"I feel like an HR company that happens to sell dumplings," Kenny Lao recently told me. Lao runs Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, which has two trendy, fast casual Asian restaurants in Manhattan. Most of his 60 employees bus tables, serve dumplings, and work the register and Lao knows that these hourly people can make or break him. "We spend a lot of time training," he says. "Everyone is trained on everything from customer service to menu. Even the bus people know how to deal with customers." He's even paying "back of the house" employees to participate in an in-house English language learning program. BTW, Lao was on Inc.com's "30 Under 30" list of America's coolest young entrepreneurs in 2006.
Lao's philosophy is that everything else about his business "pales in comparison" to the attention he pays to his staff. I've found that to be a notable characteristic among many of the Generation Y entrepreneurs who I've interviewed over the past year: they're as interested in creating great workplaces as they are in making and selling cool products or services. I'm betting that has a lot to do with their own disappointment in (disdain for?) traditional work environments, but it seems to me that thinking of your company as an HR company— whatever its stock in trade — is just good business.