Lead Like This: Insights from Sbraga’s Director of Operations Ben Fileccia

When “Top Chef: Season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga launched his eponymous restaurant in October 2011, there was a lot of buzz and publicity that attracted Philadelphia’s best restaurant talent. This lead to a busy opening with a glowing review of the food, but a lackluster review on service. When Sbraga only achieved a two-bell rating from The Philadelphia Enquirer, it was an eye opener for the chef and changed the course of leadership at the restaurant.

Ben Fileccia and Sbraga had known each other casually for quite some time and the two were close enough for Fileccia to be invited the friends and family dinner prior to opening. Having just finished up a stint with Marc Vetri, he was looking for a new opportunity and didn’t know the dinner would lead to something more.

Ben Fileccia

Sbraga asked Fileccia to step in and evaluate the situation. When he arrived on the scene he was surprised to find that the “rock star” team Sbraga had opened with was gone. All the front of house employees were no longer there with the exception of two bartenders. Some of them quit mid shift and others were fired mid shift during the first few weeks. Individually the remaining staff had talent, but they did not work together as a cohesive unit.

The first change Fileccia made was instituting a “pooled tips house.” The staff was skeptical having not worked in a structure like that before, but Fileccia encouraged them to trust him because he “knows how to make servers money.” Fileccia also instituted policies and procedures for the front of the house to work seamlessly as a team.

He convinced Chef Sbraga to revise the menu options and offerings, which essentially allowed the guests to create their own experience, but were challenging for the kitchen and service staff to execute. Together they crafted a four-course, pre-fixed menu which allowed Fileccia to understand how long the guest’s experience was going to take. Instituting these changes gave the entire team the opportunity to guide and control the total guest experience.

Within three weeks all the changes were made and that Saturday night and Sbraga was on the line and Fileccia was out front. Midway into service Fileccia checked in with Chef Sbraga who reported he was “bored” at that point and they had already completed 185 covers. Previously, the most covers the restaurant had done in an entire Saturday night service was 110.

The so-called “B” team Fileccia inherited turned out to be all stars after they were given the proper structure, support and worked as a team. By the end of the year, Philly Magazine named Sbraga the fifth best restaurant in the city and Esquire Magazine named Sbraga the best new restaurant in America in 2012. Fileccia earned the title of “Best of Philly: General Manager” in Philadelphia magazine for 2014.

“I like to remind my staff of my personal goal: to always treat people the same way I’d treat my best friends or family,” he said. “From the moment guests come into our restaurants, I want them to feel relaxed while dining and to have a positive experience with everyone working there. Comfort is really a key part of the Sbraga Dining Group experience.”

Leadership Mastery Insights

Employee Engagement

  • Create a clear vision of what success looks like and set high standards for your team.
  • Create a healthy culture of “being nice” to not only each other, but to guests and community as well.
  • Implement a tip pool so the team works as one and shares in the profits. (Be sure to check with your CPA for local regulations.) 

Operational Efficiency

Create policies, procedures, and systems that empower the entire team to excel, which in turn will dramatically affect the guest experience. Fileccia and Sbraga also engineered a menu that allowed the entire team to function with speed and grace.

The Sbraga Dining Group includes Sbraga and The Fat Ham, both in Philadelphia, and Sbraga & Company in Jacksonville, FL.

This is a revised excerpt from Smith’s upcoming book, “Lead Like This.”