[All photos by Dorian Block]
Veselka is one of 13 NYC businesses that the Columbia Aging Center — part of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health — is honoring today for its efforts to hire and retain workers over the age of 50.
I asked Tom Birchard, the longtime owner of the diner on Second Avenue at Ninth Street, for his reaction to the recognition. From our email exchange:
Honestly hiring and retaining an older work force isn’t something that we’ve done consciously or as a matter of policy. When I first started working at Veselka in the late 1960s, the small staff was comprised almost entirely of older Eastern European women who lived in the neighborhood. They were incredibly hard working and very reliable.
When I took over the business in the mid 1970s, I just naturally continued to seek and hire similar type people, many of whom came to us through word-of-mouth from the existing staff. In general, we’ve found that older people are more reliable, more stable and more loyal to their workplace so they tend to stay for longer periods.
We have a soup cook who has been with us for 30-plus years who is extremely devoted to her work. When I hired her she lived down the street from Veselka and walked half a block to work every day. As their family grew, she and her husband bought a home in Perth Amboy, N.J. So she has been commuting by bus and train every day since they moved. In spite of the long distance and difficult commute, she comes to work on time every day without complaint.
One of her younger co-workers commented that even a war would not keep her from showing up and making her borscht. She and I are the same age, 71, so I guess I have a special place in my heart for mature people and I especially appreciate the opportunity to continue to do the work I love.
A rep for the Columbia Aging Center listed several reasons (many of the practices benefit all workers regardless of age) about what makes Veselka, which opened in 1954, such a good employer of people 50 and over.
Those practices include strong benefits, opportunities for advancement, responsiveness to employees’ ideas to improve the work environment, a culture and atmosphere that demonstrates workers are valued, educational opportunities and flexible work arrangements.
Specifically, Veselka offers health insurance to its employees and pays 60 percent of the cost of it, which the Columbia rep said is unusual in the restaurant business. They also have a profit-sharing program, paid vacation time and a meal plan that lets employees eat whatever they want for $2.50 a meal. In addition, Veselka offers opportunities for advancement. For instance, prep cooks have risen up the ranks, including one who is now their executive chef. Veselka paid to send him to culinary school.
Said Birchard: "We are honored to be considered for this recognition but we have also been honored over the years to have had the privilege of working with some incredible people."