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The Trouble with Creating Culture

culture leadership Jan 31, 2018

Look at any well landscaped garden and you will see careful planning, care, and maintenance. Those are the same elements you need to create a restaurant culture that surpasses the average.

Culture is that secret sauce that separates the good from the outstanding. Restaurants can have the same ingredients and even the same menu items. What separates them often is that one thing that is hard to copycat and that is their culture. Even famous rock bands that break up and go on to form other bands often do not find the same success they had from before. Culture is something more organic and alive. Just like that immaculate looking garden, you need to understand the planning and work that occurred to create such a masterpiece.

There are 3 key elements to cultivating culture: 


You can’t just pick plants and flowers for a garden without thinking how they are going to grow together. Some have different growth cycles. Some require more attention. Some flourish in the heat and others prefer mild climates. The same can be said for the people on your team.

Some personalities get along with others and some like to be left alone. Some people need more attention than others. Some like to grow and others are content where they are. The thing is you need a variety of people, with a variety of skills, and a variety of personalities to compose a high performance team.

The biggest mistake many make is hiring people like themselves. It’s natural to like others who are like ourselves. It also causes a lot of the problems many restaurants experience. The things that annoy us about others can often be the same traits we dislike in ourselves. Be honest: have you ever looked in the mirror and not liked the person looking back at you?

You have to look beyond just the position you are hiring to fill and look at how this person will impact the overall team dynamics. Look at your team’s strengths and where there are gaps. Make smarter additions to your team by asking better questions:

1. Does this person have strengths that will compliment or complicate the team?

2. Does this person have a personality that will integrate with our core values and culture?

Answering these questions moves you beyond hiring for skills and focuses on personality. The ability to adapt to your culture is imperative to the continued growth of your brand. Selection should always be a long term consideration over a short term solution (I need to cover a shift or position). Temporary fixes only bring bigger problems down the road. Keep your eye on your long term vision.


A well landscaped garden will not last very long without the proper nutrients and care. It would be a waste of time, energy, and money to work so hard, only to let it just waste away due to inattentive behavior. The same goes for the culture in your restaurant!

You might have the best intentions, however, without consistency in your attention, actions (your behavior) and the positive energy you feed your culture, you will see it all just rot away. 

What do you want to feed your culture to see if grow and flourish?

Core Values - if you don’t know what you stand for and why, then you’re going to find it very hard to get your team to buy into your culture. Remember that all restaurants have a culture either by design or by default. Your core values are the seeds of culture. The culture you get largely depends on the values you plant as seeds.

Standards - these are those little things that are non negotiable. Standards are the base line for behavior. You have to draw the line in the sand and stand there as constant reminder of where the line is and what the consequences are for crossing that line. Here is where many faultier. They draw that line and when it comes time to enforce the standards they back down. If you back down from a standard you set, then it’s not a standard in the first place. Being a true leader means holding others (and yourself) to the standards at all times...not when it’s convenient.

Energy - everything in the universe is energy. The energy you bring everyday to your culture is either negative, neutral, or positive. Leaders that create an outstanding culture are aware of their energy and how it feeds their culture. Self awareness (part of Emotional Intelligence or EQ) is critical to cultural success. Your body language transfers energy to others. They sense when you are upset. They sense when you are tired. They sense when you are happy. Your team and your culture is a reflection of your energy. If you can become mindful of your energy and have ways to create positive energy (known as state management), you’ll be in the top 5% of leaders.

Watch for the Weeds

A beautiful garden had to be maintained and consistently watched for weeds. It’s ironic that the things you really want to grow take hard work and those nasty weeds grow without any helper all. They just pop up. If you’re not careful, they will overrun and ruin your efforts.

Without diligence and commitment to selection and nurturing your culture those same kind of “weeds” will pop up and grow inside your culture.

What are some cultural weeds?

How about gossip? Lack of standards? Negative people? Poor attitudes? Self centered actions like stealing (scams or taking tables from other servers)? Managers who have double standards (the do as I say, not do as I do mentally)? Playing favorites with the team? Front of the house versus back of the house mindset?

What do you do when you find a weed? You pull it out as soon as you find it! You can’t wait until later because before you know it that one weed is now two weeds and two become four. They grow faster than you realize. Immediate action is the only cure.

When you find weeds in a garden you pull them and then spray to make sure other weeds don’t grow as well. When you find cultural weeds growing in your restaurant you must remove them and then train to stop others from appearing. Training, communication, and being crystal clear on expectations is the way to stop weeds growing in your restaurant’s culture.

The trouble with creating culture is that most think that culture is not something they need to tend to like a garden. If you want to create an outstanding culture you must take time to plant the seeds that will take root deep into your brand. If the roots are solid, then you will find long term success with careful maintenance combined with meticulous selection, positive nurturing, and pulling those weeds before they take over.

The late actor Peter Sellers made a movie back in 1979 called Being There where he played a simple man named Chance the Gardener who delivers tips for gardening that some high level politicians and businessmen took as words of wisdom. Chance the Gardener says, “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.”

If the roots of your culture are solid, all will be will in your restaurant as well.

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