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Tearoom brews up a winning approach

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For those looking for employment in the service industry, take note: St. James Tearoom is the No. 1 small business in Top Workplaces for the second consecutive year.

The Albuquerque-based tearoom, which opened its only location in 2000, is owned by Daniel Higbie and his mother, Mary Alice Higbie.

It is a unique space, with a gift shop, a garden patio, and two areas for guest to have private seatings.

To go with the wide assortment of teas, St. James Tearoom has a menu of gourmet appetizers that changes every month.

So what makes St. James Tearoom such a great place to work? It’s a combination of “open-book management,” talent recognition, environment and profit sharing.

China Stuckman sets a timer for the tea she’s brewing for a customer. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Daniel Higbie is proud of the tearoom’s hiring system. “Most employers hire for one thing – competence,” said Higbie, “We hire for four: competence, chemistry, culture, character. When you hire right, it’s great. You just get to come to work with your friends every day.”

Employees are chosen as much for their personalities as anything else, and many, including top executives, began at the bottom.

Creative Director Ondine Montoya began as a dishwasher and worked her way up.

“As we grow, we get recognized for our individual talents,” said Montoya. “The management here is always looking out for other … talents that can be brought up to be used to enhance the experience of St. James Tearoom.”

Higbie explains that he finds his employees’ talents through monthly meetings and a quarterly Discovery Program in which employees and managers self-evaluate.

For Higbie, there is more success in treating his employees as individuals with unique traits than in treating them as a group of labor. According to Higbie, that attitude accounts for the low employee turnover – that and profit sharing. “When we are successful, the employees know it and share in that,” said Higbie.

But the overriding factor that’s to be found in all 59 employees at St. James Tearoom, from Daniel and Mary Alice down to the service staff, is joy. All the employees seem happy to be there and Daniel takes his ultimate validation from that.

“It’s a test for us as owners. I really want to know what the employees think. If this is not the best place to work, and it’s something legitimate, I want to know about it.”

St. James Tearoom has had a long road to the top. In 2014, the Higbies had to pay more than $50,000 to settle a lawsuit with the Department of Labor. The money went to pay back wages and damages to employees. Some of the allegations turned out to be untrue, and the Higbies were only required to pay a fraction of the amount claimed in the suit.

Daniel says the law is more than 1,000 pages long and that the St. James Tearoom violation concerned a minute detail involving tip pools.

Since then, St. James Tearoom has adapted in many ways, but hasn’t changed the way it treats its employees. “If you work in the service industry you have to love people,” Higbie said. “That means loving your guests, but it also means loving your employees.”

St. James Tearoom no longer takes tips or uses a tip pool. It pays a living wage instead. Daniel said he prefers to treat his employees as highly trained professionals. “You wouldn’t think to tip your doctor, right?”