No one is going to feel sorry for you if you were to tell them you have a difficult job working in a restaurant, regardless of your position — it’s understood and it comes with the territory. This industry is part career decision and part lifestyle choice, and it’s what we sign up for. If you prefer something a bit easier, there are plenty of professions out there with less stress that pay better. In exchange for the difficult task of creating a well-oiled-machined that every so often is known as a restaurant, is often an immense sense of gratification. We get to make people happy by giving them a chance to get away from the stress of everyday life within the doors of our restaurant — they are entrusting us to provide them with something special — something we’ve made for them. Customer service is something else special in our industry that our customers should and have come to expect. If you fail to deliver on these two fronts (service and product), chances are you’ve just lost a customer. As they always say out there in the business world, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper (and easier) to retain a customer than to have to go out and hunt for new ones. This is a big factor that makes a restaurant successful. This is especially true this day in age where a bad customer experience isn’t just told to one’s friends and coworkers but is instead blasted all over the internet, often in places that can leave permanent scars.
Hopefully these 8 pieces of advice will open your eyes to a new way of understanding your work, the industry and the people you have the privilege of spending your career alongside:
1. Everything starts at the top — the ownership and the management sets the tone and from there, the culture flows downstream. It’s a lot easier to start out of the gates with a solid work environment, versus having to redefine it, because once a negative vibe enters your organization it has a trickle-down effect, resulting in a much more widespread problem than how it started. You have to be deliberate and intentional every single day and with every single interaction. If you walk by a trash can that’s full, what you’re telling your staff is, “we work in a place where its’ not important to take out the trash unless that’s your responsibility” — and what does this really say? You don’t have to be a team player, because your manager isn’t either. If you tolerate sexual harrassment, you’re just telling the staff that they don’t have a safe environment to work in. So, my advice is to be cognizant of every single move you make — hold yourself to a higher standard, in order to create and maintain the company culture your organization needs to thrive.
2. Teach your staff, don’t just train them. It’s easy to say follow this rule, or don’t do that, but when you teach someone what they need to know and how to do something, there is a certain sense of ownership and understanding that will empower your employee. Make sure that you’re giving your staff all the tools they need to succeed. How many of us have fired people, because they just didn’t pick up on the job fast enough? Do we ever stop to think about how we prepared them for the job? Did I give them the tools they need, and did I communicate to them in a way that they (as an individual) will learn? Teaching feels like a self-less investment in one’s career. Training feels more like, “I’ll pay you, as long as you do this for me”.
3. Once your staff is up to speed and in the driver’s seat, it’s critical to set clear expectations for the staff. As Jon Taffer says, there are three factors by which we hold the staff accountable and it’s dependent on management to enforce them: qualifiable (this is what I expect you to do), quantifiable (this is how often or how much I expect you to do it), and verifiable (did they do the job the way they were supposed to). If we, as leaders, don’t set standards and keep them, it’s 100% on us when employees fall short of what we want them to do. I’m not sure if managers would rather just avoid an awkward conversation (don’t want to be the bad guy) or are just lazy, but so many organizations have certain rules when one manager is working and other rules when a different manager is working. It’s like, when a certain dish comes out of the kitchen looking a certain way on Tuesday and Thursday, meanwhile, the rest of the week the dish is plated completely different. Clearly there is no accountability or mutual understanding and that type of disconnect can slowly but surely bring any organization crumbling to the ground.
4. Hold yourself and the rest of the management team accountable to the numbers and other KPIs (key performance indicators). Sales. Labor. Inventory. Costs (food, bar, etc.). The only way to do this, though, is to have systems and processes in place that are, like mentioned above, also qualifiable, quantifiable and verifiable. It’s shocking to me how many foodservice operations don’t have functional order guides that track costs and inventory. The world we live in makes it so much easier than it ever has been to pinpoint where the money is going — all we have to do is run the numbers and stay on top of them. If you see food costs are skyrocketing, all it takes is a looking over things for a few minutes to pinpoint what’s going on. Spoilage? Theft? Maybe we need to adjust our menu prices? Or find another vendor? There is no reason why management and owners shouldn’t have a very clear understanding of their expenses, which then allows them to hold each other accountable — just like the rest of the staff. How can you expect them to follow systems and procedures if the management won’t?
