‘The times they are a changin’, proclaimed Bob Dylan in 1964. His words seem quite relevant today. The restaurant business is sometimes like the canary in the coal mine and at other times like the father of teenage children – the last to know. Everything is different since the pandemic, yet so many things are no different than they were 50 years ago. Sounds like a pile of contradictions, doesn’t it? When you cut through the specific challenges that restaurateurs and chefs face every day it comes down to this: hot food hot, cold food cold; treat every customer like they are the most important one in the room; treat your employees well and they will treat your guests well; be great and be consistent; and it’s a business of pennies so watch everything. That’s pretty much it: simple, yet it seems nearly impossible to do it well.

What the pandemic did was put a spotlight on how difficult all of this is. Covid pulled the drapes back to reveal OZ as just an average guy trying to hide his inadequacies with smoke and mirrors. Most of the problems in restaurants were there before but not so vivid, not so “in your face”. So, here we are – what do we do to address the changing times, to finally face the challenges in doing what is simple but nearly impossible to execute?  Here are some thoughts.

[]       IT’S STILL ABOUT THE FOOD: People go out to eat for a variety of reasons – convenience, social interaction, a change of pace, business travel, vacations, celebration, or habit. In all cases the expectation is at the very least – acceptable food quality, and in some cases the expectation is extraordinary food (price has much to do with expectations). Restaurants need to zero in on finding out what they are really good at, buy the best quality raw materials, train their cooks to execute consistently great delivery of attractive and tasty food, and deliver it hot or cold as required. Look at your product – does it fit these requirements?

[]       INVEST IN PEOPLE: Restaurants need committed, passionate, dependable, focused, professional employees. They need to receive a fair, competitive wage for the skill set they possess, they should expect reasonable benefits, and a property that invests in helping them become exceptional at their craft. Plan, equip, train, evaluate, educate, and celebrate each and every employee. We (the restaurant industry as a whole) has never approached this adequately so the challenge has always been there, the pandemic gave people enough time to think and question why they should continue to step into the same unchanging situation.

[]       KEEP IT SIMPLE, DO IT EXCEPTIONALLY WELL: Stop with the endless menus. Stop with menus that don’t make sense, that fail to tell a story or show any semblance of unity. Keep it focused, keep it simple, make it interesting, and do everything exceptionally well. Whether it is an ethnic restaurant, farm to table, gastro pub, or a taco stand – be the best at it. Let your menu sing of the passion you have for the food, its history, and your connection to it.

[]       FIND YOUR NICHE: Trying to be all things to all people is a losing battle. Ask yourself and your staff: “What am I (are we) really great at?” Look around at the competition – don’t be a copycat, find out how you can stand out and as previously said – become world-class at it.

[]       BUILD YOUR STORY, KNOW YOUR STORY, TELL YOUR STORY: Behind every seriously great restaurant, every noteworthy chef, and each and every prominent restaurateur is a story worth telling. Guests will come for the food and the service, but they become raging fans of a restaurant with a story. The Union Oyster House in Boston is one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in America – The Kennedy’s loved to dine there and some of our founding fathers enjoyed oysters at their oyster bar. A great story. Rick Bayless and his wife Deann own Frontera Grill in Chicago – one of the most authentic Mexican restaurants in North America. The couple lived in Mexico for years so they could absorb the culture and better understand the food before opening a restaurant focused on authenticity. A terrific story. Chez Panisse Restaurant and Alice Waters are credited with beginning the farm-to-table movement in Berkeley, California. A compelling, relevant tale. Pizza is the number one entrée in America, and it all began at Lombardi’s in New York City when Gennario opened the pizzeria in Soho in 1905. Ordering a pie here is a slice of Americana. Some claim it’s still the best in the country. A story worthy of a movie. People remember stories and support those who tell them with their business. What’s your story?

[]       MAKE REAL TIME DECISIONS: One thing we learned during the pandemic is that we can’t wait to make decisions when everything seems to be collapsing around us. Decision by committee may never return in a world destined to turn on a dime. If it needs to be fixed – fix it today. If it needs to be changed – change it now. If business is soft – then do something to add excitement. We can’t afford to “wait and see” anymore.

[]       PARTNER WITH YOUR VENDORS: The ingredients you use are key to successful plates leaving the kitchen. Research the best vendors who are just as passionate about what they do as you are preparing exciting plates for your guests. Find them, appreciate them, communicate with them, celebrate them, and make them part of your successful formula. Stop believing that the ingredients you use come off the back of a truck.

[]       THINK VALUE, BUILD EXPERIENCES: Simply raising prices is not the right solution to sagging profitability. You must create value for your guest.  Value goes way beyond price, it must include memories, excitement, personal attention, hospitality, education, and a generous dose of WOW! Assess the value you provide and ask the questions: “Is it worth it? Is it exciting and unique? Does it stand out as something in a class all to itself?” If yes, then you are on the right path.

[]       CREATE CLIENTS, NOT CUSTOMERS: All customers are important, clients are connected. Customers may enjoy an occasional meal with you, clients have no reason to dine anywhere else. Customers buy a meal; clients invest in a relationship with you. Get to know them, treat them extra special, celebrate their reservation, go beyond friendly and be their friend. Make them part of your restaurant family, ask their opinion, introduce them to your staff, tour them through the kitchen, invite them to special events – build a relationship with clients.

[]       BE PREPARED FOR THE UNEXPECTED: The pandemic was inevitable to those who study epidemiology, but no one else ever thought that it would happen, that the world would shut down, and that everything around us would change. We were not prepared. We struggled and clawed our way through it and seem to be moving toward better times even though the virus remains among us – so time to move on. Right? What have we learned in the process? What are we doing to prepare for something similar in the future? What are you doing in your restaurant to set the stage for better outcomes should something catastrophic happen again? Plan better – train harder, takes on new meaning.


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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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