How Building Company Culture Builds Your Brand

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By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

Bigfoot. The Loch Ness Monster. Restaurant Culture. What do these three have in common?

They are all elusive creatures that many search for and seek out, only to come away empty-handed.

While Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster may be mythical folklore, culture is very real. It has a bigger impact on your restaurant brand than you could imagine. Culture is the glue that holds your guests to your brand. Some restaurant that have a lot of “brand stickiness” and their guests stay loyal through the years. Others have a culture that has the stickiness of a post-it-note.

Culture is Like a Child

You’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and resources to develop your menu. You need to have that same mindset when it comes to culture. Your restaurant’s culture is a living thing that needs to be nurtured and carefully groomed. Think of culture like the growth cycle of a person. When you were young, your parents molded you and taught you about right and wrong, good and bad, what was and was not acceptable in their house. Your restaurant’s culture is the same.

When you start out, it’s like a child that will try to get away with as much as it can. You will need to tighten the reins and set the tone. Then, things go well for a while during growth, until it hits its teenage years. During this time, your culture will become rebellious and really see how far it can push. What you put up with, you end up with.

You have to carefully watch the growth of your culture. That’s your duty as an owner or operator. Too many leave it to its own and then complain because their restaurant now runs them.

Building Culture

So, if culture is so important, why do fewer than 10 percent of restaurants build a successful one? Like a lot of things in the restaurant industry, you need a solid recipe. Let’s create one:

Step 1: Start With Your Core Values

There’s an old saying that if you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything. Core values are the foundation of your brand. When you know your core values, you have a platform you can share with your guests and your team. They become the heart of your culture.

Core values also become a beacon to attract more people to your brand. Are you sustainability-focused? Does the ideology of farm-to-table move you? Are you family-focused?

Like does attract like. Your core values will draw people to you. If you don’t have any core values, you’ll draw those people to you, as well.

Step 2: Set the Standards

Human beings are great mimics. Maybe it’s because our brains are wired that way in order to survive. In your restaurant, your team looks to you as the example. You set the tone every day by the actions you take. Remember, talk is cheap. You get more respect and loyalty from your team by doing what you say you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it, and how you said you would do it. That’s a little core value called “integrity.”

Once you set the standards for your restaurant, it is your duty to live them and demonstrate them. If you truly want to create a culture that exceeds ordinary, then you need to expect more from yourself than others do from you. You have to be the first to drink the Kool-Aid before your team will drink from the culture cocktail. Be the leader they want.

Step 3: Herding Cats

When you talk about the restaurant industry, sometimes the word “chaotic” arises. Others might describe trying to get their team to follow directions is a lot like herding cats. The easiest way to get the team to fall in line is to hold them accountable for their actions. If you’ve set the standards and are being a prime example, then you have to hold people accountable.

Clarify roles. Talk to your team about your expectations. Don’t assume that they get it. Also, have very clear and defined performance metrics in place that you actually can measure. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

If someone on the team strays too far from the standards and cannot deliver on the expectations, it’s your responsibility to replace them. That’s why it’s so important to constantly be recruiting. You’ll need a good bench of talent if you want to have lasting success in this industry. Great restaurants are always recruiting and adding top talent to their roster.

Step 4: Communicate Clearly, Constantly, and Consistently

When you’re striving to build a successful and world-class culture, you really cannot communicate too much. When you’re the leader, you step up every day to preach your core values and standards to your team. You need to be like Joel Osteen captivating the crowd through creative storytelling. That’s your job: to tell the brand story.

The problems that most owners and operators talk about most are core values, standards, and expectations, usually at the beginning of the onboarding process for training or hiring. When they don’t see that they did not clearly communicate those foundational aspects, three or four months down the road, those same owners and operators wonder why their employees changed so much. They don’t seem like the person they hired and they’re just not sure why. Is it really any surprise?

Your communication with your team has to be three things: clear, consistent, and constant.

Clear. Don’t assume that your team understands what you’re saying. Always ask for clarification and have them explain it to you.

Consistent. Your message has to be consistent from day to day and from employee to employee. There can only be one standard and you have to be the gatekeeper of that. Once you start having different standards for different people in different situations, you have embarked on a downward spiral that is hard to come back from.

Constant. Repetition is the mother of skill and your team will need to be constantly reminded of your core values, standards, and expectations. It has to come from you personally — not from some cute poster you put up in the employee break area thinking that is going to reinforce your message. If you do, you are fooling yourself.

In the end, remember that your culture is your brand, and your brand is a reflection of your culture. The two have a symbiotic relationship and thrive on each other. Great culture creates iconic brands like Disney, Apple, Shake Shack, and Chick-fil-A. When you build your culture, you build your brand. How far do you want to take yours? Good, great, or legendary?