What’s it really like to staff the monster?


When word got out last fall that Eataly, the international Italian marketplace and dining space whose American presence is closely linked with celebrity chef Mario Batali, was slated to open as the flagship attraction of the Prudential Center renovation, murmurs inside restaurant industry circles focused on the sheer size of the operation and the impact the behemoth might have on its neighbors:

“Did you hear it’s hiring 600 people?”

“It’s going to have, like, four restaurants in there.”

“It’ll never get that many people. Everywhere needs people.”

The Boston area has seen a massive uptick in restaurant openings over the last year or two — for starters, Smokeshop and Mamaleh’s Delicatessen in Kendall Square, Pabu in Central, SRV and MIDA in the South End, State Street Provisions, Ruka, Hojoko, Tiger Mama, Oak and Rowan, and the list goes on. The staffing shortage in kitchens has been nothing short of a crisis, with everything from the New York Times to Eater publishing stories about the back-of-house crunch. Finding people to fill front-of-house positions has been only slightly less hectic, with open calls for interviews peppering industry job sites like BostonChefs with sneeze-worthy gusto.

But it did it.

To date, Eataly has 584 employees, 23 part-time and 561 full-time, filling nearly 100 different positions in five departments. The “Italian wonderland” staffs everything from baristas to dishwashers, cheese mongers to servers, security detail to GMs, sommeliers to pizza makers, and an entire host of corporate level positions.

So, what did it take? How did it get nearly 600 industry-oriented people to seemingly come out of the woodwork and staff this huge beast of a restaurant/market/bar/cafe? Furthermore, while turnover is inevitable and Eataly has seen some of that since opening on Nov 29, what’s made people stay?

Personally, I’d never want to work somewhere as big as Eataly. Just going up the escalator stresses me out, but it’s a fascinating concept, exciting in its own weird way. While I’m not interested in joining the ranks, I recently visited with Julia Grafton, head of human resources for Eataly Boston, to ask about staffing this beast and employee retention thus far.

Side Bar by Kent Buckley

Side bar by Kent Buckley

“Getting this place staffed was probably one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had, professionally,” Grafton said. “We approached staffing by saying, ‘OK, we’re going to cast the net as wide as possible, put all of our energy into it, and hire well before we open.’”

The company took to both the internet and the streets in its search for talent, making appearances at career centers, college campuses, and job fairs — everything from a veterans event in Dorchester to culinary and hospitality schools.

“We have other locations, but we were pretty much an unknown in Boston,” Grafton said. “We knew it would be difficult. We literally hit the pavement.”

Recruitment tactics have already changed, though. Doors have been open for a little less than three months, and Grafton said the focus is internal promotion.

“We’re not really reaching much outside of these walls,” according to the head of HR. “We believe so strongly in promoting from within. That is key to who we are as a company, and it’s really exciting to be able to tell people that.”

Grafton also speculated, “I don’t think there are many companies who put as much as an emphasis on that as we do in this industry.” Which is true to my experience. While tales of working up the ladder from floor staff to management aren’t unheard of, and the move from dishwasher to prep cook isn’t an entirely extraordinary leap, one of the downfalls of the restaurant industry is that there isn’t room for everyone in upper-level positions — staff numbers in many establishments are relatively static, and most places don’t need more than one bar manager or sommelier, for example.

Not the case with Eataly.

“We’re lucky that we are so big, that we can offer so many opportunities to people,” Grafton said. With so many possible positions — from on the floor to behind the bar, management to corporate communications — there really may be something for everyone. “When we find someone who’s passionate and excited to be here, we will do whatever we can to cultivate that and help them grow with us.”

Here’s what Eataly’s offering: Employees who stick around for two months, and who work at least 20 hours a week, are eligible for medical and dental insurance. Life insurance (and pet insurance, for some reason) are available for additional purchase. After a full year, employees are also eligible for a 401K with matching funds from their employer.

As for pay, specific numbers weren’t provided for all positions, and starting wages vary depending on the job, but it was shared that servers and bartenders in the sit-down eateries start at the state tipped minimum of $3.75, while tips are pooled among front-of-house staff in each restaurant, which is relatively standard in establishments with less than 100 seats.

Perks and benefits notwithstanding, however, it hasn’t been a fit for everyone who came on board at the beginning.

“We’ve definitely seen turnover, mostly in our prepared food stations,” Grafton said. “We’re always hiring — just on the sheer numbers that we need here,” she said. “I can’t imagine a day that we wouldn’t need that. And for the right person, we’ll find something for you to do.”

To be continued …

Copyright 2016 Haley Hamilton.

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