Essence rolls with changing times

Restaurant group boosts offerings, plans for future amid an evolving landscape for dining out.
Diners enjoy a meal at Bistro Bella Vita. Courtesy Essence Restaurant Group

The leader of Essence Restaurant Group recently solidified his company’s new game plan to create a more appealing workplace for prospective and current employees in this challenging industry climate.

James Berg.Courtesy Essence Restaurant Group

James Berg, managing partner of Grand Rapids-based Essence Restaurant Group — owner of Green Well, Bistro Bella Vita and the soon-to-reopen Grove — published an open letter last month on social media to announce changes his company would make in response to the labor shortage.

In his letter, Berg said business owners’ acceptance of the new reality for the restaurant industry will be vital if they are to continue to survive and thrive.

“We are now over 18 months into this pandemic, and every company in every industry in every corner of the world is struggling with the same issue — people — more specifically, a lack of them in the workforce,” he said. “… If we’re still struggling with wanting things to change back, it’s a futile struggle. We are still in a pandemic and must accept it by making a new plan today that will move us forward and create a new tomorrow.”

Berg went on to say restaurant companies must start “by focusing on the things that we can control” rather than expecting the labor force participation rate will magically correct itself.

With that in mind, starting this month, Essence Restaurant Group is implementing the following offerings:

  • Full medical benefits for all full-time employees at a reduced cost.
  • Essence restaurants will close for the first week in January and the first week in July, giving all managers/chefs additional paid time off.
  • Highly competitive pay structure and flexible work schedules.

Berg told the Business Journal the struggle to find chefs and kitchen help started as far back as 2018 and worsened through 2019-20. Essence previously had compiled a list of ideas to address the problem, but then the pandemic hit and tanked revenues industrywide.

“Everything was on pause for a while, and then when things were clearly not getting any better this past fall — the employee crunch really came to a head in about September — then that’s when I sat down and talked with the team and we hatched the plan that we had loosely drawn up a couple years ago that we wanted to start for 2022,” Berg said.

“If hope is your plan, you’ll be hopeless, but if you have a good plan, then you can be hopeful.”

Berg said Essence decided to close for two full weeks of the year to make it easier for staff to get rest time without needing to swap shifts or find people to cover for them. Salaried or full-time employees who have been with Essence for more than a year will get full or partial paid time off during the two weeks of closure, and salaried managers will get an additional two weeks of PTO to use the rest of the year.

In response to the labor shortage, Essence already reduced its hours of operation from seven to five days a week at Bistro and from seven to six days in the summer and five days in the winter at Green Well. Berg said this was designed to ensure the restaurants can offer the same level of service as usual — no excuses — with fewer employees.

Berg said he believes enough restaurants have adapted to the new normal that it puts the ones that rely on the excuse, “We’re short-staffed,” at a competitive disadvantage. 

“The demand for dining is as high as it has ever been, but we just have a supply issue of people,” he said.

Essence is looking to fill 20 open positions across the company and also will be looking to hire a team for Grove before it reopens as an 86-seat restaurant in February.

Berg said diners can look forward to a completely redesigned, “cool, sexy” Grove, and it will have a cutting-edge, constantly evolving menu.

“You won’t feel like you have to go travel somewhere to find out what’s going on in New York or L.A.,” he said.

Berg said the downtown Grand Rapids restaurant landscape appears to be strong, with the occasional dips as new COVID-19 variants hit the area.

“Starting in late October through about Thanksgiving, I would say there was definitely a loss of 10-15% of diners going out. But after Thanksgiving, it’s just been super busy. We had one of our busiest Christmas seasons we’ve ever had, even only doing five days a week at Bistro, and I’ve heard from most people downtown that’s been the general case, that they’ve been doing well.”

Berg said he has noticed a trend of chain restaurants moving into downtown that might not necessarily be recognizable to local diners as chain restaurants, such as Tupelo Honey, Wahlburgers, Condado Tacos, Ruth’s Chris, Real Seafood Co. and others, which have deeper pockets than locally owned restaurants and have been on the upswing as places like Grand Rapids become more appealing as a destination — and as commercial real estate agents look to fill spaces that independent restaurants lack the startup capital to lease. He said he doesn’t view this as a negative, because there should be enough business for everyone as the city grows.

“I think it will be a short-term trend. … Over time, it’s hard to compete against a good local restaurant that’s in any good downtown market, because it’s hard to create and manufacture a culture from Dallas or Florida,” he said.

“If you go to Chicago or even Detroit, to some degree, you’re going to see some of that (growth of chains), but it’s a percentage. I don’t think it will ever be a big percentage, but it’s definitely just a sign of a city’s growth.”

Berg said he believes if restaurants focus on their core values and shift their perspectives from resistance to acceptance, they will be able to weather this “painful” time for the industry. 

“Adversity is inevitable; learning and growing from adversity is not. … It is within our control to reap the benefits, not just the pain, of adversity,” he said.

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