Ironically, there is always room to be great and there is plenty of room to be mediocre. With more than one million restaurants in the US we can flip a coin and hope for the great, will likely step through the doors of good, and far too often settle into the mediocre. The choice to be great or not so great is in the hands of the restaurateur and the folks who make a living with food. We can all choose to be great at what we do; choose to master our craft and create outstanding experiences for guests and co-workers alike, or we can choose to shrug our shoulders and surrender to mediocrity.
This is a topic I have presented numerous times and it seems as though whenever I travel it rises to the top of my thinking. I relish great restaurant experiences, take pride in the operations where I have worked, feel connected to nearly anyone who works in professional kitchens and restaurants, and admire restaurant folks who find comfort in being the best that they can be. Unfortunately, dining out and finding the right place to work is oftentimes a wishful roll of the dice. I wonder why this is the case. There is no shortage of workbooks, courses, consultants, standardized mechanisms, or benchmarks to look to for help and there are plenty of examples of successes and failures to view if you are an outcomes follower. Those who strive for excellence are far more likely to succeed and those who avoid doing things right will most likely fail. Plain and simple.
Some mediocre operations may experience a false sense of euphoria simply because of supply and demand. When a destination welcomes more people than there are restaurant seats then even the mediocre seem to thrive but check back in a year or two and you will probably find a new owner, a new concept, and a different shot at success. I always wonder if these restaurateurs scratch their heads and wonder what went wrong, or if they knew they were living on borrowed time from the start. What are they thinking? Is it a case of a lack of knowledge (likely often the case), a lack of caring (I guess this is common as well), or a multitude of excuses that point everywhere except back at the person in charge? I can’t get my arms around why people go into business without the drive to be great.
So, just in case the information is not well known to some – here is the BEST OF Restaurant 101, a good start.
 START WITH KNOWING THE MARKET
Find out everything you can about your guests and potential guests. It all matters – education level, income bracket, age range, frequency of dining, and food and wine preferences.
 KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO BE AND HOW YOU WANT TO BE PERCEIVED
Set the bar right from the beginning – We want to be the best fish fry restaurant in town. Our goal is to be the restaurant of choice for locals. Our restaurant will be viewed as providing exceptional experiences and great value.
How you define yourself is how you will be if there is measurement in place and quality controls to ensure that you hit the mark.
 BUILD A CONCEPT THAT MAKES SENSE
Don’t try to be something that you are not. Don’t strive for something that is beyond your ability to reach. Stick with what you are capable of and do it exceptionally well. Keep in mind that even a sandwich shop can be extraordinary. Excellence is not reserved for fine dining.
 KNOW HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS
Budgeting, cost controls, smart purchasing, labor management, marketing, and the legal issues that surround a business are just as essential as a great plate of food. A restaurant cannot survive on attitude, service, and food alone – it must operate as a savvy business. If you can’t do it, then partner with someone who can.
 BUILD IN CONSISTENCY AND DEPENDABILITY
Whatever your concept, whatever your menu – make sure that you execute it well every time. Build your systems so that every person can depend on the same quality time and time again. Make sure that every part of your system aligns with consistency: purchasing specs, production, flavor profile, presentation, and service. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.
 KEEP IT SIMPLE AND DO IT VERY WELL
Don’t over think your concept or your product – the best food is simple and relies on the quality of ingredients and the attention to detail that cook’s offer in the process of preparing them for the plate.
 HIRE ENERGETIC, CARING, POSITIVE PEOPLE
It’s all about your people. Hiring is not something to take lightly. Seek out individuals who like to serve others, who relish doing great work, who you can depend on to be exacting every time, and who exude a positive approach.
 TEACH AND TRAIN EVERY DAY
This is your most important job. Building skills, knowledge and confidence is a critical part of the search for excellence.
 TEST, TASTE, STANDARDIZE, PRACTICE, AND ASSESS YOUR ABILITY TO MAKE EXCEPTIONAL FOOD
Stay on it. Measure adherence to your standards – don’t let it go out to the guest unless it passes the excellence test.
 OFFER CARING SERVICE
Sure, technical service is important, but it is sincerity and commitment to helping people enjoy the restaurant experience that counts even more. Don’t think service – think hospitality.
