Three cooks from Eventide Oyster Co. are settled in a booth at Hugo’s in mid-afternoon. They’ve just finished downing platefuls of gyros, featuring beef shawarma, tzatziki sauce, romaine lettuce, and a side of fried potatoes.

Jason Eckerson says he’s worked at a lot of other restaurants in Portland, and the staff meal that feeds workers at Hugo’s, Eventide and The Honey Paw – all owned by the same restaurant group – fulfills its reputation around town as being one of the best.

“Stuffed pork tenderloin,” Jessica St. Ours chimed in. “We’re spoiled.”

“Chicken and dumplings,” Jeffrey Goodman added. “That lamb curry. That was really good. No, not lamb curry – beef curry, maybe? Delicious.”

“We’ve had customers walk through when we’ve had our family meal plates,” St. Ours said, “and they’re like, ‘what’s that?’ And we’re like, ‘That’s what we get to eat.’ ”

Jason Eckerson, who works at Eventide Oyster Co., partakes in staff meal at Hugo’s.

Jason Eckerson, who works at Eventide Oyster Co., partakes in a staff meal at Hugo’s. Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Staff meal, or family meal, is a longstanding restaurant tradition of serving the staff lunch or dinner. Restaurant workers can’t leave their jobs during a shift to grab a sandwich if they get hungry like office workers sometimes do. They are either prepping furiously for service or serving customers. The practice of staff meal varies widely, from elaborate meals where staff gather together around a communal table, to a big discount on anything ordered off the regular menu, to nothing at all. The food is often leftovers, combined with what’s available in the walk-in, and is prepared by the kitchen staff.

Restaurateurs say that staff meal is a benefit they can offer to employees working jobs that don’t pay much, and it can be a morale booster and team builder in kitchens where stress and long hours are the order of the day.

“You work better with a full belly,” said Bo Byrne, executive chef at Tiqa in Portland. “And it’s not just food for fuel, it’s food for the mind, too. You’re able to think more clearly.”

Deen Haleem, owner of Tiqa, was new to the business when he opened the Commercial Street restaurant a year ago. He had seen staff meals portrayed in movies, and wanted to schedule the meals for his employees to give them a moment during the day when they could all sit down together.

JUST LIKE THE MOVIES. SORT OF.

“It was really important for us to be an employer of choice,” he said. “We really wanted to have a place where people felt they would be well cared for.”

Then reality kicked in. The sit-down meals lasted only until the restaurant actually opened. A staff meal is still served every day at 3 p.m., but now the dishes are placed on the chef’s counter and employees help themselves whenever they have a spare moment.

On a recent Tuesday, staff meal at Tiqa consisted of pesto chicken penne, tabbouleh, a green salad, hummus with toasted pita, and white bean-and-celery salad. The food isn’t always Mediterranean. Fried chicken is popular. Grilled cheese and tomato soup might show up on a cold, wintry day. Saturday is always pizza day, and Sunday is brunch day – omelettes and homemade doughnuts.

Tiqa employees often come in for the staff meal even on their days off. In addition, anytime a staff member comes in and orders off the menu, whether they’re working or not, they get 50 percent off.

Hummus and pita bread from Tiqa’s staff meal.

Hummus and pita bread from Tiqa’s staff meal. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

That’s still a fairly formal arrangement compared with sitting on milk crates in an alley. At Five Fifty-Five in Portland, where the kitchen is tiny, the staff holds a meeting in the alley behind the restaurant at 4:15 p.m. every day. They both discuss business and eat together, but only the cooks participate. “Even during winter they like to go outside and sit and get fresh air,” said Michelle Corry, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, chef Steve Corry.

Brian Hill, chef/owner of Francine Bistro in Camden, thinks staff meal is so important he prepares it himself.

“There’s so little time to do it,” he said. “I think that’s a big part of being a chef, so when people say it’s utterly impossible to get staff meal out on time, well, it’s your job. It’s family meal. You have to feed your team.”

Hill starts thinking about staff meal in the morning, when he’s putting together the daily restaurant menu. Typical dishes include dan dan noodles; pho; cauliflower pizza made with cauliflower puree, roasted cauliflower and pecorino; and cacio e pepe.

WAR STORIES

The cooks who put a lot into staff meal tend to be the people who remember really bad ones they’ve had in the past. For Hill, it’s “that really horrible staff meal that’s leftover chicken with heavy cream.” For Mike Wiley, co-chef and co-owner of Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw, it’s the place that served starch leftovers from the hot line.

