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May 16, 2023

“You’re Right. We Paid for Our James Beard Nomination”

Charlotte’s 2023 JBA finalist discusses how investing in employees was the key to his success

by Sam Hart

Chef Sam Hart of Counter-. TM Petaccia/UP

Editor’s note: This story is part of a guest series featuring industry professionals around Charlotte penning opinion pieces on subjects close to them.

So far, we have told 39 stories at Counter- and have 138 planned for our remaining ten years as a restaurant.

Yes, we put an end date on our restaurant to focus on filling those ten years with the absolute best narratives and no wasted moments. However, no matter how much we believed in the story being told, we questioned whether or not others — especially critics — would understand them. Validation wasn’t something we strove for, until we received it in the form of a James Beard Foundation Award Finalist nomination and realized its importance to the heart of our restaurant.

Winning awards like the UPPYs, getting mentioned in “best of” lists, and having a solid review score built up a sense of validation, but it was when the James Beard Awards semifinalist nomination came through this year that we believed, “Oh shit…they get it…and they like it.” We call it our Sally Field moment. However, we heard from multiple voices: “They just bought it.”

We didn’t know how to take that at first. We’ve been earning it and have been broke for two years. What do you mean we bought it? Yes, we did just hire a PR company, but even they were telling us that there is really nothing they could do as they just were brought on two months prior to the announcements. They were just as shocked as we were when the nomination came through. However, just like everything, we flipped the negativity into providing a blueprint for pushing our industry forward.

So yes, we paid for our James Beard nom. We did that by paying the people who created that experience, our employees, what they deserve. Here at Counter-, we have been vocal and offensive with our belief in paying a liveable wage – showcasing companies with a liveable wage and not doing business with any purveyor or supplier without one.

For Counter- 2.0, our new standalone space that opened in December, we installed a laundry room, because we couldn’t find a linen cleaning service that paid employees a liveable wage. We switched a few of our provisioners to align with this new company policy, and within weeks a few companies reached back out letting us know they gave 20+ people raises to fulfill these guidelines. Change was happening.

We have 17 full-time employees. The average salary at Counter- and Biblio is $60,312, including the bonuses and commissions we pay based on performance and gross sales. No full-time employees here are hourly, and the average work week is 47 hours.

They all receive at least four weeks of paid vacation and a stipend to pay for, on average, 85% of their health, dental, and vision insurance. I informed our investors and business partner that I would not take a raise that would put me above the average pay at the restaurant group. I bring home a salary of $55,000 per year — 9.12% less than the company average — and no bonuses. We’ve made this happen by allotting 40 percent of our operating costs to labor; the industry standard ranges from 25 to 30 percent.

Teamwork plating at Counter-. TM Petaccia / UP

This mindset has created two things. With so many people here receiving bonuses on the gross revenues and net income of the restaurant, all 22 full-time staff members focus on the growth and success of the group.

There is a strong sense of community, but even more so a strong sense of responsibility to one another. Through this, we have more people on staff now than the total number of employees who have left over the past 2.5 years. We average one person leaving every two months. That’s not yet “normal” in this industry, but it should be.

“This only can work in a restaurant where you are charging people hundreds of dollars,” is always our first rebuttal to these numbers. Oddly enough, the average high-level, fine-dining restaurant pays less than the average fast-casual restaurant in any big city in the States. It usually takes much more staff to execute the menus, and chefs can prey on young cooks wanting to “learn”. However, just like a good pastry recipe, it’s all about ratios! Our labor cost is 40% of our gross sales.

Based on this number, I figure out if we can hire any additional staff and how much we can increase our current team. We spend 10% more than the industry average on our employees. We make up for it in other areas of the business: only spending 2.5% on advertising and marketing,dropping food costs by looking at what is not currently inflated, and reducing waste. The other massive saving is not wasting dollars on a constant revolving door of employees.

We decided on two things early on at Counter-: We would only hire people we saw an extended future with but also people that we could get out in three years to go on to their next step.

From former Counter- chef de cuisine Elinn Hesse opening Cold Hearted Gelato to current chef de cuisine Yongwon Hwang in the process of starting KOA, every one of our employees has a goal after Counter-, and every member of this team is aware of that goal and pushes one another to achieve them. Most importantly, they are compensated in a way that allows them to work towards these goals without worrying about whether they can pay their electricity bill.

The more I write and talk about our philosophy, I see why people label us as a “cult”. But as industry legend Will Guidara mentioned in his book Unreasonable Hospitality: “Businesses who don’t have a culture, call those who do cults.”

Our crew is not a quiet one. We enjoy telling our stories loudly, something we do with each menu at Counter- – with quite a bit of laughter and crying cocktailed together.

So, yes, we paid for it. Thankfully, we don’t lose a single second of sleep wondering if our team will come in on time, if their prep will be done, if the kitchen will be clean, or if the guests will enjoy themselves. The only thing I lose sleep on is: how can we achieve the next goal for each employee?

Sam Hart is the executive chef and owner of Counter- and Biblio and a 2023 James Beard Finalist for Best Chef: Southeast.

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