Inside Staff Meal at The Spence: Diners’ Backstage Pass to the Kitchen

by Deanna Dong
Shannon Sturgis
July 2012

Restaurant

Staff Meal Details

Chef de Cuisine Adrian Villarreal weighs in.

Staff meal food costs:

Ranges from $2 to $6 per person

Size of staff meal:

8 to 16 people

Time of staff meal:

4:30pm

Worst staff meal:

I think it was like beef-cheek meatloaf. It could have been good but it wasn’t made very well, and it was very dry.

Favorite staff meal ever:

Let’s go with chicken wings.

With the rising status of the culinary profession (how many times have you heard “chefs are the new rock stars” lately?), diners are increasingly curious about life in the kitchen. As a result, staff meal has moved out of back of house, becoming a popular cookbook topic for the likes of Ferran Adrià and Danny Meyer. Additionally, restaurants have begun selling the meal directly to diners. District Commons has a nightly family meal available to the public at reasonable prices. (Conversely, a new restaurant in Philadelphia, The Industry, was designed to cater to culinary professionals, serving up food that appeals to chefs at hours that complement their schedules.)

At 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Richard Blais’ new restaurant The Spence, staff meal also muscles its way onto the dinner menu. Every night, the crew sets aside four to six orders of family meal to sell at cost, and early diners have a chance to grab a satisfying plate of food for just a few bucks. Recent dishes have included beef wraps, shrimp and pasta, roasted chicken with kale greens, and Pork Belly Fried Rice. Chefs take turns cooking and use products and mise en place that need to be rotated out. “It depends on what we have that day, but we try and make it special for our staff so they have something to look forward to every day,” says Chef de Cuisine Adrian Villarreal.

Staff Meal: Pork Belly Fried Rice
Staff Meal: Pork Belly Fried Rice

One thing is for certain, the staff (and diners) at The Spence can count on variety in their meal offerings. “It’s literally changed every day,” says Blais. “The favorites tend to be things that we are more familiar with—chicken wings, pizzas, burgers, and tacos.” And the prices are unbeatable. The Pork Belly Fried Rice uses leftovers from a menu special and costs $6; a half-dozen chicken wings with salad costs $3.75.

Blais and Villarreal have several reasons for bringing diners into the staff meal fold. First, the meal gives the team a chance to come together and bond before service. “We are a family, and it’s always good to sit down with your family and eat before you conduct business,” says Villarreal. And by serving the same food to the crew as they serve to diners, the staff at The Spence has a higher standard for the quality of staff meal. “We decided to do it because I want to be better to the staff here. By putting it in front of the guests, it gets the kitchen to feel more committed,” says Blais. “[Traditionally], staff meal can be great one day and bones and gristle the next. I am committed to feeding ourselves a little better.”

Serving family meal to customers not only pushes for more thoughtful food, it also educates diners on the restaurant industry. “We want to invite people to be part of our family,” says Villarreal. “It’s a fun glimpse of what we as chefs, servers, and dishwashers like to eat.” Diners who don’t really understand the family concept ask about it and become more engaged with the restaurant and its staff. “When they hear the whole restaurant eats the meal together, they are blown away. People working traditional jobs don’t see that, and they get excited by it. It takes them inside the moving clock,” says Blais.

The rock stars at The Spence have built up quite the fan base, and with its proximity to Georgia Tech the restaurant has a few die hard groupies who never seem to miss a show. “We have three students that come in every night at 5:29pm. They get two staff meal plates and then something from the regular menu. We’re expanding our community,” says Blais.