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Working IN Your Restaurant Doesn’t Work

culture leadership mindset Jan 12, 2021
Author’s Note: This is an excerpt from my new book title Your Restaurant Culture Sucks! Coming out in late February 2021.

You’ve heard it said to you by every consultant out there...You need to work ON your restaurant and not IN your restaurant. Yet, here you are still slugging it out every single day doing battle on the front line.
While working ON your business sounds great, it appears to you to be more like a mythical creature that you will never catch. So, you do what you know. You keep rolling up your sleeves and working IN your restaurant.
If your restaurant is running your life and you feel like your working harder than ever with not much to show for it, then listen up. I have seen the promised land for myself when I owned two restaurants.
Now, before you say, “But Coach, you are an anomaly and my situation is different...”
Hold that thought for a second.
I have coached thousands of independent restaurant owners like you to seek that elusive state of finally breaking free from your restaurant running you. It can be done and if you are willing to listen you too can reach the promised land I speak of.

Two Restaurants: Two Mindsets

When I opened my first restaurant, I was like the typical owner. I felt the need to do everything. If someone wasn’t doing things as fast (or as good) as I could, I would just take over. In hindsight, I was an asshole.
When I dug down into what created this toxic behavior it was easy to see now (not so much back then). I was insecure, untrusting of my team, a control freak, and shortsighted.
When people quit, I blamed it on them not being a “good fit”. The truth was that no one wanted to work with a manic control-seeking chef that thought he knew it all.
While the food was getting rave reviews and the restaurant was slowly picking up more business. It just wasn’t as fast as I wanted.
The more I struggled, the more hours I put into work. Back then my number one solution to fix a problem was to just work through it. Perhaps you have done that before too? Maybe you are still doing that now?
The issue we all have (but don’t want to admit) is that the skills that get us to a certain level will not take us to the next level. In order to reach the next level of anything in life or business, it will require you to face a “new challenge” or as I like to refer to it as a “new devil”.
#WTSD - Every new level requires you face a new devil.
Our standard way to deal with this is to just crank up our work efforts and push through it. I have found over the years that working harder (while having its merits), doesn’t work 99% of the time.
Working smarter is the answer.
I was fortunate to have a regular guest at my restaurant (who was a very successful businessman named Peter), who took a liking to me and my restaurant. One night he sat down with me to talk about the future of my business. This talk forever changed my mindset and the trajectory of my business.
That evening Peter had a serious tone to the conversation.
“Donald, you know I love your restaurant. The food and service are amazing. Your team is always on top of the details.”
Then Peter paused and said, “but, I don’t think you're going to be open much longer if this is as busy as it gets here.”
I tried to play it tough.
“We still are a little under the radar. Next month, I am sure it’s going to pick up.” (Side note: this was my default mindset at the month it will be different).
He replied, “The last thing you want to be as a restaurant is the best-kept secret in town.”
Damn. He was right!
He continued, “I would like to offer sometime each week to mentor you on how to build a business. The only thing I ask is that you apply what we discuss and you don’t take what I am about to say next too personally.”
“Okay”, I replied with a little hesitation.
Peter said (as he leaned forward on the table towards me as if telling me a secret), “You a brilliant chef and you know how to run a restaurant. You suck at running a business.”
Snap! He was right again!
Honestly, I did take it a little personally, however, I sat back into my chair and let out a deep sigh. The realization came over me that he was 100% right. I didn’t know shit about building a brand or a business. I was letting my ego write the checks and they were all starting to bounce.
If my restaurant was going to thrive and not just survive, then the number one thing that had to change around there was me!
My attitude sucked.
It was like I was digging a hole for myself and pulling the dirt on top of me at the same time. I had to change.
I made a commitment that evening to dedicate an hour each week to Peter as he mentored me. He guided me in building a brand and stabilizing my business.
Through the six months we worked together he helped me formulate many of the processes that I still use with my clients today because they turned my struggling restaurant around.
The biggest change that occurred during that time with Peter was my mindset. I find that we all have bullshit storylines we tell ourselves.
When I first started my restaurant my story was “I have to do it myself because no one does it better than me!”
I was so stupid and so blind to the truth.
#WTSD - You cannot build a restaurant or a brand to a high level if you don’t learn how to trust people.
Now, you might say, “But Coach, I do trust my team!”
Then why are you constantly doing the work that you pay them to do?
This madness must stop and you are the only one who can stop it.
When I opened my second restaurant, I had a major shift in mindset. I find that the things you say and the questions you ask yourself silently become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Here’s an example:
My first restaurant
  • “I have to do everything myself.”
  • “No one cares as much as I do.”
  • “It’s hard to find good people to work.”
My second restaurant
  • “I trust my team to do the right thing.”
  • “People want to do their best.”
  • “My job is not to run the restaurant, it’s to teach my team how to run the restaurant.” 
That last one saved my life.
I stopped trying to run the show and instead trained my team on how to run it with my expectations.
Let’s stop here and talk about expectations.
I am 99.9% confident that you are not clarifying your expectations to your team. You think you are and that is the hurdle you have to navigate.
We all have an unconscious bias that we are communicating and leading the team 100%. Well, if that was true why don’t you have the restaurant and life you want?
They say the truth will set you free, but first, it will piss you off.
Hang in there, I’m about to set you free from your business running you.

