cultures dont grow from talking

In elementary school we all were given a sample of bacteria that we then put in a petri dish for observation.  Our teacher told us that if we put the sample in a certain type of environment that it would grow.  This bacteria was pretty hearty so all it really needed was to be held at a certain temperature.  In a  few days fuzzy stuff started growing around the dish which the teacher told us was the bacteria growing.  After several more days the teacher told us to put the samples in freezing temperatures.  This environment was not good for the bacteria’s growth so in only a few short hours…it died.

First, my bacteria dying did not have a prolonged effect on me in case you were worried.  I only remember the story because I found the whole process very cool.  Mainly because finding ways to make disgusting bacteria grow was fascinating to me when I was a kid (to be honest it still is…I’ll still poke anything disgusting with a stick and say “cooooooollll”).  But that story occurs differently to me after a certain experience at work.  The company I work for spends a lot of time talking about building a great culture.  We measure and evaluate this culture on a regular basis and have meetings to discuss the current state of our culture.  We spend a lot of time talking about the culture.

What have I noticed about all this talking?  More and more the conversation centers around how there are more and more problems with the culture.  The people doing the talking speak to how the culture just isn’t growing.  Then the talking turns to “how are we going to build” the culture?  Then we talk about that for however long.  As you may have guessed all this talking did not get us anywhere.  That’s because great team cultures don’t grow in an environment of “talking”.  Great team cultures grow from an environment of “doing”.  Doing outstanding work that matters and having a team that provides the support needed to do outstanding work is how great team cultures grow.

Just like my simple experiment in elementary school, if you surround your team with a positive work environment that focuses on doing outstanding work the culture will grow.  And it will grow without having to talk about it all the time.

dream big…start small

You might have seen that burger concept, Shake Shack, recently went public and is expanding beyond it’s home of New York.  What is interesting to note is that Shake Shack started off as a hot dog cart.  What is even more interesting (to me anyway) is that it’s not a unique story.  Many other very large restaurant companies started off very small, Carl’s Jr and McDonald’s, to name a couple.

This is important because too often I read about or see people try to open restaurants and fail because they start too big.  They take on high rent, aggressively large menu’s, expensive restaurant modeling and are quickly broke within a year.  The worst part about this is that it is all very avoidable.

If you can’t afford to run your restaurant for at least a year without making any profit…you’re starting too big.

If you can’t afford to pay for real estate that will give you the visibility and access you need…you’re starting too big.

If you have to work 24/7 and play the role of manager and sometimes host, sometimes server and sometimes chef…you’re starting too big.

If you can’t afford to pay your employees…you’re starting too big.

If you have to leverage everything you have to open your place…you’re starting too big.

Running a restaurant or any other business for that matter is not a fairy tale.  It’s far too easy to read an article about some restaurateur that’s opening the next great restaurant and think “Oh, so that’s what I do.”  I guarantee that the majority of successful restaurateurs you see or read about started from very humble beginnings.  They focused on doing a few things right and they started small.  If you’re reading about them it’s because they were never satisfied with staying small…and if you play your cards right (and smart) you don’t have to be either.

providing feedback and being heard

If you are truly committed to making your business better you have to be open to critical feedback.  But first you have to create an environment where everyone, yes everyone, has an outlet to provide honest feedback and be heard.  The next step is actually being receptive.

Being receptive means more than just saying, “I hear you”.  Being receptive means taking some sort of action around the feedback, and following up with the source to let them know what action you’ve taken.

Of course the other important side of this is the person providing the feedback.  If you want to be heard then you should expect to have earned that right by working hard and showing that you care about the organization you’re in and the people that work there.

Don’t expect to be heard if you started a week ago and haven’t given yourself time to assess how the organization is run and why.  Don’t expect to be heard if you don’t give real effort towards your responsibilities.  Don’t expect to be heard if you’ve built a reputation of being someone who complains or gossips.  Finally, don’t expect to be heard if you are not receptive to others critical feedback about your performance.

If you’re lucky enough to work at a company that has provided a platform for their people to have a voice make sure you show your appreciation by doing a good job, and coming from a place where you want to help.

if you want something done right

Historically this sentence was followed by “then you better do it yourself”.  This of course assumes that “you” are the only one competent enough to complete…well anything at all.  If you truly feel this way then you’re in big trouble.  The fact is is that one person can’t possibly complete as much work as a group of people.

I use no supporting evidence for this other than pure logic so if you think otherwise feel free to stop reading here.

An individual can inspire and lead, but when it comes to getting actual work done, any business or project is better served by a team.  Given this if you want to be successful you should focus on being a great coach and mentor so that others can duplicate, and improve on your success.

Also we all need to accept the fact that actual geniuses are rare.  Even great individual ideas can be made better when they are vetted by an entire team of people.  It allows for multiple perspectives which means less edits of the idea are required when they’re presented to the public.

