I have never physically owned a restaurant, but I have always approached the position of chef as if I did. Like many chefs that I have known over the years, I was always “all in” when it came to my actual responsibilities and those that I perceived where there. Those who physically own a restaurant are the ones who write the checks; they are constantly faced with all the decisions that go along with that responsibility, oftentimes tough decisions, and oftentimes decisions that require some level of compromise. They are all in at a different level entirely. Emotional ownership, the type that has always driven me and many other chefs is no less demanding but comes short of those physical decisions. I’m not sure that any chef can be truly effective in his or her position without that emotional ownership and I am surprised when a chef/owner is able to stay true to his or her stakes in the ground and still be effective as a physical owner.
Now, don’t get me wrong, after decades of engagement in the restaurant business, I know full well how to make those tough decisions and I understand why, in many cases, they need to be made – I just don’t have the stomach to make them. Sometimes those decisions mean that labor hours must be cut, or positions eliminated; sometimes it means raising selling prices again or finding ways to cut costs that compromise some level of quality or quantity. Oftentimes it means that a menu that was the heart and soul of a restaurant must be changed to meet the financial goals of the operation and sometimes in the extreme it may mean drifting away from the concept that was the core of the restaurant identity. From the physical ownership perspective – this is the smart approach, but to the emotional owner it may be perceived as a stab to the heart. Neither type of ownership is totally correct nor totally incorrect, it just is the way it is in a highly volatile business.
There certainly are example of restaurants where the emotional and physical ownerships align; where the somewhat altruistic approach is so viable that physical ownership can maintain their margins and the chef who is not interested in being the one who writes the checks can feel good about the restaurants approach. I admire these operations, but also respect those who need to make those tough decisions that keep the operation afloat.
What I have found though is that a healthy business cannot thrive unless there is an equal dose of both ownership types. Unless there is a strong belief and execution of concept, consistent quality of product, real investment in people, and encouragement for excellence and value then the restaurant will eventually struggle. At the same time if there isn’t an understanding of the need for tough decision-making, an understanding that compromise is likely inevitable on occasion, then all the altruism that a chef might muster may not be enough for the operation to survive.
So, what is my point? Look at the truly successful operations, the ones with decades of success, the ones that are benchmarks for others and you will find this balance of physical and emotional ownership. Both owners are “all-in”; both owners listen to each other and respect the role that each play. This is the only way that it can work. Great restaurants are more than businesses – they reflect history, tradition, experiences, heart and soul, passion, and commitment to something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Great restaurants feed people’s bodies, minds, hearts, and souls – they are an escape for some and a reward for many. Great restaurants are there to support people, to pamper them, to recognize them, and to connect them with others. They are the place where people gather to celebrate and commemorate. Great restaurants represent something important and as such are revered by employees and guests alike – this is the emotional side, the altruistic side of being in the restaurant business – this is hospitality. Every great restaurant has an abundance of this emotion. At the same time, the restaurant, if it is to support all these altruistic ambitions, must be financially viable. Someone needs to write the checks and analyze whether the emotional side is making sound business decisions. The two sides of the equation are essential.
It is rare that the two sides are represented by one person. There must be room for give and take and this is hard to imagine without discussion and debate. Sometimes the two sides can “put their money where their mouth is”, to be financially engaged at some level, while other times one may hold the financial responsibility while the other invests the “sweat equity”, but they both are committed.
I can’t imagine a chef in a successful restaurant who is not an emotional owner, who fails to treat the position as if the restaurant were “owned”. I can’t imagine any level of real success for a restaurant without this level of commitment, a commitment to concept, menu, people, marketing, cost control, vendors, and cooking integrity. I cannot imagine a successful chef who is not fully committed to excellence, and consistency, as well as the art and the craft. For those of us who understand this, I say “welcome to the club”. For those who feel that the job can be done without this level of commitment, I say “show me how”? I am willing to listen, but my decades of experience make it difficult for me to see how that might work.
This is not a letter of support for giving up balance in the process. I do believe that emotional ownership can exist within the parameters of reasonable hours and life/work balance but separation from the emotional commitment to excellence, consistency, the art, and the craft; to the altruistic side of what we do, and to the image that the restaurant seeks to promote is, I believe, highly unlikely.
There is something very rewarding about ownership whether it is physical and financial, or more emotional than anything else – it is a business with both tangible and intangible rewards. You can tell when both types of ownership are in place. You can see it on the plate and feel it through the sincerity of hospitality; it is quite tangible. To be an effective chef, in a successful restaurant, some level of ownership must be present – my perspective.
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