Dushan Zarić: We want guests to leave with a bigger smile than when they arrived

Dushan Zarić is an Owner and Co-Founder of Employees Only, the incredible global bar group which has operated venues in Los Angeles, New York, Singapore, Sydney, Hong Kong and Miami.

It is an iconic group, and speaking to the Living Proof podcast recently, Zarić spoke about how he and fellow co-founders, Henry Lefarge, Igor Hadzismajlovic, Jason Kosmas, and Bill Gilroy, have developed the ethos and the culture to help Employees Only become so successful.

“I wish I knew the formula, if I knew the formula I would share it with everyone, because it’s important that our guests get to experience something is extraordinary: it’s a human experience, an emotional experience when you go to a hospitality venue,” Zarić said.

“We are living in a time where the quality of products available for bars and restaurants to serve is very balanced, so focusing more on that human experience that your guests have, especially in these times, is crucial if you want to go to the next level.”

He added: “When we opened Employees Only, we came from that background and we all had the fortune to work our way up through the industry, learning gathering experience seeing what does or doesn’t work. We understood that the most important thing about a hospitality outlet is its staff, the staff are the people who will provide guests with that human experience. And we do everything we can to facilitate them and encourage them.”

In explaining that concept of encouraging staff and developing them, Zarić told Living Proof that Employees Only New York has one of the lowest staff turnovers in the industry, because staff want to stay and be part of something special.

“One area where I do think people are making mistakes is they are hiring staff rather than building teams,” he said.

“Hiring staff is important, but it is just the beginning of grooming these people and making them believe in what you believe in as an operator. For me the most important thing has always been that our guests leave with a little bit of a bigger smile than they had when they came in. How to go about that, how to achieve that is a life-long experience that we are all still learning.

“We want you to make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes there is no opportunity for us to see where you lack certain abilities and how we can help you to develop them. Also there is no chance for you to build confidence and feel that you are safe and you have support.

I encourage everybody to take responsibility and run with it. If you make a mistake – so what? It’s not a big deal, we all make mistakes, I make mistakes to this day. As long as we are courageous enough to stand there, take responsibility, learn what we can and move on, feeling like we have support.

“That’s why Employees Only in New York has the lowest turnover of staff in the industry. People never leave because they feel supported and we do everything we can to encourage that. You have to remember that your staff, just like your guests are human beings with dreams, who suffer on various levels, they have likes and dislikes, and you have to trust your staff to represent you in front of your guests. The only way you can do that is showing it to them and helping them to trust you and believe in what you believe.”

And in terms of what makes the customers come back to venues again and again, he said: “Anybody can make a good burger or a good cocktail. That will not differentiate you from anybody else. What will differentiate you is how people feel – I emphasise feel because most of them are not even aware why they prefer a certain place. … when you distill it down, it’s basically because you feel comfortable in a place and you’re not rejected.

“I’ve had plenty of people who’ve worked with me whose attention was on developing a different career – some art or becoming something else. And that’s fine. But when you find yourself in a situation to be serving others, I think it’s important to ask oneself: ‘How curious that in my life, at this time, I’ve been given this opportunity to actually be of service. This is not just a job that provides me with some money. It is an opportunity for me to learn something about myself’.”

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