It’s almost unheard of: A restaurant prep chef earning at least $65,000.
But that’s what Cyrus partners Douglas Keane, Nick Peyton and Drew Glassell are promising, with the recent opening of their new restaurant in Geyserville.
And those prep chefs will be able to increase their salaries to $75,000, which is equivalent to what a “captain,” or top guest services manager, earns at the upscale destination.
The non-traditional approach to positions and salaries is the partners’ strategy to land workers during a crippling labor shortage and to combat a lack of living wages for restaurant staff.
“We have to do more with less,” Keane told The Press Democrat recently. “We want to pay people good money.”
According to the Indeed.com job site, the average pay for a prep cook in San Francisco is $19.12 per hour, or $44,604 per year, which is already 24% above the national average.
In Sonoma County, a prep cook earns a median salary of $31,720, according to the county’s Economic Development Board, while restaurant managers on average get a median pay of $60,840.
“For cooks, it’s a much higher pay rate, so that’s made it really easy to find help,” said Keane of the Bay Area’s famously challenged hiring landscape over the past few years. “We were all staffed except for three positions by mid-July.”
To make it happen, the Cyrus team is leveraging a non-standard staffing model, one that involves intensive cross-training, so every employee is able to do another employee’s job. Essentially, the dining room and kitchen positions are being combined, so waitstaff also prepares food and kitchen staff also serves the meals.
It’s a concept that has been tested before, such as at the former Restaurant at CIA Copia in Napa, which debuted in 2017 with chefs making rounds in the dining room and presenting their food on carts for diners to choose from, in an elevated dim-sum style.
The thinking has been that bringing the chefs onto the service floor allows them to boost their traditionally lower income by sharing in tips with servers.
But at the new Cyrus, staff who normally would be relegated to chopping vegetables can learn how to be a captain — and reap the financial rewards with a set salary.
The exclusive restaurant limits dinners to 36 guests per night, divided into groups of 12 for the partially communal experience.
A captain is assigned to each seating, guiding all 12 people through a progressive Champagne and canapes “Bubble Lounge” reception, hors d’oeuvres at an interactive chef’s table in the kitchen, entrees at private tables in the dining room overlooking Alexander Valley vineyards and dessert in the “Chocolate Room” with its 8-foot tall liquid chocolate arch.
“That’s high-level training, but everyone — food runners and back waiters, even — will be front-of-house trained,” Keane said.
“You could be prepping the pastry station until 4:30, and then you’re dedicated to the front. Then next week, you could be working plating, or the grill, and may stay there the whole night.”
The idea borrows a page from the 1986 autobiography, “Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony.” Keane has traveled extensively throughout Japan, exploring its culture, though he said he has never heard of the book chronicling the remarkable success of the electronics company that flourished through the devastating aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II.
Sony co-founder Morita strongly believed in cross-training employees, to give them insight into the demands their co-workers faced and encourage even entry-level workers to offer suggestions for improvement.
“More experienced members provide new members with the direction and help they need in a continuous on-the-job training process,” the book summary explains. “The effectiveness of a particular section is strongly influenced by the morale, ambition and talent of the whole team.”
Getting the Cyrus staff on board took some convincing, and it still might be “brutal and take some finesse,” as the team puts concept into action during these grand opening months, Keane acknowledged.