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Notes from the Apocalypse

It’s All About the People

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By Charles Morgan III


The restaurant business, which is all I know, is an old one. There have been taverns and cafés for centuries. While the industry has changed greatly over time, there has been one constant. I have learned that the most valuable asset of a business has nothing to do with property or structures—it has to do with people. A comfortable place and a nice view are fine, but there is more to a successful restaurant than the old real estate mantra “location, location, location.”


For me, it is all about the people. It is about the people who work in a restaurant and the people who frequent it. It is, of course, also about the food. The death knell of many places is their insistence on themes and gimmicks. Themes get old, good food and service don’t. Gimmicks might get people in the door, but customers won’t keep coming back unless there is substance.


In Destin, where transience is a part of life and the labor shortage is so acute that we now have workers imported from around the world, what can you do to develop a good workforce?


Harbor Docks has been selling seafood on the Destin Harbor since 1979. While it is hard not to sound pompous when describing a business philosophy, we have been fairly successful, so I thought I would share some of our secrets. After all, eight out of 10 of the bestsellers on the New York Times nonfiction list are either business guides or self-help books. Even though I’ve never read either type of book, I have some ideas of my own.


One of the things we have done to try to make Harbor Docks an attractive place to work is to take care of each other. The word “family” is overused when it is applied to the workplace. Harbor Docks represents, for many people, more of a family than the one they grew up in. We have people who have spent their entire working lives with us. Consequently, the issues they have faced have been shared with all of us.


There are good and bad times in life. We have paid obstetricians and hospitals for employees to bring children into this world, and we have paid funeral homes to take loved ones away. We have arranged for a dishwasher to have a quintuple bypass with Dr. Pacifico at UAB, and we have dealt with emergency rooms at local hospitals to the point that we know all the personnel. We have fed more nurses in our area than you can imagine. I learned long ago that when you feed the medical staff attending to a patient, the patient tends to get a bit more attention.


Sometimes we seem to operate as a bank as much as a restaurant. Many of our employees aren’t on a first name basis with bank presidents. Many have never had a loan. If they are going to spend their days sweating it out in a hectic kitchen or behind a raucous bar, I have no problem in helping them out when they run into financial shortfalls.


We have paid for college educations for employees and their children, and we have paid for stints in rehab centers. We send employees on vacations, and we arrange for them to go fishing and hunting. We have helped them purchase houses, and we have helped rebuild their homes after hurricanes.


We have gotten employees out of jail, and we have provided them with legal help. When they have broken down cars, we provide them with cars that work.


Most of all, we try to provide them with the security that people need in this life, the security that comes with the knowledge that someone cares about them and will provide help when needed. If anything goes wrong, we will help. And with more than 400 employees, things go wrong every day. In return, we ask that they come to work on time.


We have found that once we have hired people and trained them, if they can be on time they’ll be okay. We have so few rules and requirements, focusing on that one request—be on time—seems to be sufficient.


Besides, too many rules in the workplace detract from the issues that really matter. And the standard rules that many businesses have are unrealistic. Why have a policy against employees fraternizing with one another when it is inevitable it is going to happen? People who spend their working hours with others are going to want to spend leisure hours with them also. We ask a lot of our employees during their 40 hours of work—what they do on their own time doesn’t concern me much. We have workplace romances and divorces and everything in between.


My goal is to treat the people I work with in such a way that they would be willing to jump in front of a large fast-moving truck for me. The tired old adage “Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself” is one that I don’t like. I don’t want to wash dishes, and that’s why we pay someone else handsomely to do it.


We try to take advantage of the opportunities we have as an independent business. Compared to corporate-owned chain restaurants, we should be able to improvise more easily, adjust and change more quickly, and operate in a more relaxed manner. We provide our employees with opportunity and assistance that the nameless, faceless chain restaurants can’t or won’t provide.


Another cliché often heard in the business world is that “good help is hard to find.” I am fairly sure that for many people, “good employers are hard to find” rings just as true.


I wrote this 12 years ago. It could have been written today.

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