Hail to the chief! Steward, that is …

Most articles devoted to food and beverage talk about some new chef, food costs or techniques. Rarely, however, do they mention the unsung back-of-the-house heroes — the stewarding department.

The position of Chief Steward is often overlooked and misunderstood. A good chief steward makes everyone in F&B shine; a great one is a rare find. We are fortunate in Toronto to have such an individual at one of our landmark properties.

Mike Braykovich proudly holds this title at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, managing a team of 75 for this 1,300-room property. For those unfamiliar, the “Royal York” — as it’s known locally — has been a centerpiece of the Toronto skyline since its completion in 1929, is directly opposite the city’s main train terminal and financial district, and is the primary lodging for the British royal family and other heads of state whenever they visit the city. The hotel’s F&B department is a bedlam of daily activity and responsibilities.

I had the opportunity to discuss the business of stewarding with Mike in a detailed interview. Suffice it to say, there is more to the job than meets the eye!

As Mike explains it, stewarding is the “palette” upon which the chefs can create their vision. Mike sees stewarding as the roots of a tree, the branches of the tree being the culinary, banquet and restaurant outlets. In effect, stewarding is the program through which all the F&B programs operate. A chief steward’s responsibilities include:

  • Maintaining operating procedures for the department
  • Developing appropriate successor plans
  • Instigating and supporting employee empowerment
  • Ensuring internal customer satisfaction (internal customers for the stewarding department are the members of the food and beverage team)
  • Integrating stewarding activities with other departments for cost savings
  • Monitoring and implementing technological advances
  • Championing recycling and energy-savings efforts
  • Managing equipment maintenance
  • Ensuring the health and safety of the F&B staff

No doubt, the function of stewarding in the hotel is significant. Mike cited several excellent examples of the stewarding department acting as the main facilitator of new innovations — many directly impacting the bottom line.

First, through his “green stewarding” initiatives, Mike has increased recycling to 67% of total waste, with sizeable reductions in water, gas and electricity utilization. Although these forms of energy conservation affect the bottom line indirectly, they are nonetheless technological advances (and capital expenditures) that a good chief steward is responsible for presenting to the general manager for due consideration.

Mike also heightened the hotel’s anti-breakage program, selecting china, glassware and flatware based not only on design, but also on durability, to cut replacement costs. It’s his department’s responsibility to track the trends, locations and factors that contribute to costly onsite breakages, and then reduce accordingly. A good chief steward must also educate his team about fiscal responsibility and how such breakages might play towards the property’s bottom line.

Mike stresses the need for stewards to get the sense of providing outstanding customer service — getting in the right frame of mind. For successful stewarding, it’s important to build a culture of employee engagement and a sense of internal customer responsibility. To accomplish this task, he undertook an internal guest survey program as a measuring tool. This survey was completed with banquet servers, bartenders, line cooks and supervisors to fully understand how stewards were directly impacting their jobs. This survey approach opened a dialogue between the departments, changing the conversation amongst stewards from “the other staffs keep bothering us” to “how can we help them better serve guests.”

Here’s another example of how a great chief steward can enhance operations. Being an older property, the back-of-the-house layout of the Royal York has numerous nooks and crannies. Responsibility and maintenance for these grey zones fall outside of stewarding, banquets and housekeeping. Mike wanted to eliminate these “no man land” areas. To accomplish this, he created an interdepartmental task force that walked through and simply assigned maintenance responsibilities on an ad hoc basis. There was no need for senior management input and no additional costs or consumption of resources. Rather, it was just a matter of understanding boundaries and supporting each other.

Mike sees the Fairmont leadership’s focus on innovation as one of the keys to his department’s success. The Royal York’s General Manager Heather McCrory understands there’s no “curtain” between the front and back of the house, stressing that guest service success starts in the back of the house. Heather believes in team empowerment and has thus nurtured an engaging corporate culture in which Mike and his team can make better decisions. This ultimately leads to a better customer experience and happier employees.

Mike believes the stewarding department is the true “heart of the house.” If you think about how a well-run stewarding team can make or break your operations, there is no question that Mike’s right on!