Who Are You?

Really think about that question. Who are you really?
Are you the natural leader or more like a friend to your team?
Not knowing who you really are is putting the brakes on your restaurant’s growth.
It’s okay if you are not cut out to be the leader. Not many people are comfortable making the tough calls when business is slower than usual and the tough decisions must be made.
Leadership is not easy and whoever sold you on that bullshit should be charged with negligence. If leadership was easy, the world would be a much better place.
Look around, it’s a chaotic drama-filled world that every once in a while calms down and we all get along.
Well, your restaurant is no different. If you think that everyone who works with you must like each other and never disagree, then restaurant ownership is not for you.
This leads to the discussion that if you are not interested (or have the traits) to be the leader, then what do you do?
Be the owner!
Isn’t the owner the leader?
Not always.
There are owners and there are operators.
There are very few owner/operators.
As an owner, you treat it like it’s an investment and you hire other people to run it.
As an operator, you are working the day-to-day operations.
I have worked with over 2000 independent restaurants and I can honestly tell you that out of them all I can honestly say that only 1% was a great owner/operator.
There is nothing wrong with being one or the other. The problems start when you try to take on a role that you are not a natural at.
We all have a set of behavioral traits that make us who we are. Some are take charge of the situation types. Some have the gift of talk and social interaction. Some seek harmony among a team. And others have a wicked attention to detail. We all have unique gifts we bring to the table.
You just need to honor your strengths and hire others to compliment your deficiencies.
Think of it like a carpenter who only has a hammer to build a house with.
Sadly, everything looks like a nail to them so they just hammer the crap out of everything.
That will not build a house or get you the restaurant you want.

Escape Plan

You might be shocked to find out that when you train your team consistently, set clear standards and expectations, and preach your core values until they know them better than their own amazing thing happens.
They don’t need you to work IN the restaurant anymore.
Now for some owners, this can come as a blow to their ego and they feel not needed.
For a small percentage, it is the door to getting their life back.
Do you remember having a life before you opened a restaurant? It’s still out there. You just have been so buried working IN your business that you’ve let it fade away to become a memory of “remember the good old days”.
As Billy Joel once said in his hit song Keeping The Faith...
“Cause the good ole days weren't
Always good
And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems”
I have a client who runs a very successful pizza concept in San Antonio, Texas. The man loves working IN his restaurant and is there every day.
Then COVID came to town and he caught it. He decided to take some time off to recover and to his surprise, his restaurant had a record sales week even without him there!
Now he was a little in shock at how smooth business ran without him. I had told him that training your team is a lot like teaching your child how to ride a bike.
You start with the training wheels on and you are there for encouragement.
Then you take the training wheels off and you are there to pick them up when they fall (and they will).
Then you stand back and let them ride.
If you have done your real job as an owner, eventually you have to stand back and let them run the restaurant.
Your “real job” is just to do five things:
  1. Preach your mission, core values, and vision (The Triad).
  2. Set the standards.
  3. Communicate your expectations.
  4. Train them until they can’t get it wrong.
  5. Feed the culture.
If you commit to doing these five things on a daily basis, then you can finally escape from your restaurant running your life!

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