The Lowdown: staff meals

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

US-themed casual dining chain Fridays has chosen to defy industry norms by ditching free staff food

Related tags Fridays Hostmore Multi-site Casual dining Staff Unite union

US-themed casual dining chain Fridays has chosen to defy industry norms by ditching free staff food.

Surely free meals are a given for restaurant staff?
It’s certainly the case for large groups and decent indies. In fact, a greater emphasis has been placed on the provision of high-quality meals for teams in recent years, especially in higher-end places.

So why are we talking about them now?
Because restaurant group Fridays doesn’t share this view. From next month the casual dining group is scrapping the practice of providing a free meal to staff ​who work 10 hours or more on a shift (those working fewer than 10 hours do not receive the benefit).

Lunch may be for wimps, but​ it’s not much fun working on an empty stomach…
You’re not wrong. Fridays’ decision feels like a retrograde step. Taking away what is viewed as a key benefit for staff – and one that seems a bit of a no brainer considering serving food is the group’s whole raison d’etre - will undoubtedly have a negative impact on retention and recruitment, not to mention morale. It’s an especially odd move given that Fridays staff received an upgraded meal allowance following a 2018 strike ​over the 88-strong group’s tipping policies.  

What has the reaction been like?
It’s fair to say the brand previously known as TGI Fridays is not having a great week. The move has generated a fair bit of negative PR for the group and has also attracted the ire of trade union Unite Hospitality, which has launched a petition ​calling on Fridays CEO Julie McEwan to reinstate free staff meals. “Fridays UK staff are low paid service sector workers facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis,” the petition reads. “In the midst of this crisis, senior management of the company have taken the cynical step of removing fully subsidised staff meals. “Staff are rightly angry and frustrated that they will have to sacrifice more of their income to feed themselves at work in order to satisfy the profit margins of company executives.” 

What is Fridays' justification?
The group has defended its decision, saying it would ‘provide more equitable benefits to everyone in its teams’. It also highlighted that all employees received 50% off the menu and free soda during working hours. The changes are likely to be interpreted as a play by the group to reduce costs in a tough trading environment. Last year, Fridays’ parent company Hostmore said it was not planning to open any new restaurants in the first half of the 2023 financial year due to weak consumer demand and rising costs.

Is it a major cost for Fridays? 
We don't know exactly what the previous policy on free staff food was, but assuming employees were restricted to cheaper menu items (as is nearly always the case) it wouldn't have made much of a dent in the company's overall finances. Restaurant accountancy firm RNB Accountants Ltd boss and Brindisa Kitchens co-owner Ratnesh Bagdai says that the cost of feeding staff in a busy restaurant is “basically negligible” especially when set against the obvious staff welfare benefits. 

What is the industry standard in terms of cost allocation for staff meals? 
The budget for what is often termed the staff meal is typically around £2. “At Brindisa Kitchens and many of the other restaurants that I am involved with staff don’t eat from the menu but it’s good quality, healthy food,” Bagdai says. “How it works in accounting terms is that we do the maths and give each head chef a credit to their food costs and debit this to staff welfare so it doesn't affect their margin." 

But isn’t it also important for staff to try the food they cook and serve? 
Yes. A lot of restaurants that don’t usually let their teams order from the menu will occasionally offer tastings to get employees up to speed with the menu. For example, Brindisa Kitchens does a full menu tasting for staff every few weeks. The costs of these are applied through EPOS systems and calculated at around 30% cost with a credit to food costs as above, so again not affecting margins and traditionally debited to staff training rather than staff welfare.

What about restaurants that only serve one product – don’t staff get bored of it?
This can be an issue for monoproduct places. One solution to this is to take a leaf out of Pizza Pilgrims’ book and set up swap deals with neighbouring restaurants.

Isn’t there a legal requirement for hospitality businesses to feed their staff?
No. That’s a common misconception that has probably arisen from it being a standard industry practice. A statuary implement introduced in 1992 says that staff are entitled to ‘eating facilities’. But surely those in the restaurant business should be hospitable to their staff as well as their customers.

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