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Posted: August 07, 2014

Chef Laura: Punctuality through pastries

A five-day experiment in behavior modification

Laura Cook Newman

“When you’re ‘on time’ you’re late; when you’re 10 minutes early, you’re ‘on time’!” our chef instructor boomed at the last student slipping into the kitchen lab at 5:00 a.m.

It was Day One of the notorious “Institutional Kitchen”.  Every culinary arts freshman was required to take this class: A three-week intensive course, cooking massive quantities of food for the college cafeteria at the ungodly hour of o’dark hundred.

We were highly motivated to get there on time, not just because three tardys meant instant failure (coupled with zero tuition refund), but we also dreaded the public humiliation from our pint-sized instructor, whose 10” toque and 2” clogs put him at an stately six feet.

Fast-forward to becoming a restaurant manager in my twenties. It was my first time managing teen-agers who had never had a job before, let alone a job in food service. Their naiveté combined with their Gen Y mentality showed in their lackadaisical work ethic. My biggest challenge was getting these newbies to understand the importance of punctuality.

Initially, I went into Chef Napoleon mode and laid into them when they coasted in 10 minutes late.  “That outta teach ‘em!” I thought, sounding like a disgruntled drill sergeant.  I was flabbergasted when they continued to come in late after my tongue lashing.

I would’ve loved to can ‘em all.  But the corporate owners encouraged me to “work with them”.  Apparently, their legal team was scared to death of wrongful firings of Millennials who are accustomed to getting a participation trophy for just showing up…late.

It was time to get creative.

Based in a mall, I’d get to the restaurant early and walk by the delicious perfume coming from the Cinnabon kiosk. That’s when it hit me!  In just five days with an investment of $50, I was going to flip this whole situation in my advantage.

Day 1: I bought a box of Cinnabons, placed them on the prep table, with a note that read “Good Monday Morning!  Thanks for all that you do.  Help yourself to a warm, ooey-gooey Cinnabon cinnamon roll.  – Laura”.

At 10:30 a.m., when all employees should have been present – and weren’t – I removed the box, but left the note out for “consumption.”

At 10:40 a.m., my prep cook strolled in, spied the note and said a confused “What’s this?”  I pretended not to hear him as I focused intently on that morning’s food invoice.

Day 2: I struck again. “Good morning!” the note read, “Thank you for coming to work on time.  To kick start your day, please enjoy a hot, fresh Cinnabon on me. – Laura”

Like a scene from Groundhog Day, at 10:30 a.m. I removed the baked goods, but kept the sign.  At 10:40 once again, my dishwasher arrived, saw the sign and said to no one in particular “Hey!  Where are the buns?” I shrugged my shoulders and hummed a little “I dunno” sound.

Day 3: “Happy Wednesday morning!  I’m glad you work here.  Coming to work on time sets us up for a smooth day.  Thank you for being punctual.  Help yourself! – Laura” read the note next to the box of cinnamon rolls.

At 10:35 a.m., my prep cook and dishwasher came briskly inside from the loading dock to find the note and smell the evidence, but see no box of treats.  “Hmpff!” they grimaced.  Later that day I heard them talking: “I don’t care about those stupid buns anyway!”

Day 4: Starting to feel like Bill Murray on Feb. 2, I took pen to paper and wrote “Rise and shine!  Our success depend on YOU.  Thank you for being part of my team and being on time.  Please enjoy! – Laura”

At 10:30 a.m, in walked Heath, my lovable but perpetually tardy line cook.  His eyes lit up when he spied the fresh box of buns.  He looked at me expectantly.  “Go ahead, grab one.” I nodded my chin in the direction of the table. “And thank you for being on time.”

“Mike and Hector said there were Cinnabons here yesterday, but I didn’t believe them,” Heath smiled.

At 10:33 a.m., the above mentioned dynamic duo punched in only to find Heath licking his frosting covered fingers, with no other trace of pastries to be found.  “What the fa…?!?!?!?” they chorused.

Day 5:  At 10:20 a.m., my entire back of the house crew arrives, acting casual but with warm cinnamon roll anticipation in their eyes. “Hi guys!  Glad to see you.  Help yourselves.” I say gesturing toward the box and cheery note. I don’t know if it was the sugar high, but the rest of the day was one of the best days we had in the restaurant.

I could’ve bought Cinnabons every day, but I didn’t.  Here’s why:

  1. I’d go broke
  2. My entire staff would get Type 2 Diabetes

and most importantly

  1. They would come to expect it

In the weeks that followed, that magical Friday morning, I played around with my pastry experiment.  Sometimes it was just a nice note, other times it was a note and buns, and other times it was nothing at all.  But every time they arrived on time (and now they were hustling to get in early), I always said “Good morning insert name!  I’m glad you’re here today.”

Try it with doughnuts, Napoleons or whatever pastry incites punctuality.  It’s a sweet and effective gesture that shows you really do catch more flies with honey…or in my case, cinnamon rolls.

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at

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Readers Respond

Like any generation, individual results may vary. Should employees come on time? Yes. Should salespeople upsell without a refresher course? Yes. Should my daughters clean their room without asking? Yes. But sometimes a little creative incentive gets the job done quicker, better, and with a smile on everyone's face. By Chef Laura on 2014 08 11
My favorite device we used to motivate customer service teams to up sell was the Orange Juice Bowl. Whatever team exceeded the sales goal the most had orange juice poured by the team leader who won the previous week. It was cheap and motivated sense of competition. By Lisa Lehndorff on 2014 08 09
I'm betting this story is about a decade old, based on your references. I'm wondering if you still feel the same about Gen Y'ers? Seems to me that the issue is less to do with a generation of people, vs. young and inexperienced people. Thoughts?!?!? By Gen Y on 2014 08 09
Funny how things work. I was on my way to a meeting this week and realized I was running late, because I was trying to get there on time, not early - which would not allow me to get my computer up and running and to have my notes ready. I was all sorts of annoyed with myself. Then I read this article (a few days after it came out), I think the universe is telling me something By Interesting on 2014 08 09
i used to treat my staff to bagels on saturday mornings and doughnuts on sunday mornings... back in the good old days. i'm glad i can just be a punctual worker bee now. drives me crazy to think you have to "bribe" people to do their jobs. after all - isn't that what your pay is? By Ta Tee on 2014 08 08
Good piece. All carrot and no stick, eh! By PF on 2014 08 07
Great story. Food can be a better motivator than fear. By Ted on 2014 08 07
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