bluntly, it’s money off the bottom line. But you weigh that with ‘What do you get in return?’ You get long term employees, so that's much cheaper and better for everyone.

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Ming Tsai, on providing health insurance


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