Silver Diner’s VP of Human Resources Christopher Shand recently took on a new title: Vaccine Czar. Or as he prefers, “vaccine sherpa.” The restaurant group created the role to help its more than 1,400 employees across 20 locations get vaccine information and sign up for vaccine appointments. As an extra incentive, every employee who gets vaccinated gets a $40 AmEx gift card, too.
“There was some skepticism that we heard rumblings of, and we realized also that people were struggling with getting the correct information—how to jump on a website, how to do that whole process, even when are they eligible,” Shand says. Now, each restaurant has one or two dedicated “vaccine navigators”—manager or trainers who are typically bilingual—to share information about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. They walk employees who want the vaccine through the pre-registration and registration process.
Beyond wanting to keep their own employees safe, Silver Diner sees the vaccine effort as a recruitment initiative. Hiring, frankly, has been a struggle. The restaurant industry already had a tight labor pool before the pandemic, Shand says, and that pool has shrunk even more. Silver Diner currently has 231 openings across its locations—more than usual.
“We’re finding a lot of people are hesitant to get into the industry or to continue in the industry,” Shand says. “We’re the only industry where everybody’s got to wear a mask except the guest sitting down at the table. I think that creates a bit of a fear.” Also, many workers who might want to return to restaurants might not be able to because of childcare issues.
Silver Diner joins Knead Hospitality + Design restaurant group in the practice of paying employees to get vaccinated. Knead, whose restaurants include Mi Vida and Succotash, is giving its 320-plus employees paid time off or four hours of pay to get the vaccine. “It’s just the right thing to do. You have employees who have to choose between going to work and making money and their health,” Knead co-founder Jason Berry told Washingtonian in January.
Silver Diner has gone further than many restaurants when it comes to implementing Covid safety measures. Last summer, the group invested half a million dollars in high-tech air filtration and purification systems across its locations. Among the upgrades: air purification boxes installed every 250 square feet with virus-killing ultraviolet lights, bipolar ionization technology (which deactivates dangerous bacteria and viruses), and high-efficiency filters.
“When we had 9/11, all of a sudden the whole airports were changed, right?,” co-founder and executive chef Ype Von Hengst said at the time. “The same thing happens with this pandemic. All of a sudden people are afraid to go in a restaurant, so you’ve got to create a new norm that they’re going to feel secure, just like they’re secure in an airport.”