How Learning and Teaching a Little Spanish Can Unite Your Restaurant Team

By learning a little bit of Spanish and practicing with your staff, you create an environment where they feel comfortable to practice their English.

The restaurant industry attracts immigrants from all over the world for many reasons. But the ability to work while learning English — instead of having to wait to find a job until you’re completely proficient — is an especially big draw. 

Bilingual people all know the feeling of searching for words. You’re chugging along, speaking your second, third, or maybe fourth language, when suddenly everything comes to a halt and your mind draws a blank. When you’re amongst friends or family, it can feel embarrassing. But if you’re at work, you may feel even worse. 

Now imagine experiencing that discomfort hundreds of times a day. This will put you in the shoes of countless Spanish-speaking restaurant staff members. 

In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that those who identify as Hispanic or Latino make up 25.9% of the restaurant industry across the United States. More specifically, they are:

  • 34.7% of cooks

  • 27.9% of dishwashers

  • 26.2% of food prep workers, cafeteria attendants, and barbacks

  • 25.9% of chefs and head cooks

  • 16.8% of management (“first-line supervisors of food preparation and serving workers”)

According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of Latinos in the U.S. speak English or are bilingual. They also reported that Spanish is the most widely spoken non-English language in the US, with over 60 million people speaking it across the country. 

Working in back of house doesn’t require fluent English. So as long as you can take directions and cook or clean, you can make a living and build a career as you rise through the ranks. In some cities, it’s also perfectly possible to work front of house without speaking much English, but for obvious reasons, it presents more of a challenge. 

The famous front and back of house divide stems, in large part, from pay discrepancies and a difference in skill sets and personality types, but it can be further exacerbated by language barriers. If your front of house staff only speaks English and your back of house communicates in Spanish and Spanglish, there’s a much lower chance that friendships will form naturally across teams. Miscommunications, incorrect orders, and other day-to-day issues in a restaurant can also be caused by staff members being unable to communicate comfortably.

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The solution? Teach your English-speaking staff some Spanish, and teach your Spanish-speaking staff some English, says Henry Patterson, Senior Partner of restaurant consulting firm Rethink Restaurants

Start by pushing yourself and the other members of your restaurant’s management team to use common Spanish phrases, or phrases that would be the most helpful to Spanish-speaking staff members. 

Learning a language is tough, but if management is willing to be vulnerable and try to improve their Spanish, it makes the environment more friendly to language errors. “Our attempt to speak Spanish, which in my case is pretty feeble, is entertaining to our Spanish speakers — and more than that, I think it gives them permission to struggle with English,” says Patterson.

How to Create An Inclusive Environment for Bilingual Restaurant Staff

1. Build Bilingualism Into Your Training

It’s important to train your staff regularly, not just when onboarding a new staff member. 

You can further their knowledge of customer service, leadership skills and best practices. You can bring them up to speed on anti-harassment policies and health codes. You can regularly hold food and wine tastings. These all contribute to staff happiness and fulfilment, and encourage them to stay on your team longer. That said, if only half of them are getting the full picture as a result of a language barrier, there’s more work to be done.

When Patterson introduced an open-book management model to his staff, he realized that in order to have every staff member completely understand the financial side of the business, a workshop in English wouldn’t cut it. They hired an external person to come in and give the training in Spanish as well. 

He said the Spanish-speaking staff were thrilled. “It was crazy. They were much more avid students than the [Anglophone] group.”

His Spanish-speaking staff felt seen and understood by their management team because they invested in them in this way. “The fact that we did the whole thing in Spanish was a really clear [sign of] respect to them,” said Patterson.  

Besides conducting on-the-job training in both English and Spanish, consider teaching your English-speaking staff some basic Spanish, and your Spanish-speaking staff basic English. 

Encourage a language exchange where you pair up staff members who want to learn each other’s languages. This approach promotes an inclusive work environment where all are respected, validated, and heard – regardless of their native tongue. By having your English-speaking and Spanish-speaking staff work together, you can help team members forge stronger bonds, helping your staff work together as a cohesive unit when delivering memorable dining experiences night after night. 

If your budget is tight and you can’t hire anyone externally to give workshops in Spanish, consider asking a bilingual staff member to help out with a training, and reward them with an employee benefit like overtime pay, PTO (paid time off), choosing their own section for the next month, or not having to do sidework. 

“The fact that we did the whole thing in Spanish was a really clear [sign of] respect to them.”

Author

Henry Patterson, of Rethink Restaurants, on running an open-book management training in Spanish

2. Hang Informative Posters in Both Languages

You probably already have labor law compliance posters hanging in your restaurant’s office kitchen and locker room. If not, getting them should jump to the top of your to-do list, because in many states, it’s required by law to display them.

