Eddie Fong began his day early at the University of Pennsylvania, where he works in bioethics, evaluating risk in scientific trials. By 3:30 p.m., the 46-year-old Fong was polishing water glasses in the dining room at Barclay Prime, wiping smudges from silverware, and arranging pillows on a banquette.
For 15 years, since the night Stephen Starr’s Center City steakhouse opened its doors on Oct. 5, 2004, Fong has been serving wine and choice cuts of meat to dinner guests. At some restaurants, that dedication would be rare — but 14 of Barclay Prime’s 17 servers have worked there for more than a decade. Half of them, like Fong, have been there since the beginning.
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“You might ask, ‘Why does someone with an Ivy League education work as a server?’” said Fong, who has a master of science degree from Penn. “But this is a second family. We’ve seen each other through births, marriages, bouts of cancer. … Imagine working in close quarters with 13 people that have been with you through it all, and they know you like nobody else.”
Staff retention is a growing challenge for an industry that has long been associated with burnout, unstable pay, and high-stress conditions. More than 70% of employees hired in the hospitality sector in 2018 left their jobs by the end of the year, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, an increase over the prior year’s turnover rate.
At Barclay Prime, where the newest server started 18 months ago, staff members point to a few reasons they’ve stayed put. There’s the dependable money — each table’s check averages more than $100 a person — plus health benefits (not offered by many restaurants) and a relatively early closing time (10 p.m. on weekdays, 11 on weekends).
But being part of such a well-oiled team is another perk. Five to eight servers work in the dining room on most nights, serving 100 to 250 guests. The work is physically taxing and sometimes stressful. But when things are running smoothly, with tables full and servers moving around the room in sync, it can be deeply satisfying, almost like performing a show.
Melissa Kosmicki, a Barclay Prime server for almost 14 years, started working in the industry 30 years ago after moving to Philadelphia to study painting. Now 50, she said the job rewards her perfectionist tendencies and feeds her curiosity about the lives of strangers.
“People tend to dismiss you if you’re a 50-year-old waitress,” Kosmicki said. “But you’re less beholden to people in this job than you are in many. You go home, you leave the work behind you, and every day is a new day.”
Kosmicki never set out to be an industry lifer. But she lived all over the country growing up, and restaurant work ended up providing a familial atmosphere she craved. She thrives on making recommendations, and being a part of special-occasion meals, she’s free to pursue art outside of work, and she now owns a three-unit building in Bella Vista.
“I got a lot of encouragement when I started in restaurants," Kosmicki said. “It was the first time I had adults really appreciate me and what I could do.”
For server Matthew Penn, Barclay Prime marked the end of his life as a nomad. Born in Zimbabwe to English parents, the 50-year-old Penn spent years traveling the world. Decades ago, he visited the Jersey Shore for a vacation and stayed stateside, pushing tourists in rolling chairs on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, tending bar, and eventually getting a job at Morton’s the Steakhouse nearby. After landing in Philadelphia, he worked at Brasserie Perrier for several years, then joined Barclay Prime shortly after it opened.
“So many restaurants have peaks and valleys, and you can’t always survive the valleys,” said Penn, who lives in Wynnewood with his wife and two sons. “Here, business just keeps growing.”
Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said diners are more likely to return to a restaurant when they know the staff. They’re also more likely to ask for recommendations, spend more, and tip generously.
Most independent restaurants don’t offer health insurance, but Fileccia said businesses can prevent staff turnover in other ways: by promoting servers to higher-responsibility roles and ensuring that they are comfortable asking for time off or flexible hours.
“Restaurant staff want to be respected, and they want to be offered a career path,” Fileccia said. “You don’t want to be berated by your chef, you don’t want to feel guilty for taking off to go to your son’s birthday party.”
While unusual, Barclay Prime’s retention rate isn’t unique. At the Oyster House on Sansom Street, which offers health insurance and a 401(k) with a company match, owner Sam Mink said more than half of the servers and three of four bartenders have worked there for more than five years. One oyster shucker has been there for a decade; another, 20 years. Some former servers worked at the restaurant for even longer.
About half the staff of Monk’s Café, the landmark beer, burger, and mussels joint at 16th and Spruce, have been working there for more than 10 years, said owner Tom Peters. Two have been there for practically the restaurant’s entire 22-year run. Peters offers workers a chance to buy health insurance, and he encourages them to take time off. He thinks his employees appreciate that they often see him pitch in on busy nights, doing anything from washing dishes to cleaning grease traps.
“Our turnover is usually when someone moves away or goes to grad school,” he said. “Sometimes people leave for another serving job, but often they want to come back a few months later. And we welcome them with open arms.”
At the Center City gastropub Good Dog Bar, only a handful of staff members have worked there for fewer than five years, and some have been on board since it opened in 2003. Employees who have worked there for more than a decade include a bartender, doorman, barback, manager, and several members of the kitchen. The restaurant hired its second-ever chef just last year.
Co-owner Heather Gleason said part of the formula is having a restaurant that stays busy from open to close. Her restaurant also offers health insurance, and she sets schedules that allot regular days off, making it simple for employees to plan their lives.
“We get calls from people who want to know how we keep people,” Gleason said. “I say, ‘Just treat ‘em better.’”
Despite Fong’s full-time day job, leaving Barclay Prime has just never sounded appealing. A Queens native whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong, Fong started working in restaurants as a teenager, lured by the prospect of cash and free staff meals. He kept waiting tables even after earning a degree from Drexel, an MBA from Eastern University, and a master’s from Penn.
Having a second job helped Fong, who lives in Chestnut Hill and works five shifts a week at Barclay Prime, build a real estate portfolio of 11 properties. He usually starts at Penn before 8 a.m. and sometimes answers email while setting up for dinner. By closing time, he’s worked at least a 14-hour day.