It would be difficult to find a more sinister, demoralizing, harmful, or self-destructive word than mediocre.  Mediocre sucks the lifeblood out of an individual or an organization – it is the dark side of the moon, the harbinger of discomfort and pain, and the salt in the wound that saps your energy and leaves you hardened and embarrassed.  Am I over-dramatizing it – maybe, but then again –  maybe not.

When we settle for mediocre we relegate ourselves to a life of not good enough, also ran, and didn’t care enough to make it.  Is this where you want to be?  Look around you – identify the companies, businesses, or individuals whom you admire – you know, the ones that seem to win a lot and fit into that category of “successful”.  Even more important – these are the companies, businesses, or individuals that seem to enjoy what they are all about.  These “successful” players are there due to one very important reason: they never accept mediocrity.  In fact, just the opposite – they constantly seek excellence and always know that as good as they may be – they can always be better.  Mediocrity has no place in their vocabulary.

These are the Ritz Carlton’s of the hotel business, the Tesla’s of electric autos, the Wegman’s of the grocery business, the Apple’s of computer hardware and electronics, the Harvard’s of business schools, and the French Laundry’s of the restaurant industry.  We know them by name, we oftentimes buy their products and services, we read about their success, and we aspire to be like them in some small way.  Look deeply into these businesses and the people who own and operate them and you will see an unrelenting effort towards achieving excellence in design, product quality, efficiency, value, and service.  The culture of these businesses insists on the relentless pursuit of greatness.  The Japanese would refer to them as companies focused on “Kaisen” (a pursuit of constant improvement). 

Now here is the kicker – excellence has very little to do with the price you charge or the type of product or service you provide.  The big misconception is: “You get what you pay for”.  This is an excuse that allows a person or a company to accept being mediocre.  “It’s only a hot dog” – so excellence is not an option: WRONG.  “It’s only a plate of spaghetti” – so excellence is a pipe dream – WRONG.  “It’s only beer” – so why even focus on excellence – people will drink what you pour – WRONG.    “This isn’t the French Laundry” so why even invest the time in plate presentation and cooking it properly – WRONG. 

Take a simple hamburger – the second most popular item on American menus (a close second to pizza).  Ground beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a bun – simple right?  Walk through the steps toward excellence:

  • What blend of meat and what fat content make the most flavorful and moist burger?
  • What method of cooking will yield the best opportunity for caramelization and deliciousness?
  • What piece of equipment will be most successful in reaching your goals of deliciousness?
  • Which type of lettuce will provide the freshness, the crunch, the mouth-feel, and the flavor balance with that perfect burger?
  • Which type of tomato will present the most pronounced flavor of fine ripened, deeply refreshing acid/sweet balance on the sandwich and how can we ensure this consistently throughout the year?
  • Which bun sits best in the hand, has the balance of crust and soft interior, toasts well and holds its shape while absorbing the juice from that perfectly cooked burger?
  • What type of onion provides the aroma, sweet bite, and intensity that cuts through the fat of the burger to offer the perfect package of flavor and texture?
  • Should the fries offered on the side be hand cut or frozen?  If hand cut – which potatoes offer the right balance of starch and sugar to brown properly and hold their shape?  What type of fat and what is the best temperature for producing the perfect fry?
  • Should pickles be sliced in coins, sliced lengthwise, cut in wedges, or left whole.  Should we pickle our own or buy them? Should they be sour dills, half dills, bread and butter pickles, or intensely spicy?  What works best in creating excellence?

If you walk through these questions and answer each with excellence in mind it is easy to see how the simple acceptance of mediocrity will never set the stage for success, but an all out assault on mediocre decisions with an over-riding intent to make “the absolute best burger in the history of mankind” can lead a restaurant of any type to be superior and to create loads of  “WOW” experiences for guests.

Create a similar checklist for every product on your menu, regardless of the type of operation or the prices on you charge and you will find a path from mediocrity to excellence. 

Now, here is the bonus: when mediocrity is replaced with excellence then every person who works in an operation feels the power of earned pride.  Excellence will eventually become the norm with everything that they do – on the job and off.  At some point their work stations will be better organized, their uniforms will look a bit more pristine, their knives will be sharper, their attitude toward others will be brighter, and their acceptance of mistakes or slips towards mediocrity (from themselves or others) will not be tolerated.  As the movement towards excellence becomes the standard – everyone and everything will begin to rise up.  At some point excellence will no longer be a destination – it will become a habit and an essential part of a business culture.

When excellence is the standard method of operation for the business then purveyors will work extra hard to make sure you receive the best ingredients, the best potential employees will be knocking on your door for an opportunity to join the team, the regional press will notice and be more inclined to tell your story, and occasional customers will become steady customers and eventually ambassadors to spread the word about a GREAT restaurant (or school, car dealership, shoe store, or insurance agency).

Now this doesn’t happen overnight – it is a process that takes time, but it starts with the small stuff.  It is your job to SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF.  It is your job to make sure the equipment in the kitchen is in good working order, the store rooms are organized, uniform appearance is monitored, the dining room tables are steady, employees are constantly being trained, the dish pit procedures produce spotless china, glassware, and flatware; the windows are clean, the parking lot swept, the signage is maintained, and the bottles on the back bar are dusted with labels facing forward.  All of the details from the mix of beef in your hamburger to the polish on the flatware will lead the operation away from mediocrity and pointed in the direction of excellence.  This can work for the hot dog stand that attracts customers from 20 miles away to the fine dining restaurant picking organic fresh vegetables from their roof top garden.  The formula is the same – it’s all about your interest and commitment to make it happen.


Eliminate mediocre from your vocabulary

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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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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