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I need advice on trying to motivate and give incentives to culinary staff. Unfortunately, in this day and age, anything involving alcohol, such as food and wine dinners, is frowned upon in a corporate environment.

Joseph Wiktorek, Executive Chef, Sheraton Oceanfront Hotel Virginia Beach

Shift drinks or a bottle of wine as an incentive for getting through a busy night or high-profile event were mainstays of the restaurant industry.  These days more operations are shying away from the potential liability and unhealthy message of rewarding workers with alcohol (especially in an industry known for incidence of high drug and alcohol abuse)1.

Without alcohol, the need to provide incentives to motivate and reward employees remains.  And done right, this can be a low-cost effective strategy for a restaurant.

Anthony “Toby” Strianese, Professor of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism at Schenectady Community College, recommends more and smaller incentives rather than one big-ticket item to get the entire staff motivated.  For example, an iPAD may excite the top performers, but will alienate those employees who think they’d never have a chance to earn it.  His go-to incentive is a movie ticket handed out to employees on the spot when they are caught doing something right.  Other ideas for low- or no-cost incentives to reward or motivate workers are a reserved favorite parking spot, choice of a favorite family meal, gift cards, song downloads, or experiences that promote work/life balance such as theme park or event tickets.

Another good category of incentive is one where the reward you give comes back to benefit the operation not only in improved employee morale, but also in increased knowledge or professional development.  Consider personalized autographed cookbooks from colleagues, professional development opportunities to attend a cooking demonstration or tasting, gift certificates to competitors along with a request for feedback, or admission to a restaurant show along with a request for new ideas.  A major incentive at some operations is a culinary trip to a food-producing region or another country to make cooks aware of new products and potential menu items.

There are also a number of companies that manage employee incentives for you.  You reward employees with points that can be redeemed with the company for gift cards, merchandise, or cash.