3 Ways to Change Company Culture in Your Restaurant

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

restaurant teamwork.jpg

As you look back on the past year, are there things you wish you had done differently? Moving into this new year, are there things you want to improve? Surely you've heard that there’s a shortage of workers for restaurant jobs. Are you prepared to deal with that? 

Let's bust the bubble on that right away. While there are more and more restaurants opening every year, it's not that there are less workers. The real truth is that there are fewer restaurants that appeal to workers. Basically, most have not created a culture that attracts skilled talent.

That might sting a bit if you’re having a hard time finding talent to work in your establishment. As Gloria Steinem once said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” 

In order to attract better people to work in your restaurant, you have two options:

1. Be a famous chef or restaurant owner where working at your establishment would be a great addition to someone’s resume. You can pay them very little, work them longer hours, and subject them to the hazing that is common in many of these restaurants. You’ll have very high turnover. However, you’ll have a long list of young talent waiting for the chance to be in your kitchen.

2. Build a culture where your team is appreciated and given the chance to grow. You’ll pay them a fair wage and work them fairly normal hours. The poor performers will leave and you find that your team becomes capable of executing service at a high level.

The main issue is that many restaurants treat people like scenario number one — verbally abusive, poor working conditions, and very little appreciation have become the norm. If we want to make the restaurant industry appeal to more of the younger generations, then we as an industry need a paradigm shift.

The term “paradigm shift” was made popular by American physicist Thomas Kuhn to describe the fundamental change in basic concepts or assumptions. Culture can be defined as a way of life of a group of people. It’s the behaviors, beliefs and values that they accept generally without thinking about them.

How to Change Culture

If you’ve been in business for a while then you know that, while changing policies and procedures is an easy task, trying to change culture can be like teaching an elephant to walk on a high wire. Below are three steps to help facilitate that:

1. Uncover or rediscover your core values.

Knowing your core values is an amazing way to separate your restaurant from the competition. It also is a calling card to attract like-minded talent. Knowing your core values lays out the foundation of who you are and what you stand for. Restaurants that have solid core values in place experience greater employee engagement, performance and increased retention. Just like in the movie “Field of Dreams,” if you build it, they will come. Knowing your core values goes a long way in recruiting and retaining.

2. Raise your standards.

One of the simplest things that you can do to improve culture is to raise your standards. Many restaurant owners and operators tend to be people with big ideas and big visions. They have the entrepreneur mindset, which is great for developing a business. It tends to get them in trouble with day-to-day operations and attention to details. Success in the restaurant industry is all about the details.

The culture of any restaurant is shaped by the behavior you are willing to tolerate. If you allow your staff to wander in 15 minutes late every day and not say anything to them, then you get the culture where a sense of urgency is nonexistent. Now here’s the true test: do you practice and uphold the standards that you preach? Culture flows down, not up, and culture always starts with you. Nothing will kill a culture quicker than hypocrisy.

So raising your standards starts first and foremost with yourself. Hold yourself to a higher standard than you have before, and you will start to set the example for your team. After you’ve raised the standards for yourself and have shown your commitment, it’s much easier to get buy-in from your team.

3. Stay committed.

Change is never easy. If it was, everyone would achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Statistics show only 5 percent of people will actually stay committed to achieving their lofty resolutions. It’s so easy to fall back into bad habits or consensus of groupthink.

4 Stages of Group Development

When you start down the path of a culture paradigm shift, it will seem accepted at first. You might even think yourself, “This is easy.” Before you get too excited, you should know about Tuckman’s four Stages of Group Development.

In 1965, a psychology professor named Bruce Tuckman was doing research into the theory of group dynamics. He came upon a model that describes the four stages that all teams go through. Get ready for a bumpy ride:

  • Forming: You put together a new team, a new plan, a new policy, or changes to culture and for a while everyone seems to be getting along and liking the ideas.
  • Storming: Here is where everyone’s opinion about the new culture start coming out. There is dissension among the team. If unchecked, this dissension could easily turn into the team running the restaurant. At this stage, your commitment will be questioned over and over. The best advice is to stay focused on the end result and don’t let the turbulence throw you off course.
  • Norming: Here is where the team starts to accept the idea and actually start adapting to the changes. Here is where your commitment has paid off.
  • Performing: At this stage, the team has fully integrated the changes you set out to make. Functioning at a high level, they have adopted and embraced the new culture.

The restaurant industry gets a lot of bad publicity about manic chefs and terrible working conditions. The truth is the majority of restaurants are not like that at all. If your restaurant is not attracting the caliber of talent you want, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I creating a culture where my team can thrive?”

Remember, the truth will set you free.