The Grateful Dead 1987 at Stanford University.  (Photo by Bob Minkin)Painted in Waterlogue

Certainly, by now, everyone on the planet knows that the Grateful Dead just completed their “Fare Thee Well” tour that celebrated fifty years as a band (far too many of those years without Jerry Garcia). Yes, I was, and still am to a degree, a fan of the music, but more importantly, a fan of the organization. Like the most connected business, the Dead understood how to run an organization with staying power. They could easily fall into the same unique club that includes Harley Davidson Motorcycles, Apple Computer, and the Danny Meyer restaurant empire. How so? Well, let me build a simple case.

All of these organizations understood, or still understand that success is more than a great product, even though each one of these organizations produces a great product. Harley makes great motorcycles, Apple makes exceptional computer devices, Danny Meyer operates restaurants with consistently exceptional food, and the Grateful Dead make some technically exceptional music. But…..there are many, many organizations that do an exceptional job with product, maybe just as good or even better in some instances. So, why is Harley still one of the hottest bikes on the market, Apple the largest and most successful company in the world, Danny Meyer a restaurateur icon, and why did the Grateful Dead sell out hundreds of live shows every year making them one of the biggest live acts –ever?

Here are some answers that I came up with, answers that can be applied to many businesses and professions including those that fall under the culinary arts:


Kudos to Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kruetzmann – they get it. For a restaurant to be successful it must concentrate on building a team that exhibits chemistry. When this happens, when all cooks and service staff work in a synergistic fashion then they produce fantastic music together. The food, the timing, plate presentations, and communication are part of a seamless system. The Grateful Dead were “one” on the stage. Their communication was orchestrated with a look, a nod, a turn of the guitar, or even a smile from Jerry. The result was magical. The same can happen in a kitchen.


Cooks and musicians may not agree on everything, but they must agree on the task at hand. Whether it is the belief in the power of music, the integrity of the genre of music, or the concept and style of cooking, the players must be in tune with that core belief. This is how great food is created; this is how fantastic music is made.


To build something special, the band or the kitchen team must think beyond themselves. They must understand that their success is totally in the hands of the restaurant guest or the concertgoer. To fail to build a bond with this audience is to fail as a business. The Dead created a fan base that was unrivaled. As a result, they became legendary as troubadours and to a degree, bigger than life. Their method of communicating with “Deadheads” was as effective as any organization could hope for, even going so far as to use a unique system of ticket distribution that recognized their consistent followers as preferred customers. Restaurants that live by the rule of “everyone is equal, except our return guests who are extra equal” will reap the benefits of loyalty. This may mean, as is the case with the Grateful Dead, that the restaurant and the cook provide special service and recognition for these guests, these significant ambassadors.


For a restaurant and even an individual cook – building a brand that people recognize and identify with is paramount to success. The answer to the question of “why should I support” is likely one of the most important that any entrepreneur or entrepreneurial spirit can ask. The Grateful Dead brand, and what it means to those who follow them, is what has continued to drive their unusual formula for success since the late 60’s. Beginning as a band for the counter-culture, the Dead continued to serve as a beacon for individualism and freedom even as the baby-boomer hippies grew to become more adaptive and even business leaders in the 80’s and beyond. To quote Don Henley from the Eagles, “saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac”, defined the staying power of the band and the deep desire of even those who had succumbed to the establishment to reflect back on the “good old days”. Even Barrack Obama is a follower of the band!

Restaurants would love to have this life-long brand recognition and loyalty and should work to find and develop that type of relationship with guests and employees. Cooks, in the process of defining the course of their professional future can also find success in building a personal brand that others relate to, appreciate, and support.


Maybe more than anything else, the Grateful Dead were able to build a network of membership (Deadheads) who felt empowered, privileged, and even required to attend as many shows as possible – traveling the country to do so. The Dead were able to do this through a well-planned system of supporter ownership. Special ticket availability was offered to Deadheads, supporters were allowed to record concerts and even given better seats to accommodate the quality of their recordings, and bootleg releases were applauded and encouraged. Their fans felt like they were part of the band.

