How Words Make and Break Restaurants


By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

As we go through our day-to-day lives, sometimes it’s very easy to overlook the minutia and take things for granted. It could be something as simple as the words we use on a habitual basis. Words become a part of our culture and they define us. Are you a Millennial? Baby boomer? The words we choose create our identity.

Words are powerful. They can bring people together as easily as they can tear them apart. Words enhance the human experience by giving us a way to express thoughts, feelings, abstract concepts, and food. Which of the following sentences evokes a stronger emotion?

A) We had the crème brûlée.

B) We had the most decadent crème brûlée that seemed to slide across our palate like silk.

Is it getting hot in here? No worries, we’re not going to go down the path of “Fifty Shades of Grey” for food lovers. Just understand that words have energy and power behind them. The words you use consistently in your restaurant will have the impact on the culture of your business.

If you are an owner or operator of a restaurant, just remember that the words you use trickle down to your team. If you talk negative about your guests, what message and tone will your team pick up? How do you think they are going to treat the guest when you’re not around? Negativity breeds negativity.

So, how do you become better in using words? Here are four keys to maximizing your word power:

Listening is Key Number One

The first step is to shut your mouth and open your ears more! The majority of communication issues can be broken down to failure to communicate properly and failure to listen properly. Most the time it's the latter. We tend to listen with the intent to reply (get our two cents in) before we have even really understood the entire dialogue. Our brains can be quick with a comeback — sometimes a little too quick.

The best technique is called active listening. When people are talking, try being 100 percent focused on them. Really listen to the words they say and take it all in. Listen to understand, not just to fire back your ideas. Listen. When the person is done talking, pause and process the information before you reply. Done right, this can help you appear reflective and wise, instead of anxious and reactive.

Here’s an active listening tip: If you're finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words to yourself as they say them. This will reinforce their message and help you stay focused.

Obligation vs. Opportunity

This is the basic “have to vs. want to.” Randomly ask some people on your team this question through the week and listen in for the clues to behavior.

Why do you come to work?  Was it a have to or a want to?


People who “have to” do not usually go past the requirements of the job. These people are focused on the obligation. Granted, most do a “good” job, but they don’t go past that very often. To these people, the phrase “good enough” goes through their head quite often. We all know that in the restaurant industry, “good enough” is never very good at all.

People who are focused on the opportunity are the real superstars on your team. These people “want to” come to work and want to exceed expectations. These are the people in life many call winners. If you listen to the words they use on a regular basis, you’ll see they are the opposite of the people focused on obligation.

The winners use words like thriving, purposeful, results, growth, imagination, persistence, focus, clarity, unlimited, quality, happy, and worthwhile.

On the other side of the spectrum, you hear people who use words like should, can’t, problem, but, try, impossible, someday, overwhelmed, angry, difficult, cheated, afraid, annoyed, and bored.

If you take time to listen to your internal dialogue, you might become self-aware some of habitual words you say to yourself. The question is: Are the words you use on a habitual basis empowering or disempowering your life and your business?

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Human beings seem to love when a hypocrite falls. Isn’t there a strange sense of satisfaction in seeing the senator who talks about a certain issue and then gets caught doing the opposite of what he was just denouncing? Well, your staff loves it, too, when you say one thing and do the opposite. Nothing will lose the respect of your team faster than hypocrisy.

It is the primary directive of the leader to set the example for the team. Just like the old axiom that bad kids come from bad parents, it can be said that bad restaurants come from bad leaders.

So, how do you change that? Start living your life and running your business with integrity. That means not settling. Asking for what you want and need from others. Raising your standards. Dropping the excuses. Acting in ways that are congruent with your core values. It means do what you say you’re going to do.

Once you sell out your integrity, you lose the respect of your team and your guest. From there, it’s pretty much game over.

Customer vs. Guest

If you were asked which sounds better, the word customer or the word guest, most likely 9 out of 10 people would say, “Of course, guest sounds so much better.” The real question would be: Do you use the word “guest” in your everyday conversations with your team? The truth may shock you.

Just like many things in life, we know the right thing to do. It’s just the daily implementation that we struggle with. Here are some common words used in the restaurant industry. Take a look at them and honestly identify which ones you use on a daily basis. Whatever words you do select, is there a more powerful or empowering replacement to start using instead?

  • Hospitality
  • Service
  • Feature
  • Special
  • Happy hour
  • Loyalty hour
  • Manager
  • Leader
  • Staff
  • Team


It is said that there are 1,025,109 words in the English language. The average person has a vocabulary of around 5000 words. That’s around .004 percent. Perhaps maybe as a society, we need to watch a little less TV and read a few more books.

Words are powerful. They have the power to inspire and create change. If you select the right words you can express your brand, your standards, and your vision in ways that can have a powerful impact on your restaurant.