Inside The Glasshouse
Karen Jones has a lot to give in the hospitality industry – and the business world in general, and not surprising given her incredibly diverse life – but more of that later.
To begin – is the fact that early on, The Glass House adopted a four day work week, a system that has been working well for several years.
How? “Before Covid we were open for 7 days and still did a 4 day work week according to the roster. It means we’re working a longer working day, but I roster and rotate the breaks so we all get a good rest and recoup in the middle of the day, and everybody gets a three day break. It means staff are fully refreshed when they come back.
“And” – and this is a big “And” – “we serve the full menu at any time during service – there’s no differentiation regarding the hour of the day.
We work normally 10-12 hours, which yes, is a long day, but we work a half day on one of the four days, so everyone works a standard 38 – 40 work week, which is almost unheard of in the industry. It really means we’re reducing the super long hours that chefs are used to doing.
“Staff are happy, they’re not exhausted before they even start their work week. Now? Post-lockdown, we re-opened initially just the weekend, then added a day, and now operate Wedneday to Saturday.
“It’s a good system, and works for the crew. We’ve become a tight, cohesive, intuitive team. We read each other because it’s the same team every day and we have a routine, which is harder to have when the team’s structure is different every day.
“My guys have been there for longer, and last longer, because we haven’t got the constant change over in the kitchen. Even with a 7 day week, four days is still a good way to work it. They’re not getting drained physically and mentally every week.
“People’s mental health has become the focus over the decades, unfortunately, before, it was never thought about in the kitchen, I was told what a terrible industry it was and anti-social. “This is the life you’re going to have! You won’t see your friends, you won’t see your family, and you’ll be always working when everyone else is playing.” And it was true to a point, especially decades ago. Mental health wasn’t thought about! With two days off, (that’s if you got two days off, consecutively), the first day was recovering, the second was to do what you needed to do, washing, cleaning etc.
“So this way, people aren’t wearing the same kind of stress and overload. You’ve still got one day to recover, but then you’ve still got a full weekend.
How did you start at The Glass House, and how do you motor? What makes The Glass House what it is today?
“I started in The Glass House accidentally, I was sous chef at Mona for 6 years before deciding it was time for a change. One day, I went to lunch at The Glass House. Andrew Low was running it, who’d been front of house at The Source, and he told me they needed a sous chef. It was a convoluted journey, because an Irish chef I had worked for in Belfast was connected to a chef here at another restaurant. I had done my training in Belfast at a Michelin restaurant. Anyway, I went for lunch at the The Glass House with him and came out with a job., under David Ball, who was also executive chef at Brooke Street Larder.
“David Ball and I worked together at The Glass House for the last 5 years, we were both classically trained so worked together really well. It was one of those happy accidents that worked out. We started a week apart, and had similar backgrounds, training and mindsets. David just moved to the Yarra Valley last year, and I was asked to take his place.
Now your process:
“It’s quite tricky – we have a very small kitchen. It’s a big space, but most of that is taken up with dishwashing and rendered useless as a cooking space. But the equipment I do have is a double induction cooktop, with space for two pans, I have a small deep fryer, a small flat top grill and a combi oven. All of that is in a one and a half meter space on the back wall, so room for only one person to man the pans! It means that with the menus, it’s not just coming up with a dish. With only one person physically cooking the hot dishes, I have to figure out menu-wise how can that happen? It boils down to “How can I feed 80 people with this limited equipment, with one person on the hot?”
“So it makes the menu planning quite tricky – it takes a massive amount of logistical follow through – but the upside? I have the joy of being able to change a dish from one day to the next. We don’t print menus any more – no paper menus, we’ve got tablets and the menu can be viewed on your phone, which some customers can initially find antisocial, but it means that live in the middle of service, I can change the menu at any time. With no printing, I can sell to the last portion, I can be ready with the dish that’s going to replace it, and just flick it on the menu.
“It’s very eco-friendly, and better for staff as well. And customers? Well for them, they’re not left wanting dishes that have been sold out, and the waiters don’t have to apologise and explain a new replacement dish. I can sell to the last portion, so no wastage, and for supply it’s better. So often deliveries are late, or not complete, it means again I can switch it up without having to print yet another menu. I tell our front of house manager to refresh the tablets so it shows the new update – instantly.
“We have a good crew front of house at the moment: Here, in Tassie, career front of house hardly exists any more – waiters are front of house (FOH) because it’s a stop gap, and pays rent for students etc. and as soon as they qualify they move on. Most front of house are people who do 2 days, with only a few who do it full time. So that’s a struggle that everyone’s having.