Restaurants can accomplish a similar result through personalized loyalty programs, discounts, special tastings for members only, opportunities to take part in cooking classes, even pre-release menu critiques. The end result should always be to create a situation where guests should never need to go elsewhere.


A typical band concert might last 90 minutes, oftentimes with a break in between. For a period of time a typical Grateful Dead show might last four hours. Their concert repertoire was in excess of 100 songs that they could tap into without blinking an eye. Beyond that, their lengthy improvisational jams were legendary. The Dead, in their prime would offer more than 100 concerts every year leaving little time for recording, yet they continued to record both studio and live concert albums. The Dead always gave more than people expected. In fact, fans expected them to give more than expected. Every show was different, and even the interpretation of songs would vary from show to show. This created a desire to attend many shows to experience the variables.

How often do restaurants exceed expectations? How often is the design to always give more than a guest expects. Meeting their expectations is never enough to bring them back. Exceeding expectations should be the new norm. The same holds true for cooks. Is your intent, every day, to give more than expected? To go beyond and impress every day you put on a uniform will go a very long way in building that personal brand.

Exceeding expectations should go beyond the Charlie Trotter’s and Thomas Keller’s of the world, wowing guests need not be reserved for just the elite.


A Dead show was much more than a concert. Every part of the show was focused on creating a memorable experience on steroids. From the parking lot vendors (similar to tailgating at a football game), to their signature “wall of sound” that extended 50 feet on stage, the perpetual free dancing that took place throughout the venue, and the exceptional light show that kept the focus on the band, this was an experience that people anticipated as much as a food enthusiast would anticipate that reservation at the French Laundry that took 6 months to arrange.

Driving a Harley is an experience. The rumble of the bike and window shaking exhaust let everyone know that a Harley has arrived. Owning an Apple device is an experience and anticipating what they will create next keeps fans and the media on the edge of their seats, even after more than 40 years. Eating a Danny Meyer hamburger at Shake Shack is an experience that is worth waiting in line for (to the dismay of every other quick service restaurant). What is your restaurant experience? What is the experience of working with you, as a cook? Is it memorable?


For a long time, success was all about the differentiated quality of the product that a company produced. Today, that quality is assumed, what sets you apart is something more. The Dead make technically proficient music, but so do hundreds of other bands. It is the Dead Experience that made the band unique.

What is it like to dine in your restaurant? The product had better be great, and consistently great, but what else do you have to offer to make the experience exceptional? Is it location, ambience, entertainment, open kitchens, incredible wine lists, cooking classes, or is it something that others have not even yet considered?


The Grateful Dead never forgot the fans that got them to where they are. They relish the relationship that was developed over decades and communicated in numerous ways with that audience to keep them engaged. This relationship has rarely been duplicated, although many have tried.

How is your restaurant staying in touch with loyal supporters? Are you communicating frequently with them to show how much you appreciate their patronage?


The difference between a successful company and an iconic one is that their customers or fans are so loyal that they would never consider defecting. They are so much a part of the company that they are willing to forgive mistakes, feel comfortable critiquing what is offered because they know that the company will listen, and choose, without any need for compensation, to stand on a soapbox and praise the brand. Have you checked with your restaurant patrons lately? Are they raving fans?


A very cool thing about the Dead was that each band member had their opportunity to shine at every show, on every record, and in nearly every article written about the band. True Jerry Garcia was the leader, but every fan knew every member of the band and appreciated his or her contribution.

In a restaurant it may be the chef or owner in the spotlight, but we all know that it is the support cast who make the restaurant work. Give them credit and a chance in the spotlight.

[]         LEAVE ON A HIGH NOTE:

The Dead are officially over now. Fare Thee Well to Bob, Phil, Mickey and Bill. RIP Jerry and kudos to Trey for stepping in. Thanks to all of the guests who graced the stage throughout their career. Let’s continue to appreciate their music, but even more importantly the business lessons that they have offered free of charge.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER (and enjoy the music)

For more cool Grateful Dead business references try:

“Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead”

by: David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan

**Grateful Dead Photo by: Bob Minkin

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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