I recently conducted a leadership retreat for a client in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of my favorite towns. As usual, I made a bee line to Tia Sophia , which has been my favorite purveyor of Northern New Mexican food since I first visited there 15 years ago. (Northern New Mexican is quite different from Tex-Mex, Arizona Sonoran, or California Ranchero, but that’s a subject for another article.) As usual, the green chili stew at Tia Sophia was perfect: blisteringly hot with Hatch chilies, and chock full of beef chunks and potatoes swimming in a thick, ambrosia-like broth. The beans were superb, and the posole was to die for. All reasons enough to move to Santa Fe permanently.
I had a chance to chat with the owner, Mark, who bought the place from his parents in 2005. His grandmother started the restaurant in 1936 after immigrating from Greece. That’s right, a family of Greeks who make the best Mexican food in Santa Fe – go figure.
So I asked Mark what the secret was to their long time success and their absolute consistency of food quality, taste, and service excellence. He said it was simple:
“My parents and grandparents always treated their employees right, so my wife and I have tried to continue that practice. Consequently, we have a great staff who stay with us for a life time. It makes my job of managing the place relatively easy. They really run things.”
I asked him to explain what he meant when he said that they treat the staff “right.” He replied that they pay their employees more than the other restaurants in the area pay – even the server staff’s base pay is higher. Of course, servers get most of their salary from tips, but at Tia Sophia, they don’t practice “tip sharing” where all the tips go into a pool and are then divided up. What a server gets is what he or she keeps. Consequently, each server is motivated to deliver great service and get rewarded for the effort.
Additionally, Mark said that he and his wife treat their employees with the same friendliness and courtesy that they use with their customers. I observed Mark do this as we chatted. I had arrived just at closing time, so by the time I finished eating and started talking to Mark, the last customers and many of the staff were leaving for the day. We were sitting near the front door, and Mark interrupted our conversation each time a customer or staff member left to tell them good bye and thank them. For the employees, he added, “see you tomorrow.”
This last item may sound like small potatoes (no pun intended,) but in the restaurant industry, where employee turn-over is huge, Mark, his wife, and his parents and grand parents before them, have obviously found a solution. And that translates into consistently great food and an out-of-towner like me going there every time I visit Santa Fe.