Running and working in a restaurant is challenging, but it’s not really that hard. Let me explain:
Having invested a full career in the kitchen, in restaurants, and in culinary education, I know, first hand, how challenging it is to work in that environment and how physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing it can be. But, it’s not really hard in terms of understanding what it takes to be successful.
To run a successful restaurant there is a formula: you need a good location, a consistently exceptional product, a pleasing atmosphere, attentive and accommodating service, a keen eye on cost controls, great relationships with trustworthy vendors, knowledge of marketing strategies, endurance, and a passion for quality. Simple – right? Well, considering some other types of business with significant unknowns – yes – the restaurant business is simple. Execution of all of those tasks is sometimes challenging beyond belief.
The first thing to remember is that there are countless details that must be managed – every day. There is literally no room to let the details slip. The best way to accomplish this is to know what those details are and make them an everyday habit. Sweat the details – is the first call to arms in the restaurant business.
More often than not, restaurants, chefs, cooks, and service staff fail to understand the importance of everything to the guest experience and the ability for the restaurant to be successful.
“To create something exceptional, your mindset must be relentlessly focused on the smallest detail.”
– Giorgio Armani
If you focus your eyes on the details it will be very easy to pick out those tiny missteps that evolve into the kiss of death for a restaurant. You could even start a checklist that would point to the chances of success or failure. Here are just a few examples:
 THE PARKING LOT:
A good starting point – the parking lot is a significant first impression for the restaurant. Is it clean, clear signage, well lit, landscaped? Walk the lot everyday to make sure it represents the restaurant.
Is the sign clean, painted like new, well lit, and reflective of the style of the restaurant? The sign, like your menu cover, and your webpage are signals of your attention to detail and professionalism.
 THE ENTRANCE:
Is the entrance properly landscaped, sidewalk clean, are the windows spotless, entrance well lit, is the paint fresh, are the colors and appointments to the entrance welcoming? This is the portal to your experience, the cover to the book of your story – pay attention!
 THE GREETING:
Are your staff members well versed in how to make guests feel welcome? Think how you would welcome guests to your own home – a smile, hand extended, a sincere welcome with some guidance as they begin the experience that you want to create. “The handshake of the host determines the flavor of the roast.”
Very critical – a clean bathroom signals a clean kitchen, and a commitment to the guest’s health and wellbeing. The bathrooms should be attractive, accommodating, and always spotless. This is not a before service effort – the restrooms should be checked and adjusted periodically throughout service. By the way – the same should apply to employee restrooms – show your staff members that they are important.
 OVERALL CLEANLINESS:
Clean carpets and floors, dusted knick knacks, clean picture frames, no cobwebs, polished brass, cared for plants, spotless guest uniforms, clean windows and drapes, etc. It all counts as part of the overall experience. Guests remember a clean operation.
“In the successful organization, no detail is too small to escape close attention.”
– Lou Holtz
 THE TABLE AND CHAIRS:
Is the table solid (doesn’t rock and roll), are the chairs comfortable and well maintained, and are tables the right size for the number of guests? Especially in more formal restaurants where the dining experience can last two hours or more – comfort is essential.
 THE TABLETOP:
Is the tabletop attractive (color, polish, linen in perfect shape if used, the right glassware to match the price point, spot free glasses, perfectly set and clean china and flatware, attentively folded napkin, and if the concept calls for it: fresh flowers or herbs on the table)? This is the packaging for the prize of a well-executed menu.
 THE MENU DOCUMENT:
Is the menu attractive, easy to read, in perfect shape (without folds or tears), free of stains, and is the wording enticing and appetizing? This is one of the most important tools for your service staff – give them an edge with a thoughtful, professional menu.
 THE SERVER APPROACH:
Sincerity is transparent. Any guest can tell when a server is truly happy that he or she is there. Show your service staff how to personalize their approach and relationship with a table – avoid those robotic approaches that are identical for every table. Guests may come initially for the food, but they return for the quality of service.