 MAKE SURE EVERYTHING IS SPOTLESSLY CLEAN
Goes without saying. Clean, pay attention to details, polish and stay focused on this most important attribute of a great restaurant. From the parking lot to the restrooms, carpet, walls, tabletop, and uniforms, stay on it!
 MATCH THE AMBIENCE TO THE CONCEPT
The ambience should support the product. Does it?
 BUILD AN APPROPRIATE TABLETOP
It’s fine to have quality disposables for a $10 meal. It is important to have crystal, bone chinaware and sterling silver when the menu is priced in line with an American Express card.
 SEE EVERYTHING THROUGH THE GUESTS EYES
Walk through the operation as a guest would. See the whole experience as they do and then adjust to make sure that everything exceeds their expectations.
 TREAT EVERYONE WITH RESPECT
Customers, employees, competitors, vendors, and any stakeholder connected to your experience deserves respect. Let this be your reputation.
 PROVIDE THE TOOLS TO DO THE JOB
Don’t allow your employees to struggle to do their job well. Give them the tools – it is a wise investment.
 RECOGNIZE AND REWARD EXCELLENCE
Let this be the expectation and make sure that when it exists, all those involved feel your appreciation.
 PAY FAIRLY, CHARGE FAIRLY
We need to put this discussion to bed. Make ways to pay your staff well, expect great things from them, offer them enticing benefits, and then charge from the standpoint of a value formula that offers the best quality, the most exceptional experiences, and memories that encourage guests to return.
 SEEK FEEDBACK – INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL
Don’t wait for it – ask for it! Ask your employees and your guests to evaluate your work. Product, service, hospitality, ambience, cleanliness, and value – engage everyone in the assessment process.
 BE THE EXAMPLE
As an owner, operator, manager, chef – you set the example for others to follow. Be that example.
 BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC
Yes, it’s great when your dining room is full, your customers return, your employees stay, and your bottom line brings a smile to your face. But you can always improve! Ask for feedback – it is the breakfast of champions.
 RESPOND TO FEEDBACK
You asked for it – act on it.
 KNOW YOUR COMPETITION AND FIND YOUR NICHE
Study your competitors, not to cut them off at the knees, but to learn from their mistakes, appreciate their success, and find out where you best fit.
 NEVER GET TOO COMFORTABLE
Comfort is the devil in waiting. Things change, people change, curve balls will come your way; stay on your guard.
 STAY WILLING TO CHANGE BEFORE YOU HAVE NO CHOICE
When you see danger hiding around the corner, or opportunities that arise, don’t fight change – embrace it.
OK, so that’s a long list, but it represents the most basic rules of the game if you go into business with any hope of succeeding. Don’t open a pizza shop – open the best pizza shop, a place intent on becoming the benchmark for others to follow. Don’t put a sign out front that says: Oyster Bar, unless you intend to learn everything you can about oysters, the fisherman who harvest them, their flavor profiles, and how to open them fast and efficiently without losing any of that briny liqueur from the sea. Please don’t open another steak house until you have spent time on a cattle ranch, tended to those beautiful animals, visited processing plants that do it right, built an understanding of what makes great beef, and worked alongside exceptional grill cooks who can tell degree of doneness by just looking at a steak. Before you decide to feature artisan cheeses on your menu – spend time with cheesemakers, learn what an animal eats and how it impacts the flavor of its milk and the flavor of the cheese. Taste hundreds of cheeses and build your palate, know what accompanies each cheese on the plate and which wines are kickass pairings with each one. You get the idea.
Start with your feet moving in the direction of excellence. What will it take to be the best, how will I approach the task at hand, how will I measure progress, and who will I take along for the ride. Do what my friend from decades ago showed me about excellence. He was a maitre’d and before his restaurant opened for business each night he insisted that servers measure the distance from the edge of the table to the flatware, lined up glassware with a string plumb line, had table and chair legs polished before service, Steamed wine glasses to remove any possible water spots, misted plants, adjusted room temperatures for the crowd to come, and reviewed each new item on the menu with servers and chefs in attendance including the best wine pairing suggestions. His philosophy was simple – start out as close to 100% as you can knowing that when it is busy things will surely slip a bit. If you are focused on exceptional, then when you slip it will still be better than almost everyone else. Once your staff has a taste of excellence, their tolerance for mediocrity becomes very low.
Do it right!
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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