Workplace compliance posters serve many important purposes, from highlighting common ways to avoid cross-contamination to informing workers of their rights. It’s crucial that every employee – regardless of their native language –  understands every word on these posters. 

Many states provide Spanish and English versions of workplace compliance posters – look through the state by state list here.  You can find additional workplace safety posters here that pertain to different areas of the business, from refrigeration regulations to prevention of communicable diseases in the kitchen; many are available in both English and Spanish. Finally, here’s another link where you can find posters in English and Spanish specifically related to allergies — scroll about halfway down the page to the Free FARE Educational Resources section. While you’re at it, Dot-It advises if you use weekday stickers for labelling prepped food for the fridge, get bilingual ones.

3. Learn Indispensable Vocabulary

The average person knows 20,000-35,000 words in their native language, so taking the time to learn the following 75 crucial restaurant terms in Spanish really isn’t a huge undertaking. 

Above all, respect is the most important part of bilingual workplace training. Mocking another team member’s accent should not be tolerated; if you’re unsure of how to say something, respectfully ask instead of just assuming. 

If you’re wondering about pronunciation: In Spanish, the emphasis is almost always on the second last syllable of a word, unless there’s an accent that indicates otherwise. For example: cuidado is pronounced cui-DA-do, filoso is pronounced fi-LO-so, resbaloso is pronounced res-ba-LO-so, but lácteos is pronounced LÁC-te-os. Note that typically, “io” ends up counting as one syllable, so sucio is pronounced “SU-cio”. 

Here are 75 key restaurant terms in Spanish:

Cuidado - Careful, be careful 

Caliente - Hot

Resbaloso - Slippery

Listo - Ready

Filoso - Sharp 

Aqui - Here, can be used like “behind”

Atras de ti - I’m behind you

Rapido - Quickly  

Limpio - Clean

Sucio - Dirty

La alergia - Allergy


La cena - Dinner

El almuerzo/lunch - Lunch

El desayuno - Breakfast

La botana - Appetizer

El plato principal/plato fuerte - Entrée, main dish 

El res/buey - Beef

El pollo - Chicken

El cerdo - Pork 

El pescado - Fish

Los mariscos - Seafood 

Las verduras/vegetales - Vegetables

La pasta - Pasta

La harina - Flour

El trigo - Wheat

Los productos lácteos - Dairy products

La leche - Milk 

La crema - Cream 

El queso - Cheese

Las nueces - Nuts

Los cacahuates - Peanuts

Las semillas - Seeds

La soya - Soy

Los huevos - Eggs

La salsa - Sauce

La masa - Dough or batter

La levadura - Yeast 


La cocina - Kitchen

El baño - Bathroom

El comedor - Dining room 

El closet - Closet 

El casillero - Locker

El candado - Padlock 

La oficina - Office

El refrigerador - Refrigerator

El congelador - Freezer

La despensa - Pantry/dry storage


El cuchillo - Knife

El plato - Plate

El horno - Oven

La parilla - Griddle/grill

La toalla - Towel

La cuchara - Spoon

La cucharadita/cucharilla (regional) - Teaspoon

La cucharada - Tablespoon

El tenedor - Fork

La lana / la plata / el dinero - Money 

El efectivo - Cash 


Corta - Cut

Rebana - Slice

Lava - Wash

Prepara - Prepare

Limpia - Clean

Guarda - Put away

Coce - Cook (as in cook it until medium-well) 

Fichar / marcar tarjeta - Clock in or out


Un momento - Hold on a second, wait a moment

Donde está ____ - Where is ____

Pásame ____ - Pass me ___

Se acabo ____ - We’re out of ____

Puedo ____ - Can I 

Perdon - Sorry

Ahí te va - It’s coming

Espera - Wait

Me tengo que ir - I have to leave

Empathy is Everything

In a recent interview for The Garnish, a podcast for restaurant people by Toast, Danny Meyer said

“How in the world can you possibly be in a business that is about making people feel better, when there could be people in your own company that don't feel good about coming to work, or feel that there are double standards, or feel that there are different sets of rules for different people based on power, gender, race, etc.?” 

Having and showing empathy for everyone on your staff will inevitably lead to a happier, more cohesive team, contributing to a stronger workplace culture overall, and a more successful restaurant. 

A big way that you can show you care is by making an effort to speak the languages of your employees and making them feel comfortable in practicing their English at work. Creating a bilingual environment where diversity in languages is welcomed will make your restaurant an even better place to work.

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