“People would have creamy polenta sandwiches,” he said. “You’d have old service bread, cut into that, you’d put a dollop of tepid, partially congealed, creamy polenta in there and then you’d wolf it down because you were so hungry… That’s no way to do it, though.”

When Wiley and his business partners found themselves with three restaurants, they considered hiring someone just to cook staff meal. During the summer, they have at least 80 employees to feed every day. (That number goes down by about half in winter.) In the end, they put two prep cook managers, Ben Groppe and Donny Carrasco, in charge of the meals. The two make sure the meals are balanced, and they delegate tasks. Cooks make the sides and sauces, for example, and the pastry team makes the salads.

When Hugo’s was the only restaurant in the group, if cooks preparing staff meal wanted to do something special for co-workers, such as pulled pork, they would often go to the store themselves and buy the pork shoulder with their own money. Now the restaurants order meat specifically for staff meals, including beef brisket and whole, Maine-raised chickens.

On holidays like the Fourth of July, Carrasco and Groppe feed the staff fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw and cornbread. Last summer, Saturdays became “Burrito Day, which became wildly popular and spawned a fury of salsa-making. One staffer made at least a half-dozen salsas every Saturday, Wiley said, “and all of them were different and unique and interesting.”

Adam Heath, kitchen manager and grill cook at Tiqa, helps himself to a serving of pesto chicken penne.

Adam Heath, kitchen manager and grill cook at Tiqa, helps himself to a serving of pesto chicken penne. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

“We joked around that it was the best burrito in town,” Corrasco said. “We could sell tickets for people to come and have staff meal with us.”

CURIOUS (ENVIOUS?) CUSTOMERS

Customers sometimes do join the staff meal at Empire Chinese Kitchen. The staff tag teams work during the meals so everyone gets the chance to eat.

Theresa Chan, general manager and co-owner of Empire, says it is ingrained in Chinese culture to sit down and share a meal. Professionally, she sees the practice as “a community builder,” especially when working with people “in close quarters and high temperatures.”

The food served at Empire’s staff meals is always Chinese, except for the rare times they order pizza from the nearby Otto’s. Everyone gets soup to start. There’s a lot of nutrition in kale stems, Chan said, so they might use them in a soup along with pork bone, carrots, dried squid, and lotus root. Also on the table is a communal bowl of rice, and stir fries.

Like other restaurants, staff meal at Empire often features ingredients they can’t sell. They marinate a whole side of pork, for example, to feed customers, but the lean, on-the-bone spare ribs that come attached to that pork are saved for family meal. “To us,” Chen said, “it’s a rustic way of eating a delicious, marinated meat that we wouldn’t particularly sell.”

When the staff eats in the dining room, customers notice and sometimes are invited over for a taste.

“Why not?” Chen said. “This is the very essence of having a family meal.”

A “family meal” at Hugo’s in Portland.

A “family meal” at Hugo’s in Portland. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

‘WE’RE NOT PUTTING OUT CAVIAR’

Many restaurateurs would like to be as generous, but the staff meal can be expensive.

At Hugo’s, Corrasco and Groppe have been given carte blanche by their bosses to use whatever they need from the restaurant’s walk-in, but if food costs start to get out of control, the owners will step in.

“We’re not putting out tins of caviar,” said Andrew Taylor, one of Wiley’s partners, “but we like to put out good product for them.”

Arlin Smith, the third partner in Hugo’s and the other restaurants, estimates they spend at least $50,000 a year on staff meals.

Staff meals are nice for employees, but they can also help out ambitious cooks and restaurant owners.

Sometimes staff meal can be a rehearsal for a new dish that ends up on the menu. The Korean fried chicken at The Honey Paw was originally something Groppe experimented with for staff meal. At Francine Bistro, Hill has been working on okonomiyake, a savory Japanese pancake. “They’re really easy to screw up,” Hill said. “They went on the menu last week, but we’ve been practicing them for about a month on staff.”

Staff meal is not only a way for cooks to stretch themselves creatively, it gives their employers a chance to see what they can do. Sometimes it spawns competitions like the monthlong ramen noodle battle Wiley once got into with a co-worker.

“Some guys, even if they’re not the best line cooks, you give them a little freedom they’ll make this beautiful meal,” Taylor said. “You really learn a lot about people’s strengths and weaknesses as a cook.”

It’s also a good way to find out who just phones it in. Patrick Morang, general manager of Tiqa, recalls asking an accomplished cook interning in the kitchen to prepare a staff meal. It was “terrible,” he said. “I mean, it was awful. Even though he was a very talented chef, he didn’t put any effort into the staff meal, and literally that turned everyone against him. ‘This guy is not Tiqa material.’ “