Are You Running Your Restaurant or Is It Running You?

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

When your restaurant is running like a world championship team, everything is amazing. All the training, all the hard work, all the time fine-tuning your team and brand are paying off. You’re communicating, working together for a shared vision and mission. It’s a thing of pure beauty to see a restaurant running at its potential and reaching for more. A recipe for success.

Unfortunately, most restaurants are operating on the other side of this equation. There is no shared vision or mission. The team has formed small teams within the team and they are constantly bickering with each other. The standards have dropped, the guest now gets inconsistent food, and your online reviews are hot and cold. A recipe for failure.

The common thread in this bad recipe is lack of vision and poor leadership. When things are going great, it is easy to be motivated and be in love with your restaurant. Then the honeymoon phase is over and the real work begins. Sadly, most cannot deal with the downside of this. Maybe sales have dropped off and then the turnovers start to rise. You’ve lost money and key people, and then you do the one thing you never should do…you start to compromise.

Is your restaurant running you and not the other way around? Let’s explore how you got here and how you can get out of this.

Your Values and Mission

Problem

You might have a clear vision for your brand and you know what your restaurant should be. The thing is, you’ve never written it down and made it your duty to tell everyone your core values and mission. It’s like you’re standing in a valley surrounded by mountains with your team, and while you know which mountain is your objective, you forget to share that with your team and you just tell them…go. And well, they’ll go. A few might get lucky and pick the mountain you had in mind. Most will head for the mountain they want. A few will just run around in circle in the valley muttering to themselves that this is stupid.

Write this down: Without clear directions, your team will make their own.

Solution

You must make it your mission as the owner or operator to discuss — daily — what your core values and mission are as a brand. How should they help you run your business? If you do not, then you’ll get the same results as mentioned above: hit and miss.

You need to write your core values out and have a crystal-clear mission in mind that can be summed up in one sentence. One clear statement or goal that your team can be bombarded with every day to set the tone. Try to make is as short and powerful as you can. Use a tweet or Six Word Memoirs as an example. In a Twitter tweet, you only have 140 characters to get your message across. In Six Words Memoirs you have — you got it — only six words. These exercises will force you to fine-tune your mission down to a few keywords that are powerful!

Still stuck? Then take a look at tag lines used by some popular brands:

  • Zappos: Delivering Happiness
  • Mercedes: The Best or Nothing.
  • Dos Equis: Stay Thirsty
  • Restaurant Social+: We Create WOWS and Purple Cows
  • GoPro: Be a Hero
  • Coca-Cola: Open Happiness

As the good book says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Your Menu

Problem

When sales began to die, you became desperate and started adding items to get people to come back. By doing this, you dilute your brand identity. While it might have brought in a few new guests, the brand message is now watered down and your old guests lost confidence in who you are.

When there is no trust, guests go somewhere else.

Solution

Your menu must be a reflection of your brand. Great menus are three things:

Approachable. Your guest must relate to your restaurant. While it’s great to have a few unique items that let you stand out from the market, too many can have a disastrous effect. You need items that trigger emotions that they can relate to. Too many menus are designed by ego and not with the guest in mind.

Containable. Your team needs to be able to execute the menu flawlessly and consistently. You can design the menu to be not practical from a culinary execution point of view. Here's the downside: most of your culinary team won't tell you they can't do it. They will find a way to make it happen and sometimes that means they will compromise the standards, take shortcuts, and find an easier way. Especially if you have lost control in your kitchen.

Profitable. Lest we forget that you need to make a profit. Using tools like menu engineering spreadsheets take the emotional decision away and let you see truly what is profitable and popular.

Your menu is your number one marketing and profitability tool. Treat it with some respect. It’s very hard to be everything to everyone. Much better to be a niche that excels at a few great menu items then be mediocre at a lot. Do you see Shake Shack selling pizzas and burritos? There might be some logic why they do not.

Your Staff

Problem

You’ve made some bad hiring choices (usually when desperate to fill positions, which is known as “panic hiring”). These staff members bring along all kinds of bad habits and now those habits have infected the rest of the team. What are you stuck with? Poor performers who only care about themselves. You’re too scared to fire anyone because you be short staffed, and you also fear that their replacements could be worse. You’ll use softeners like “They’re not that bad.” Or you blame outside circumstances and make statements like, “There are just no good workers out there.” And “These millennials are all entitled and don't want to work.”

Solution

Seek and you will find it. If you think there are no good staff out there, you won't find any. Your perception that millennials are difficult says more about your view of them then of what is true. You need to understand millennials in order to manage them properly. They are different and using outdated management techniques from the 70s does not work with them. Time to educate yourself on this new generation in the workforce.

Upgrade your team and get rid of the bad apples. You’ll need to raise your standards first, and then don't let your team drop them. When you let the staff run your restaurant, it’s like having the tail wag the dog — it just doesn't work. Neither will your restaurant, until you take control.

You offset the replacement of bad team members by always recruiting. You must actively recruit new team members. By recruiting, we are not talking about just posting a help wanted ad and hoping for applications to pour in. Remember that hope is not a strategy. Recruiting means you looking at resumes on job sites and business network sites like LinkedIn and you making the first move. It’s simple: sit back and wait for top talent to come looking for you, or go after it and take action to ensure you get the best. Your choice.

Yourself

When the call for restaurant coaching comes in, people are asked what the issues might be. Nine times out of 10, it’s someone else on their team. If coaching could just fix them then, they would have the restaurant they wanted.

Problem

It’s your mindset. You are too focused on outside circumstances instead of what is happening internally with you. Think of yourself like the source of water at the top of a mountain. Because you are the source, you are in control of the flow. You. Not the people at the bottom of the mountain. They only get what you let flow down. That is how culture works. It starts at the top and flows down.

The chokehold on any restaurant is the mindset of the owner and operators. You are your problems and you are your solution. You can get out of this by making a shift in your mindset.

Solution

Get a coach or mentor to help you see through the story you keep telling yourself. Why can’t  you have the restaurant you want? It’s not your staff. It might be you have those bad apples we discussed early that need to be let go. It’s not the economy. A lot of restaurants are recording record sales and profits this year. It’s you.

You must break up with the story and marry the truth. The truth will indeed set you free, and at first, it will really piss you off. If your restaurant is running you, then today is your day to do something about it. Taking control will not be easy when you’ve allowed it to get away from you. It will resist and push back. You will want to give in and go back to the easier way. Don't.

Anything worth fighting for is worth the struggle and discomfort. The most successful restaurant operators are comfortable with being uncomfortable. Tony Robbins says it best: “The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with.”

Your restaurant is a living thing that is shaped. It grows from the level of energy you put into it. It thrives by the people you select to interact with your guests every day. It’s your restaurant. Don’t waste another day not being responsible for how it is run. Be the restaurant owner and leader you know you can be.