(If you need help with this, let me know — I have some spreadsheets and can give you some ideas, just shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
5. Communication is the root of almost every single problem we face in restaurants. If we don’t communicate to the staff properly, we’re going to put out a shitty, inconsistent product — the product being the food and drinks, but the product is also the customer service that we provide our guests with, the appearance of the dining room and the cleanliness of the staff. If we don’t first, communicate with the fellow management staff, the entire organization becomes a disjointed mess — nothing will be in order, and there will be no continuity, which will leave the staff guessing a lot of the time. Finally and most importantly, if we don’t communicate what it is we believe, as an organization, we will never be successful. What do we stand for? What type of cuisine inspires us? What is important to us? What kind of relationship do we want to have with our staff? The community? If we do a good enough job of articulating what the company stands for, we attract the right customers, because they know what to expect from us and over time we can develop trust, but this also attracts the right employees — when looking for a job, they see what we’re about and want to be a part of it. This makes hiring and staffing so much fricking easier — everyone is speaking the same language and you’ll know right away when a potential hire is or isn’t a good fit.
6. Take care of people. Yes, this means customers and vendors and investors, but this really means the people in the trenches with you every day — the ones who are putting their blood, sweat, tears, and life into your organization — that’s a big deal and not enough of us take that seriously. It starts with listening. Not just hearing what they have to say, but actually listening with curiosity and understanding and empathy. Let the people around you know that you have their best interest in mind and you do this through your actions — caring enough about your team as individuals that you ask them how they’re day is going, how their kids are doing or what their plans are for the upcoming vacation days they took off. This is also actively taking interest in their professional development. If you know they want to be an executive chef someday, teach her those skills along the way, give her a chance to contribute to specials, menus and even mundane tasks like taking inventory — anything that helps them to progress in their career. Once someone feels a genuine sense of “wow, this person really cares about me” and knows you want to see them succeed in their career, they’ll have your back no matter what. Oftentimes in this industry we can’t afford to pay the staff what we would really like to or what they feel they deserve, thus one of the best ways to keep good people around is to give them more than a job — give them a safe place to learn, grow and the chance to be a part of something. Don’t take care of people just because it’s one more thing to check off the list. Take care of people because it’s the right thing to do.
7. No excuses. Excuses are bull shit, plain and simple. If something doesn’t go right, don’t make excuses or pass the blame — fix it. I hate when a dish comes back to the kitchen because a steak is overcooked, undercooked or perfectly cooked, but the customer doesn’t agree that it’s medium, just how she ordered it. What happens next? The waiter stands in the kitchen window, explaining the situation and inevitably, an argument ensues between the FOH and BOH — pointing fingers and passing blame. Who cares who’s fault it is — we’ll deal with what happened later once things wind down and we can better assess the situation so that we can learn from it. The bottom line is right now we need a medium steak on the fly damnit — all we’re doing here arguing is wasting time and stressing each other out! If sales are down or costs are up, you can make all the excuses in the world, hell, that’s the easier, short-term answer we fool ourselves with — we don’t feel so bad when it’s someone else’s fault. But, if our business is failing, our product sucks and the customer service is even worse — it does absolutely no good whatsoever to blame it on someone. Even if you don’t think it’s your fault at all, chances are you can take some ownership for what’s going on — you hired the staff or created the recipes. Excuses don’t change anything and actually make things worse, because the longer we go without confronting the real problem and taking ownership of it — the deeper the business will continue to tank. Taking ownership and responsibility for shortcomings, whatever they might be is the only way you’ll truly be successful in this industry — that’s the only way we can truly learn — by accepting our fallibility and imperfections, then working together towards a solution.
8. Have fun. Life’s too damn short to take everything so seriously. Sure, when there is work to be done, there is work to be done and that takes priority. But, having a sense of humor is essential in this industry. It creates a warm and welcoming environment for the staff, which creates an environment of comfort and safely, which can’t help but turn into best interactions with their guests and each other. Plus, nobody likes working with an asshole. One day I was just finishing up a super stressful shift at my former restaurant. We were cleaning the open kitchen that looked out into the dining room, and one of my good friends was out there finishing up his meal. He noticed after the rush that I was back there with my guys — joking on them, they were joking on me — we were just having fun with each other. As he was leaving, he walked up to me and said, “ya know Chris, that’s pretty cool how you’re not only there helping them clean up, but you’re back there having fun with them — I’m sure they really appreciate that.” And they also did. The funny thing is, think I appreciated it just as much and it is one of the easiest ways to show your appreciation without even saying a word.
So, there ya go— there are plenty more, but if you can focus on doing the things outlined above just a little bit better every single day, I can guarantee you’ll start to see results — in your staff, in your company culture, and as a result, in the numbers. If you want a successful restaurant, you’ll have to work for it – every single day.
If you liked this article, I think you’ll like some of my other writings about the industry: