Impossible staffing, supply chain nightmares, escalating costs, problems with consistency, fear, loathing, rising real estate costs, and the list goes on and on. It has never been more challenging to be in the restaurant business, yet there has rarely been a time with more opportunity. The current environment can be confusing at best and outright terrifying at worst. Many restaurants are just taking it one day at a time, while others seem to be standing on the edge of paralysis. Take a deep breath and stay calm. The answer always begins with focus and a plan.
Restaurants are too important to a community and a nation’s culture to simply fizzle out. If we continue to look at the challenges as an industry, we may never dig our way out; this is a grassroots challenge that begins with one restaurant at a time. Sure, there are issues that seem to require answers at the macro level, but that may take way too long to impact you. The answer to a restaurant’s problems is personal and must be internalized first. One step at a time, grasshopper: “wax on, wax off.”
You are the owner, the manager, or the chef – others depend on your ability to find solutions and make a difference. So, consider the following as a good start:
EIGHT KEYS TO SURVIVING AND THRIVING
- 1. FIND YOUR STORY, KNOW YOUR STORY, TELL YOUR STORY
What is your restaurant all about? Why does it exist? What makes it special? These are good questions for a restaurateur to ask. Just for a moment, stop looking to the big players for answers and instead dig into those independent operations that have been around for generations or at least a few decades. Why are they still here? I am confident that you will find that these operations have a compelling story, whether it be a connection to its location, a historical building, a family that built the restaurant from the ground up, or a menu that reflects a connection to a region and those who contribute to its style. Something that sets the restaurant apart from others. Oh, but here is what’s really important: everyone who works and dines at this restaurant knows the story. They know it so well they can tell it to others, contribute to the breadth of the story, align with it, and take pride in how it is told. Not just the manager or the chef – everyone! What is your story? Are you making sure that everyone in the business knows it? How are you preparing those individuals to tell that story?
- 2. RELY ON YOUR STRENGTHS, KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES
Far too many restaurants, usually the ones without a clear story to tell, try to be everything to everyone. Their menu is a compendium of choices that fall under the heading of: “The Best of Restaurants” rather than what the restaurant is capable of doing and what fits the storyline. Ask some simple questions: Why is this item on the menu; are we capable of doing this item very well, and does it make sense with the story we are telling? Focus on those items that fit and shy away from those that either doesn’t fit or for some reason, you cannot execute extremely well.
- 3. KEEP IT SIMPLE, BE EXTRAORDINARY
What is the magic number of appetizers, entrees, and desserts? Is it possible to have a menu that is too limited or too large? The answers are clear, at least to me: There is no magic number, but it is probably more than a few and less than an encyclopedia of choices. You can’t be good at everything, and if you can’t be good, no change that – if you can’t be GREAT at a cuisine or preparing a specific dish, then avoid it or change it! Mediocrity is the kiss of death for a restaurant – don’t go there! Excellence must be your standard and your guest’s expectation if you want to be around in a few years.
- 4. FEED INTO YOUR STAKES IN THE GROUND
What do you believe in, what is important to you and those who choose to join your team? This is your philosophy, and it should never be compromised. Once you start to slip from your restaurant beliefs, then there is no turning back. Good enough, never is. Sometimes it is very tempting to give in when costs rise, customer counts wane, or profits start to slip. Find a different approach and resist the temptation to give away your soul. If anything, reinvest in your beliefs and let everyone know your food and service philosophy. This is a major reason why guests support you and employees seek you out.
- 5. SEEK CHEMISTRY IN STAFFING
Oh, my – everyone is challenged with staffing right now. By everyone, I mean everyone! The common excuse from restaurateurs is people don’t want to work anymore, the industry has lost its buzz, everyone wants to get paid more and work less, etc. Of course, we can address this by offering more money and hoping that this gesture will solve the problem, but it won’t. Pay and benefits must improve, but not without changing many of the cultural and environmental issues that accompany a restaurant career. One that is universally overlooked is the real value of the team. The team is different than teamwork. We can rally the troops to rise to today’s challenge and find a way to win, but that may not result in a real team environment. A team happens when there is chemistry; when people share common beliefs; when individuals know their role and how important it is; and when training and support are priorities. When you hire, make sure the person aligns with your stakes in the ground and then invest in them every day and every way. This will create a magnetic environment that draws the best people to your door – a place where they want to work.
- 6. CREATE VALUE THROUGH EXPERIENCES-
Those restaurants that have been fixtures in a community for some time go beyond presenting a plate of food and a check. They create memorable experiences and lasting relationships with staff and guests. The experience certainly could be the food, but it is more likely to involve the story and the storytellers. It might be the technical service but it is more likely to be the service relationship that goes beyond the actual dining event. The experience begins with the excitement of making a reservation (a call to a live, friendly person is always better than simply typing information online). I know online reservations are convenient, especially for first-time bookings, but guests return because the experience is personal. The experience continues with the look of the restaurant exterior, the greeting at the door, the smells present when guests first enter, the cleanliness of the operation, the tabletop, the comfort of the chair, the quality of the music system, the attentiveness of the server, the appropriateness of the plates and glassware to the menu offered, the beauty of the plate of food, flavors and aromas of the dish, the sincerity of service follow-through, and communication that happens after the meal (newsletters, emails, thank you note, learning guest names when they return, etc.). All of this can be taught, and it must be reinforced by the owner and operator daily with every guest. Remember that generational restaurant in your neighborhood – I’ll bet the owner or manager stopped by your table to say hi, the server remembered something about you or your typical order, and the chef may have even walked through the dining room to check on guest reactions. This is the experience of dining.
- 7. STAY FLUID
When all is said and done, you need to be willing and able to change if something doesn’t seem to work. As long as you stay true to your stakes in the ground, everything else should be fluid. Change is not an admission of failure; change means you are responsive to all stakeholders involved in the business.
- 8. MEASURE, ANALYZE, AND ACT
Know what’s going on with your business. On the quantitative side, measure and compare sales and costs day to day, week to week, and year to year, and look for anomalies. If things go astray, then don’t delay – act. On the qualitative side, make sure you seek feedback from guests and staff and when a problem or gap is noted, act just as quickly and decisively as you would with your financials. Lead the way to success.
Plan methodically, listen intently, execute with excellence, tell your story, and train constantly. This is how a thriving restaurant is born.
Some great advice for restaurants and so true about the challenges facing our industry today. As we all know many areas are saturated with eating establishments and with the current situation of tight budgets, and staffing issues will lead to more closures. Hopefully this will increase the supply of workers when restaurants along with more customers for the businesses that survive. Great article!
Daniel, thank you for your feedback. What kinds of articles would you like to see more of? Is personnel on your mind?
Sure is, I receive requests for students to apply all the time- however as we both know there are not enough good ones to go around. I do have some ideas if you would like to quote me for input for an article some time please let me know. Thanks and wishing you success in the New Year.
Great article! On point and relevant. From fine dining places to the neighborhood joint, the biggest challenge most owners face will be themselves. The well-meaning and healthy actions chef suggests in this article are inarguable to anyone familiar with best business practices, but the introspection and humility required of owners to challenge and change what likely has worked for decades takes some real intestinal fortitude and open-mindedness. Some will make this turn, I fear most will not. An industry wide correction is afoot.