People & Leadership

Edmondo Sarti’s secret to business growth? Put your people first

Productivity has declined across the globe and only one in three employees are fully engaged in the workplace. We must make it a priority to know what motivates and drives our people, and create an environment where they are empowered to do their best.

In order to figure out how to create this type of environment where our people are empowered, we recently caught up with successful San Francisco restauranteur and businessman Edmondo Sarti.

His secret? Put your people first.

Back of the House RestauranteurEdmondo Sarti’s top 3 people management lessons

  1. Growth can be a company culture killer if you don’t reinforce culture as your business scales.
  2. Invest in your people, and they’ll invest in your business. Company success depends upon a successful workforce.
  3. Trust employees to take the wheel. This isn’t about vacation days and free food. It is about empowering and energizing your employees through trust in order to get the best from them.

With 80 percent of restaurants failing in the first five years, Edmondo Sarti and his business partner Adriano Paganini seems to have found a secret sauce—beating those odds not just once, but over and over again.

In 2009, Sarti and Paganini founded Back of the House to manage their growing empire. Sarti now oversees operations, staffing, and openings at all 22 restaurants in Back of the House’s portfolio, but his in-the-trenches training informs every aspect of his job, from finance to employee development. Most importantly, his experience keeps the back of the house at the front of his mind.

The group’s success, Sarti says, is all thanks to its talented, creative staff.

Lesson 1: The people make the culture

For any business, a strong team culture maintains standards across locations and time. As Back of the House grows—Sarti and Paganini now have more than 1,000 people and add two to four restaurants every year—preserving the company’s culture is a challenge.

“People,” says Sarti, “are the most important thing in our business. I’m very aware of what’s going on in every restaurant, from a people standpoint.”

Sarti is thoughtful about who he puts in charge at each location to ensure things run well. For example, he has installed specialists behind the bar and in the kitchen to oversee every to oversee the wine list, etc, at every full-service restaurant to help keep an eye on things.

In addition to day-to-day oversight, management teams at the company’s 22 restaurants gather at Back of the House’s main office for a monthly meeting to discuss operational and administrative issues, as well as to trade ideas about how to elevate everyone’s performance. One restaurant, for example, may have received a slew of ultra-positive Yelp reviews in the last month—Sarti will ask that manager to share what she’s doing differently with the team.

The floor is also open to those outside management roles. “Everyone,” says Sarti, “is welcome to say anything they want at any time in our restaurants.” They just have to realize that their suggestion will be considered critically, he says, and that they may not like the response.

Lesson 2: Empowering individuals has a ripple effect

Sarti and his management team also spend a lot of time understanding what motivates Back of the House staff and guide them toward their goals. Whether employees aspire to open their own Michelin-starred restaurant, become a partner at Back of the House, develop relationships with local suppliers, or simply put together a delicious taco, the Back of the House family strives to help.

“The reason we are coming up with new concepts, which is a lot of work and is a different type of work, is to motivate my team of (over) 900 people,” Sarti’s business partner, Paganini, told Eater SF. “If you’re able to do that, you’re going to be successful. You’re going to have great people that work for you.”

If he notices a cashier or server at one of his restaurants walking around with confidence, he’ll approach and ask about her interests and ambitions. Where would she like to see herself in a year? How could they improve the guest experience? Often, he says, the best ideas come from such interactions.

Some of Back of the House’s most obvious success stories are the result of this direct employee cultivation. Luis Flores made his way from manager at Beretta to executive chef and partner at Uno Dos Tacos before becoming a co-owner at Flores, Back of the House’s full-service Mexican restaurant, which opened in 2016. Patricio Duffoo, the executive chef at the new tapas restaurant Barvale, started as a sous chef at Starbelly.

Lesson 3: Get used to letting go

With 22 restaurants, at least two more set to open in 2018, and ambitions to take its Super Duper concept global, Sarti is having to cede a bit of control. But he’s okay with that.

“As long as we stay as close as possible and the people that I’m in contact with believe the same thing I believe, then I believe it goes down without getting too diluted,” he says.

Until six months ago, Sarti interviewed literally every candidate, but his recent distance from the interview process doesn’t mean he’ll be spending more time in the office. It just means that he may not know, or remember everyone’s name.

“If I don’t know someone, I’ll introduce myself,” he says, an easy fix.

Sarti’s philosophy, it seems, is paying off. Even after a hectic year, and with the promise of a repeat on the horizon, business at Back of the House is humming along.

“It’s going pretty well right now,” Sarti says, laughing. “Maybe a little too good.”

To find out more about how businesses are putting their people first to get ahead, download our research report from 500+ global HR and People leaders.