Hospitality HR – going the extra mile

Dishoom Covent Garden cricket team

The popular Dishoom group sets an example.

What is the connection between good service and a game of cricket? Between excellent cooking and a mela (a fair)? Between the energy that keeps people at the same company for more than five years and trips to Mumbai as well as a ticket to Hamilton, the musical?

The answer lies in the appeal of working for Dishoom, the small UK group of Indian restaurants created eight years ago by cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar. Today, thanks to a unique offer of non-stop, fascinating Indian food that is available all day from breakfast until dinner, presented in an extremely friendly fashion, there are now eight Dishooms (five in London, one each in Manchester, Edinburgh and Birmingham). Behind this impressive figure there is a workforce of just over 1,300. Of these, two-thirds are men, largely due to their preponderance in the kitchen teams, of more than 60 different nationalities.

While the cousins must take their share of the credit, the responsibility for this workforce’s job satisfaction and more falls on the rather slim shoulders of Andy O’Callaghan. Aged 37, he has been with Dishoom as ‘people director’ for over six years, having joined them via a business degree at LSE before stints in the HR departments at John Lewis, Pernod Ricard and the coffee-shop chain Harris + Hoole, then owned by Tesco.

What, I wanted to know, was the initial appeal of Dishoom to him? ‘Well, I have always been attracted by strong brands’, O’Callaghan explained, ‘and the attractions of the Dishoom brand appealed strongly to me from the outset. Then when I was taken round the kitchens by the head chef, he explained how many of their staff the company had helped to buy their own flats, which seemed an impressive commitment on the company’s part to their staff’s well-being.’

This sense of belonging came also from O’Callaghan’s first meetings with Shamil Thakrar. ‘His mantra has always been that his staff are an end in themselves, that what we need to do as senior management, or as founder-walla as he is referred to within the company, is to create the right atmosphere in which they can grow.’ (Indian terms are used throughout the organisation: all staff are Dishoom wallas while the management are referred to as Babus, a term that refers to civil servants who sit behind desks and don’t do much!)

In this O’Callaghan has been helped by three factors. The first was that Dishoom was the first to create an Indian restaurant where breakfast is often the busiest service of the day. Until they opened on St Martin’s Lane, which recently doubled in size after it took over the site of the former Jamie Oliver restaurant next door, few associated Indian restaurants with breakfast. The arrival of bacon and egg naans, date and banana porridge and The Big Bombay (aka The Full English), all washed down with their house chai, soon changed that. The fact that each service is very busy gives O’Callaghan, and his team of five, a definite advantage when looking for staff.

The second factor has been a decision taken at the outset that all the waiting staff can wear their own clothes at work. ‘Our approach has always been that our staff have to be happy and this approach makes a huge difference.’ O’Callaghan concluded by saying that he himself had forgotten what it feels like to wear a suit to work, let alone a shirt and tie.

The third was when I asked him about staff meals. ‘This was not an area where we used to impress’, O’Callaghan said, ‘as we were asking the kitchens that specialise in Indian cooking to switch and turn their focus on Western food. The decision was taken to allow the staff to choose dishes off the Dishoom menu and to have certain times when they can go off and eat it. This change has helped a great deal.’

As have the bigger, and more fundamental initiatives referred to in my first paragraph. The Dishoom Premier League is a cricket competition modelled on the Indian Premier League. It’s played at Lord’s Cricket Ground, no less, and is hotly contested between the restaurants (the Covent Garden branch in St Martin’s Lane, pictured above in the famous Long Room, are the current champions). The mela takes place on one of the three days all the restaurants are closed annually in the summer and is the event put on by Dishoom for all members of their staff and their families. Last year, it was attended by over 2,000. Then for everyone who has been with the company for more than five years, there is a trip to the Irani cafes of Mumbai, the spiritual home of Dishoom, as well as an annual staff outing, of which the most recent was the trip to Hamilton.

The consequences of such an approach have seen Dishoom named as the fourth-best company to work for in the UK (according to Best Companies) and the leading company in the hospitality industry, as well as securing a very high rating from Glassdoor, an American website where current and former employees review companies. But what of the future?

Nobody could doubt the commitment of everyone at Babu House (HQ in Shoreditch) and particularly O’Callaghan, but the combination of Brexit and COVID-19 has made his job considerably more challenging.

‘Brexit made recruitment more difficult for everyone in hospitality although we are relieved that the government relaxed the rules somewhat for trained kitchen staff. But you can just tell, for example from how difficult it is to find bartenders in Manchester, that the pool is getting smaller and smaller. And this has affected my role as well. There is a kind of funnel through which all applicants reach us and now my job is to widen that funnel at the top to allow as many applicants in. This work revolves particularly around social media’, he added.

‘Brexit forced the industry to begin to come together’, he continued, ‘and this process has been exacerbated by COVID. I and my colleagues in other restaurant groups have to draw more young people to our sector. I am very pleased with what Mark McCulloch has begun with his Hospitality Rising initiative. It is an exciting profession. How do you learn to "read a table"? How do you learn how to say goodbye to guests? Emotional intelligence plays a huge part and these lessons, when they are learnt, become part of life’s skills.’

‘During the COVID lockdowns we started an initiative called "Here to help", which was a daily call hosted by Dishoom’s MD Brian Trollip and myself so that our teams could contact us if there is anything they felt we could help with or they were having difficulty with. We supported our teams with lots of things ranging from loans to help with bills, arranging for bike repairs to replacement washing machines – but one thing that became really apparent was the need to have more support in place relating to mental well-being. Since then all of our Babus have attended mental health first aid training which helps them identify if someone is having difficulty and to then signpost them to where they can get help.’

Kitchen and waiting staff form the essential backbone of any good restaurant, and looking after their mental and physical well-being has to be every restaurateur’s top priority. ‘If I look after the staff, they will look after my customers, this was a leitmotif when I interviewed 20 of the world’s top restaurateurs for my book The Art of the Restaurateur, trying to establish what had made them so successful.

Since then, staff have become more expensive and in demand; staff retention has become even more crucial. This is Dishoom’s approach. Their sense of humour is an extra.