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Painted in Waterlogue

At some point we tend to stop seeing those things right in front of us, those things that can lead to success or failure. More often than not, those things may seem insignificant, but they add up. “Sweat the details” has merit. Those people who live the details, who see the potential long-term impact of relatively small issues are the ones who lay the groundwork for success.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”

Vincent Van Gogh

Restaurants are fragile organizations that are made of thousands of minute pieces that when brought together can create extraordinary experiences. The restaurateur and chef who understand that this accumulation of small details is what creates something worth experiencing time and again provide the environment for perfection. I reference this ability as “restaurant eyes.” The skill to see all of the parts and how they work together is not unique to just the restaurant business, you could apply this same ability to any successful business endeavor. People who focus on the details may not always be at peace with themselves, but they are the engines that drive a business toward the goal of acceptance and loyal support by those who benefit from that attention.

Detail people can drive us nuts at times, but when you are around them long enough their obsession for focus on everything becomes your own method of operation. Once you have become engrossed in the details you will see the flaws in any operation that fails to recognize their importance.

Think about the companies that “sweat the details”: Walt Disney built a company of obsessive detail people who are coached to the point where they can no longer accept an overlooked detail. The next time you are in a Disney Park, put on your detail helmet and look for areas where they fall down. It will be challenging to find very much because detail is part of their culture. The Parks are impeccably clean, the flowers are always in bloom, and the attractions are maintained 24 hours a day, and the cast members are always in character. Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, Rolls Royce, and other high-end auto manufacturers are always looking for that detail that might be out of place. There is a story about a car manufacturer (I can’t remember which one) where at a upper level management meeting the members around the table were watching a new TV ad for their cars: “Our cars are so quiet that at 60 miles per hour with the windows rolled up all that you can hear is the ticking of the clock”. After viewing the ad the president of the company said: “What are we going to do about that clock?” Details, details, details.

It is this constant focus on making things better that allows a business to succeed and continue to succeed. The Japanese refer to this as Kaizen:

“Japanese for ” constant improvement.” When used in the business sense and applied to the workplace, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers.”


The best businesses, in this case – restaurants, sweat the details. It has been said that Charlie Trotter insisted on every detail in his restaurant. Servers dusted the backs of paintings on the wall, bartenders had to arrange all back bar liquor by type and alphabetically with all labels facing the same direction. Plates of food were arranged is if they were paintings to be framed and mounted and the kitchen during and at the end of a shift looked as if the equipment had just arrived from the manufacturer. Others followed his lead: Thomas Keller with his focus on finesse, Gray Kunz with his relentless insistence on perfection in cleaning, and Ferran Adria with a driven need to inspire every diner with the surprise that his one of a kind dishes brought. Walter Ganzi, Jr. and his COO – Jeff Phillips oversee the Palm Steak Houses from coast to coast with the uncanny skill of restaurant eyes. Every manager and chef knows that however good they are at their job, when Wally or Jeff walk in the restaurant they are going to see details that have escaped those who experience the operation every day.

So, what are the details that plagued so many restaurants and escape the focus of managers, chefs, and employees? Here is the start of a checklist for operators:

  • Does anyone walk your parking lot every day to ensure that it is free of litter, properly lit with well-appointed signage?
  • Are shrubs, trees, grass, flowers, and general grounds well maintained and fresh looking?
  • Who inspects restaurant windows to make sure that they are free of spots, dust, cobwebs, etc. (inside and out)?
  • How about transition lighting as people walk into your restaurant?
  • Are carpets and floors impeccably clean?
  • Take a look at your bar. Are bottles dusted and labels pointed towards the guest? Is there a smell of stale beer lines or sugars from mixed drinks that remain from a previous shift? Is woodwork polished and fresh looking? Are all lights clean and in working order?
  • Check your bathrooms! They should be spotless – not just at the beginning of a service, but throughout even your busiest night. Who is assigned to maintain the bathroom? If a guest finds the bathroom out of order, lacking in cleanliness, or not pleasant smelling they probably wonder how clean your kitchen is as well.
  • What about the quality of your music system? Whether it is background or foreground music, the quality of the sound system is either a complement or deterrent to the dining experience.
  • Do all cooks follow the exact procedure for cooking each dish on your menu?
  • Does someone check all plates before and during service to ensure that there are no chips, cracks, watermarks or smudges?
  • Are all food items in coolers labeled, dated, and rotated to help support your commitment to freshness?
  • Are coffee systems thoroughly cleaned at the end of every shift?
  • Is there a definitive way to assemble each menu item on your plates? Do you have reference pictures for your staff?
  • Does the chef inspect each cook’s uniform, grooming, and mise en place every day? Your staff (front and back) represents your restaurant image.
  • Do you follow the mantra: taste-season-taste with every item before it is delivered to a guest?
  • Are all of your dining room tables level?
  • Are all chairs in good repair?
  • Does your service staff polish glassware, and flatware before setting them on a tabletop?
  • Do you have the correct glassware for different types of wine, beer, and mixed drinks?
  • Do your servers measure the placement of flatware on tabletops?
  • Is your table butter served at the right temperature? Not too soft, not too cold and firm.
  • Do you warm coffee cups and espresso drink cups?
  • Do your servers know the menu inside and out and can they comfortably recommend complementary drinks and appetizers?
  • Do all of your staff members CARE about the guest experience?

The list could go on and on and some may choose to turn their heads away from these details claiming they are insignificant. I assure you – they are not insignificant. One of the keys to long-term success is sweating the details. If you don’t then rest assured, one or more of your competitors will.

Work on your restaurant eyes – the difference is in the details.

One of my favorite Charlie Trotter Quotes:
“I have always looked at it this way: if you strive like crazy for perfection – an all-out assault on total perfection – at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night. To accomplish something truly significant, excellence has to become a life plan.”

Charlie Trotter


Harvest America Ventures, LLC