Back in 2019, arguably the last ‘normal’ year on record, the annual employee turnover rate for restaurant workers reached an all-time high of 75-percent. This statistic, while shocking, becomes even more so when you pause to consider two things: first, what this figure actually means—that roughly three quarters of restaurant workers in 2019 were unlikely to remain in their jobs for an entire year; and secondly, that in the two years that have passed since then, the situation has grown immeasurably more extreme.
Now, 18 months into the ongoing global pandemic, restaurant workers are more elusive than ever. Everywhere from Manhattan to Montauk, and indeed all across the country, restaurants are being forced to either close or drastically reduce their hours due to the straight-up impossibility of finding or retaining staff. The reasons for this are as numerous as restaurant workers themselves are currently scarce. Ask anyone who’s actually worked in a restaurant and they’ll tell you that the industry desperately needs reform: from the paltry pay to the frenetic pace, from the too-common incidence of sexual harassment to the hours themselves that are, simply, not conducive to living a whole, sustainable life.
But while all of this is true across the industry as a whole, there is, on Long Island, a glimmer of light in the shape of a restaurant group that defies not only the statistics, but the standards of the industry themselves.
“A lot of people look at restaurant workers and others in the hospitality industry as people who are just punching the clock or working an interim job,” says Michael Bohlsen, who co-owns and -operates the Bohlsen Restaurant Group—the group behind some of Long Island’s most revered restaurants: Prime, Tellers, H2O and Monsoon—with his brother, Kurt. “But this simply isn’t true for us or the people we work with. Kurt and I recently sat down and said, ‘Let’s get a list of everyone who’s worked for us for 10 years or more,’ and we wound up with a list of over 100 people.”
This would be a feat in any industry. In the restaurant industry, however, it registers as something much more nearly impossible. How, then, do the Bohlsens manage to defy the odds? The answer is simple—to them, at least.
“We treat people like human beings,” says Kurt Bohlsen. “Whether the people we work with are dishwashers or general managers, we understand the value of what these people do. For example, a lot of people look down at dishwashers, but we look up to them. Without these people, we wouldn’t be in business. We look them in the eye, respect them and actually listen to them. For us, it’s easy. We’re no better than anybody, and we’re certainly no better than dishwashers.”
This philosophy, and the practices it has given birth to, is what has allowed the Bohlsen Restaurant Group to flourish, retaining workers in both a time and place that has rendered such retention practically unheard of.
“We survived Covid because we paid all of our salaried people for the entire 11 weeks we were shut down,” says Michael Bohlsen. “We did it because they had worked for us for so long, we felt like we owed it to them. And the return for us was, when we reopened, we had a team in place to do so.”
Speak with the Bohlsens about the people on their payroll and the word ‘team’ will appear frequently, like the uncommonly attentive servers who snake across their restaurants. Keep speaking with them and you’ll see that it isn’t just jargon, that they actually consider their employees as colleagues and collaborators, as people with opinions and instincts who they trust, at times, even more than they trust themselves.
“We hire good people and then we try to just stay out of their way,” says Kurt Bohlsen. “Ours is the only industry where it doesn’t matter how old you are, what color you are, what religion you are, what gender you are. If you do a good job, you get promoted—and the overwhelming majority of our team does a really, really good job. They are the people who make everything possible. Our job is to make sure they have everything they need to be successful, stay out of their way, and treat them with the respect they so utterly deserve.”
Here, meet some of the longtime employees who have built lives and careers within the Bohlsen Restaurant Group restaurants. See the proud faces, beautifully captured by photographer Lindsay Morris, of the people who make everything possible.
“I have had many single memorable moments over the past 13 years with BRG, but there is one moment in time that I am still shocked by. No one could have imagined what a global pandemic would do to our world, our lives and our industry. We could have easily crawled into a hole and given up. I am still amazed and impressed at the resilience and fight that I saw from our managers, our staff, our guests, and most importantly our ownership. While the rest of the world was being divided by differing views and fears, we came together in a way that will forever touch me. We survived, adapted, re-created ourselves, and leaned on each other. The rules and challenges have been ever changing and never ending since we were originally forced to close our doors.
We are still fighting over a year later. The effects of the pandemic on our ability to staff, stock and run the restaurant have put a tremendous stress on every single employee. We are overworked and tired—and thankfully, busy! Every single person that walks into this building every day is part of a bigger picture. One of our servers hugged me yesterday and told me how much our hard work is appreciated. I appreciate him also, in so many ways. That moment, hug and kind words are the driving force of what BRG means to me. While everyone has a reason to be upset and complain, we choose to support each other. The playing field is completely level, the efforts of all appreciated… and we continue to fight, as a family.” — Sandra Geisser, BRG assistant general manager of 13.5 years
“My first job was at the Jones Beach Theater, rolling burritos at Caliente Cab Co. for some side cash during the summer at the age of 15. I love the fast-paced environment and being able to bring a smile to people’s faces by simply serving them a good meal.
I wish the small percentage of our guests understood and appreciated the time and effort it takes for us to nail proper service and deliver a good meal to their table every time they dine with us.” — Nicholas Dimuro, BRG server of 13 years
“I love the industry. The Bohlsen Family treats me like family. I love Tellers and the techniques we use in the kitchen. It’s hard work, but I am dedicated.” — Francisco Cabrera, BRG prep cook of 20 years
“I like the atmosphere. I like the way they treat me as an employee, with respect. I feel like they are my family.” — Angel Lopez Morales, BRG runner of 22 years