The hospitality industry has rarely been synonymous with work-life balance. The team at Hector’s Deli is determined to be different.

The three-store group, known for serving up some of Melbourne’s best sandwiches, recently implemented a four-day work week. The change applies to full-time employees at its three venues in Richmond, Fitzroy and South Melbourne, as well as in its head office. As founder Dom Wilton and CEO Adam Brownell are keen to underscore, this is a permanent change – not a trial.

Instead of taking a three-day weekend, the idea is for employees to use a “recharge day” midway through their work week. Managers, as well as other team members, are also now guaranteed at least one weekend day off, unless they’d prefer to work both Saturday and Sunday.

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This is the first in a series of changes the company is making to better support its employees’ work-life balance and avoid the kind of high staff turnover typical across the industry. Wilton and Brownell plan to add paid parental leave, increased training opportunities and birthdays off to the list for employees.

Hector’s Deli is not the first Australian hospitality business to move to a four-day work week. In 2017, Ben Shewry announced he was moving to a four-day week at his fine diner Attica, and other operators here and overseas have implemented similar frameworks.

In the US last year, Danny Meyer’s burger group Shake Shack and fast-casual chain Dig trialled a reduced work week. And it’s not just hospitality – this is a movement gaining traction across the country and overseas, with trials pointing to better productivity and increased employee wellbeing.

We spoke to Wilton, Hector’s Deli founder and frontman, and Brownell, who joined the group as CEO in March from a role as state operations manager at Grill’d, about the new approach, providing career pathways for team members and slowing down to “speed up”.

Dom, when you started Hector’s Deli, what was the structure of the business?
Wilton: When we talk about structure, there was none. We were very green, full of energy and motivated to make something cool. But really, we had no deep understanding of businesses and the way they run.

When did you start bringing on a bigger team?
Wilton: We've built the brand really organically, and have only brought team members on when necessary. [But] if we fast forward to a few months ago, that’s when we started building an org structure and looking at the business as something we want to grow and build infrastructure into.

What prompted this move to a four-day work week?
Brownell: It was a conversation with Dom and I where we said, “Why does hospitality have such high turnover?”

Hospitality generally has really high engagement – culture, team environment, working towards a common goal – but the turnover is really high. Without substance and structure, after saying “Okay, I've joined as a back-of-house team member, how do I progress to a supervisor?” there's little pathway where team members can potentially progress.

Wilton: We had a brand that was really potent and sales were coming through the door, but we had never really stopped, or had the experience of someone like Adam, to say, “Well, hold on. This is great that we're organically growing and that we're getting busier and busier and people love us. And … there's an opportunity for scale. But what impact do we want to leave as a brand? What are we putting out in the world?”

I can tell you from someone who was in it, rather than looking at it, it was: Keep up with what we're doing. Keep making enough toasties, keep making people happy.

Brownell: Survive, not thrive.

Wilton: Exactly. Adam opened up this idea to us, which seems incredibly basic, saying, “This is great. This is one portion that we've got a brand that people really love. But let's mould it into what we want it to be now. And let's put something really impactful out into the world.”

That was the first time I thought, “We can actually control what we're doing here. When we talked about this four-day work week, Adam said, “Oh, wouldn't it be great if we could do that one day?” And then we were like, “Wait, why don't we just start doing it now? What's holding us back?”

Brownell: This is sort of phase one, but we want people to be able to see, “Hector's Deli: great sandwiches, excellent employers as well.”

What are some of the other phases?
Brownell: We're in the conversation now of paid parental leave. Paid birthday leave. Work anniversaries off in the future. We also want to be able to protect our team and make sure that there's a pathway for them.

Ultimately, the end result is trying to get to a point where people choose not only to come work at Hector’s Deli, but stop at the end of Year 12, or before starting university, and go, “I actually really want to get involved in hospitality for the long term.”

And how are you financing these changes?
Brownell: Financially, we are in a really comfortable position and therefore we want to make sure people always come first. It's a small cost for the business and hopefully where we’ll reap the rewards in the future is higher engagement.

Wilton: Right now, we see businesses go from one to 10 to 20 stores and then retroactively go and fix everything and build infrastructure. While we're moving slowly now, or slower than we could be, we're having people like Adam say, “Hey, don't pour your money into more sites, put your money into the right people who can build the right foundations to go and open more sites really sustainably with incredible initiatives. That puts you in the right position to scale, rather than the other way around. Slow down to speed up.

Dom, you've come from a fine-dining background. Can you speak a little bit on what that was like and how you would have benefited from something like this?

Wilton: I'm sure everybody who reads Broadsheet has heard about this atrocious work week that happens in fine dining. I think everybody's well aware of it. The hospitality industry in general has been synonymous with poor mental health and bad working conditions. I’m definitely not avoiding that. What I think we're getting right is how we're approaching changing our business, and, in turn, the industry. We’re leaving our positive mark on it.

If a chef has never been trained to implement structures that make safe, sustainable working conditions possible, it's impossible for them to then go and open a business and start doing that without just saying, “Fine dining’s shit because you work long hours.” I hope [people working in] fine dining – or anyone in our industry – put more emphasis on getting people who understand how to run sustainable businesses, not just people who know how to make how to cook great dishes.

What do you say to chefs who think people need to “pay their dues”?
Wilton: I worked a long time in highly regarded restaurants and I'm extremely good at chopping chives. I can debone a quail. And I'm really good at tossing pasta. I had no idea what COGS [cost of goods sold] meant before I started Hector's Deli. I had no idea how to sustainably write a roster. I had no idea what cost of labour percentage was. I had no idea how to keep the lights on in a restaurant.

And what I say to people who think that you need to earn your stripes by working tirelessly to perfect your craft is, “That is your choice. If that's what you want to be doing forever, if you want to be the best chive-chopper, or the best, you know, Michelin-star chef, and that's what you're subscribing to, it's not my place to knock that.”

If you want to learn how to run a sustainable business, working at a three-Michelin-star restaurant as a chef for 10 years and then going to start your own place isn't necessarily the course I would implore people to take. So that's the best way I can put it.

[The idea that people need to “pay their dues”] is horseshit and that sort of talk should be left out of our industry. And we don't employ that at Hector’s Deli. We want real growth and real opportunity for people, not growth that allows only our business to grow. If somebody leaves Hector's Deli and changes industry completely, I would still hope that there's something they can take from Hector's that will better set them up in their future in whatever they do.

What do you hope other businesses in hospitality can take away from this change?
Wilton:Often what happens is we follow in the footsteps of those people who have been successful, we look [at] and we do what they're doing. We don't pioneer.

What I really hope is that businesses look and apply this critical lens over everything they're doing and think, “Well, hold on, if Hector’s is doing it, so should we.”

Hector’s Deli

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.