“Traditionally, the knowledge, the care, what was true hospitality was working by the definition of the word. That’s harder to find, you do get front of house people who are great and want to make a career out of it, and that’s like gold because for most, it’s a stop gap. And it brings its own challenges, because without the view of a career, there’s not the commitment, the training, and the schooling. That European tradition is slowly disappearing. But, we’ve got a good team at the moment, committed to providing an enjoyable experience.
“For producers, I have a lot of local producers who call and tell me they’ve got a fresh crop, of this, or that, good and ripe and ready, so the adjustable menu means I can pivot and accept and use produce when it’s at its best, that hasn’t been forced, or brought in from the mainland getting destroyed by various quarantine treatments on the way. It means we are helping local growers with buying premium produce at its peak.
“I love our regular suppliers like Dean with mushrooms from his tunnels and others who occasionally have special treats, like locally grown passionfruit! To the extent that we can, I use locally produced smaller production ingredients, which is more expensive, but the quality is great and it’s supporting Tasmanian producers, which the customers want to eat – our own Tasmanian produce.
“Saying that, we’re constantly juggling food costs, vs. what we can charge, and still make a profit. Which is very difficult for all food businesses at the minute. Menu prices have not increased at the same rate as the costs have increased. Instead of passing on price rises as they happened, they (restaurateurs) absorbed them, and that’s eaten away at the margins, and ended up cutting their margins which, increasingly are minute, and the real price is so far removed from where it has been than it should be.
“If you wrote down every cost involved in putting that plate of food in front of you, then it would be a list that was enormous. (Yes it really is! See our post soon about the hidden costs of dining out. It’s staggering for the normal punter). It would be quite a wake up call. With everything skyrocketing people have so much less disposable income. Post-Covid, which I call ‘the great disruption’, life is dramatically different for most people.
“Every customer is cost conscious, so we need to be as well. I have to be very mindful of my food costs. I have to ensure that there isn’t any waste, basically. Often the top Michelin style dishes are incredibly wasteful. Because it’s all about presentation, and shape. Looking for that aaaaah! Moment. Can a normal, busy, middle market restaurant afford that? Absolutely not.
“You want to introduce people to new things as well – I read a lot of local out and about forums to see what people are commenting on. What they’ve enjoyed – what’s popular, what style of food, which cultural food is popular at the moment. It comes in waves, where all of a sudden everyone wants ramen, then everyone wants bao. It’s hard to keep up sometimes, it changes on a dime and at the same time there’s got to be a general structure that belongs to us – to The Glass House. You can’t just wildly change things either, regular customers are coming back for a reason so you can’t just suddenly have a different style. These changes take place gradually, as has happened here over the years.
“I find out what’s going on around me from my staff as well. Keeping my ear to the ground is a big important part of the job. And it’s a very fluid, ever changing industry, so it’s one day a time – you can plan all you like, then woah! that’s not going to happen. At the moment I love where I am, with a supportive crew and great support and encouragement from the owners, and, coming right back to the beginning, full circle, the 4 day work week – the very thought of a 5 day work week is so far away from where I want to go ever again. It makes the work so much more enjoyable. I’m prepared to put a lot more energy into it, and I’ve no intention of changing that any time soon.
So, where did it all start?
“My dad is Australian, mum’s Scottish, I was born in Switzerland but we moved to Jakarta, Indonesia when I was 5. Dad worked with the UN International Labour Organisation, the ILO, with headquarters in Geneva. We stayed in Jakarta for 7 years, during the last year in Jakarta, I started at boarding school in Scotland where we spent short holidays with my grandparents who lived there. Dad was born in England but moved to Switzerland when he was 3, because his father worked for the ILO in the UN. Both dad’s parents were Australian from Perth, WA. Every second year was in Perth for Christmas holidays, so it was still always home. So was Switzerland.
“I trained in France at what is now the Institut Paul Bocuse, then at a Michelin restaurant in Belfast, and worked at the Hotel du Rhône in Geneva. The move to Australia was natural, I guess, and I moved to the Melbourne Park Hyatt, then up to the Whitsundays, and finally to Tassie, at the Source in Mona, as sous chef.
“But going back to my training – it was broad spectrum, and equipped us with skills to not only work effectively in the kitchen, but to be hired: how to handle an interview, people management and interaction. It was split with time at school for practical and theoretical classes, and 6 month internships in a restaurant for actual workplace training and experience. Priceless skills that have stood by me throughout a big life. And still going strong.”
And Karen moves on to face another big week, juggling the producers, delivery, customers, staff, menus and all the moving parts that make a restaurant what it is. And keeping true to the ethos that makes Glass House what it is.
Does her 4 day work week work? Absolutely, without a doubt. And a soft copy menu? Yes again. Perhaps as customers, we could be more open to the moving landscape that restaurants are these days. It’s exciting. And fluid.
Thank you, Karen. 🙂