 MENU CHOICES THAT MAKE SENSE AND MAKE A STATEMENT:
A menu, in any restaurant, should tell a story. Every menu item (character) has a role to play in how the story unfolds. Menu items should not be haphazard; they should make sense and set the stage for every guest to realize that there is a method to the madness.
 PRICING THAT ISN’T INSULTING:
I recently stopped into a crepe restaurant in Cape Cod for lunch. As I walked in there was a small table with two glass urns of tap water with a few sprigs of mint and lime slices. There was a hand written sign above the urns that stated: “Water Buffet – $1.50”. Really? It was time to turn around and make a different restaurant choice. One of the pricing rules of thumb is that whatever you think you need to charge should pass through the final filter that asks: “Is this worth the price?” If the answer is “no” then re-assess your pricing formula or pick a different item for the menu. Don’t insult people.
 GLASSWARE, CHINA, AND FLATWARE:
Yes, the choice is important. A fun, loud burger and wings joint can certainly get by with inexpensive flatware, diner style water glasses, and heavy duty Syracuse style china. A different operation with $50 steaks and chops, $100 bottles of wine, and white tablecloths on mahogany four-tops should invest in bone china, sterling flatware, and Riedl glassware – the details are important.
 UNIFORMS AND PROFESSIONAL APPEARANCE:
Every restaurant reserves the right to set the standards for employee dress and appearance (as long as it is consistent and within the law). There is no longer any unwritten rule that servers should wear white shirts and bowties, but every restaurant should establish a consistent level of pride in how the staff looks. Whether it is formal attire or denim shirts and tan cargo pants – be consistent, make sure uniforms are clean and pressed, and staff members are well groomed. The same should apply in the kitchen. Although many chefs from my era will insist on the classic white chef’s coat and hounds tooth pants, we all know that times change. Just make sure that the uniform is clean, pressed, and not offensive. Take the pride to align yourselves with the history of the profession.
 THAT FIRST COURSE:
Make sure that the first course – whether an appetizer, soup, salad, or amuse bouche, is exciting, well-prepared, full flavored, appropriate in match to some of the entrees, and beautifully presented. Again, this is the same approach for any type of restaurant, any price point. Take the time to make great first impressions and excite the guest about what will come next.
Guests have a different perception of time than we do. Five minutes on the clock without something to eat in front of them seems like 20 minutes to them. Work on your systems so that there is always something for the guest to connect with.
 THE ENTRÉE THAT DOESN’T DISAPPOINT:
The entrée is still the main character in the play. Everything else is a build up to this course. Every effort should be made to ensure that it is perfect. This is everyone’s job: the chef, the cook, the server, and the manager. The margin for error is very small.
 THE SERVER FOLLOW-THROUGH:
Don’t rush the guest, don’t pester the guest, don’t hover over the guest, and by all means don’t approach the table with the awful: “How is everything so far?” Make it personal, learn to read a guests body language, be friendly and professional, and be there without contrived, one-sided dialogue.
Whether a hot dog stand or a restaurant that features truffles and foie gras – do what you do well, and do it just as well every day, with every meal. This is absolutely one of the most important elements of success. The guest needs to TRUST you with their experience.
 THE EXPERIENCE – THE VALUE:
Every day, with everything that you do – look at the product, service, and ambience and ask: “Is this worth the price that we charge?” Believe me, the guest thinks about this all the time.
 THE CLOSE OF THE MEAL:
Do you want the guest to return? Of course you do (with rare exception). The closing is your opportunity to set the stage for a return. Talk with your staff about ways to close with a memory. A note from the server with the name and vintage of the wine they ordered, a signed copy of the menu from the chef, a visit to the table by the chef or manager, a sincere “thank you” from the server and maybe a finish with: “I hope to see you again – please ask for me when you make your reservation.” You have an opportunity to build a lasting memory – don’t blow it.
As I said earlier – the restaurant business is not hard because we know what needs to be done. The execution is challenging and the need to sweat the details will never diminish. This is everyone’s job – front and back-of-the-house.
“When I get on a plane, I don’t want a laid-back pilot. I want a pilot who is a control freak, who is paying attention to every single detail of his job.”
– Michael Ovitz
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training