Working long days for weeks on end is what the summer season in coastal restaurant business is all about. That’s always been the accepted norm, at least. But last year, SoDel Concepts said "enough."
One of the most successful hospitality groups in Delaware, the company announced its
full-time directors, general managers and chefs only would be working five-day weeks whenever possible. “Our people are people,” SoDel CEO Scott Kammerer said. “They should have lives and feel like they can spend time with their families. And in the end, that makes them better employees.
”A semi-normal work week is just one of the ways SoDel is changing the coastal restaurant game for the better, according to its workers. Employees earn more than the $8.25 minimum wage in Delaware. Full-time workers get two, 7-day vacations – one in the fall and one in the spring. Managers benefit from quarterly profit-sharing, along with a $300 monthly stipend for workers with children and $150 for those without.
And starting in November, all full-time employees will be able to enroll in a comprehensive medical plan that includes dental and vision coverage.
Those are just a few of the reasons SoDel Concepts won the first-place award for midsize companies in the 2016 Top Workplaces Survey, an honor based on anonymous ratings from employees.
“At SoDel, you don’t work for a company, you work for a team,” said Meghan King, who started as waitress in 2008.
Today, the mother of two is the general manager of Lupo Italian Kitchen in Rehoboth Beach, where she oversees a staff of about 30.
“You feel respected and cared for here,” she said. “And that makes me want to give that same feeling to my servers, hosts, bussers and back-of-the-house staff.”
Founded in 2004 by the late Matt Haley, SoDel Concepts has grown into a $50 million company that owns and operates nine restaurants in Sussex County, along with a food truck, a catering business, a charity and a production house that releases one documentary film a year.
Altogether, the company employs about 180 workers year-round – a number that swells to more than 500 during the busy summer months.
Like King, most of SoDel’s managers started out in entry levels positions and worked their way to the top.
“We want to grow a dishwasher into a line cook into a sous chef and then into a chef,” said Ronnie Burkle, who started as a sous chef and now is one of SoDel’s three directors of operations. “If they want it, we’ll give it to them and help them develop their career to get there.”
For that reason, Burkle said, SoDel looks for passionate employees who can handle the pressure of the busy summer months with “calm, cool and collected attitudes.”
“It’s hard work, it’s hot and it’s constantly busy,” he said. “That’s why being able to get some time off to attend your kid’s birthday parties or sports games is so important.”
That spirit of caring also extends beyond SoDel’s employees.
The company’s philanthropic arm SoDel Cares has distributed close to $150,000 in grants, scholarships, and food donations since being created by Haley in 2014, just months before his death.
“That was really Matt’s lasting legacy,” Kammerer said. “He instilled in us that it’s not always about the center of the plate. It’s about leveraging your business to help others.”
Still, Kammerer said, growing the business side of SoDel is his chief mission.
The company has more than doubled in size since being named one of the 500 fastest growing companies in the country by Inc. Magazine in 2009.
Last year, SoDel hired former state economic development director Alan Levin as a senior adviser to help facilitate that growth, which currently tracks at about 20 percent per year.
The company opened a second Matt’s Fish Camp in Lewes this summer and plans to open a second Northeast Seafood Kitchen off Coastal Highway near Rehoboth next year.
“I see us someday doing business beyond Sussex County,” Kammerer said. “We love the beach, but I’d like to keep growing and one day cook great food for people throughout the state.”