Offering an employee discount to your staff is good mojo—and good for business. Without pummeling your bottom line, a discount program can be a worthwhile gesture that your staff will appreciate. Setting clear guidelines from the start will minimize headaches, and you'll likely be able to collect valuable feedback from your employees when they eat what you serve. Here are some tips and considerations to keep in mind.

Develop a Solid Employee Discount Program

Thierry Reverse, executive chef at the Hilton Garden Inn in Pensacola, Florida, says you should offer "50 percent off employee food anytime." Sara Bowling, chef at Bon Appetit Management Company, adds that you should consider offering "a free, sensible meal during the shift and a discount—except alcohol—off hours."

While opinions vary, giving your employees 50 percent off meals is equitable. Many owners and managers also agree that having employees pay the full fare for alcohol will discourage overindulging. Twenty percent off of friends' and family's tabs while dining with staff is fair, too. "I don't believe a place should profit off employees, ever," says Carrie Amo of Texas's Wandering Culinarian. "If they get a 50-percent discount while off duty, and they bring in a group of friends or family for full-price, the business is winning." Amo also says that she thinks it's important for the staff to try different menu items so they can make suggestions and sell dishes. "Make it too hard for them to do so, and I promise they won't bother," she adds.

Set Clear Boundaries

Employees should be encouraged to be on the other side of the table at the restaurant in which they spend so much of their time. However, you'll have to set clear boundaries from the start in order to minimize headaches. Here are some tips:

  • Be clear about the days and times that discounts can be used. For instance, Friday night might not be the best time for employees to be eating meals on the job if you're extremely busy.
  • If you're offering a discount to employees, make sure you gather their feedback on meals, whether you have them fill out a comment card or an online survey. This is especially important if they dine at a table when they're off the job, giving you an extra set of eyes on your operation.
  • Advertise the discount to potential employees. With a shallow labor pool, attracting key staff members takes more than a paycheck.

Fill More Seats

A busy dining room often attracts more business, but filling seats on a Wednesday can be tough. Offering a discount to off-duty employees during off-peak hours can give your team the opportunity to eat a meal while also filling seats. If your restaurant is usually slow, the populated dining room will pique the interest of those passing by and help fill it up.

When offering an employee discount, be forward-thinking and paint the discount as a valuable benefit. Clearly state expectations without being too restrictive, and encourage your crew to use the discount by recognizing the value of their feedback. If it's done right, your employee discount will be a low-cost perk that keeps staff members loyal and brings in additional business.