The one pitfall of working as a team is what is commonly referred to as “analysis paralysis”.  This is when you or a team gets stuck analyzing an idea so much that it does not get executed in a timely manner or sometimes not at all.  This is when individual leaders can play an integral roll in making sure that the team works on a specific timeline and is held accountable to reaching their goals.

One last thing to remember is that a group of stupid people will not help.  Take the time to find smart people that are well suited for your business or project.  This takes time in the beginning, but a lot less time than having to fix an incompetent group’s mistakes down the road.

“let me get my manager”

You’re eating a meal and something goes wrong.  Not a big thing…a little thing, but you need it to be fixed.  You alert your server and the solution you come up with is that your meal will be remade.  At which point you hear these dreaded words from your server, “Let me get my manager.”  There are plenty of times that a manager is required in a certain situation.  An unruly customer, a customer comment, a diner has spontaneously burst in to flames, but one of them should not be to fix a customers meal.  The server should have the ability to do anything (within reason) to ensure that their customer has a good experience.  This certainly includes having a meal remade but also includes comping a certain item or offering them a free meal on their next visit.  The worst thing to put a customer through when they’re having a problem with their meal is the pain of waiting for a manager to simply push a comp button somewhere or give their approval for a straight forward fix.  When you do this you have made a simple and normal glitch in to an actual problem.

the rocket ship excuse

A few years back I had a conversation with a friend of mind regarding the merits of bartending for a living.  This particular friend was making a great income that allowed him to live a very comfortable life.  However, his concern was that the perception of bartenders, particularly as they get a little longer in the tooth, is that they don’t have legitimate “careers”.  He got tired of answering questions from people about “…when was he going to get a real job?”  The solution we came up with was simple.  He would start telling people that bartending was just his part time job that would help pay for the rocket ship he was building.  Then, inevitably the person in question would ask about the rocket ship idea, my friend would lie and tell them that he is a struggling rocket scientist working to fulfill his dream of sending the first rocket to Pluto.  This way people would leave him alone about being “just” a bartender.  It also was a safe bet that many people don’t know the first thing about building a rocket to Pluto so my friend could make up any nonsense he wanted to in order to support his story.  It also elevated my friend from “just” a bartender to “aspiring Pluto rocket builder”.

As I continue to manage people I notice that many of them have their own “aspiring Pluto rocket builder” stories that they use to elevate themselves.  It’s not usually that weird of course.  It normally sounds like this, “I have this great idea that is going to really help…I’m just waiting on (fill in the blank here)”  People will use ideas to make it seem as though they are adding more value, but an idea that is never fully realized may as well be a rocket to Pluto.

the best way to find a great business idea

I moved to New York from LA a year ago this month.  One of the few failings of this city, besides winter weather that has me wishing for a wool body suit, is that I can not find good Mexican food here.  It is quite an anomaly if you think about it long enough.  A city known for it’s extraordinary restaurants and cuisine is painfully lacking in one of the most popular types.  This realization caused another one.  Mexican food is the opportunity in New York.  If you’re planning on opening a restaurant here…open a Mexican restaurant.  Do your homework though.  Make sure you’re not adding to the other sub par Mexican joints that are already here.  Go find yourself a kick ass Tex Mex chef who can help you get it right.

It’s clear that I really want someone to open a good Mexican joint here, but that’s not actually the point I’m trying to make.  If you happen to be one of the millions of people out there that has said, “I would love to run my own business but I don’t have any good ideas”.  This post is for you.  Good ideas solve common problems.  A good idea for a restaurant in New York is Mexican.  Nothing coming to mind?  Try this.  Think about your life and where the “necessary evils” exist.  For example, in my neighborhood Time Warner is a necessary evil.  I would love to get service from another internet provider, but they are absolutely the only one available to me.  The person or persons who discover a reliable way for me to not have to use Time Warner (or probably any large communications company for that matter…they all suck for different reasons) for my internet service is going to get my money.

A good example of someone who solved a “necessary evil” are the makers of Uber.  If you’ve ever had to take a taxi outside of Manhattan you know that it’s rarely an enjoyable experience.  Most of the time it is comparable to a visit to the dentist.  They always hassle you about paying with a credit card and they sometimes refuse to take you to certain places.  On top of that, in most cities you have to call way in advance for one and even then it’s a crap shoot on whether they actually show up.  Then comes along Uber and they turned the industry on its head.  The drivers are very courteous and the cars are very nice and clean.  You can order one right from your phone and they will pick you up most anywhere.  I have spoken to many of the drivers and they said that Uber is better for them as well.  I don’t recommend you mention Uber to taxi drivers however unless you’re like me and enjoy seeing the steam come out of their ears.  Taxi drivers don’t like Uber because they say it’s hurting their business.  But I say they hurt their own business by creating an opportunity for Uber to succeed.  If taxi drivers were safe, courteous and reliable then Uber would have had a harder time getting off the ground.

If you haven’t thought of anything yet…don’t be discouraged.  “Necessary evils” aren’t everywhere and when they do show up they don’t last long.  Remember that so that the next time one crosses your path you know to jump on it!


why auto gratuities shouldn’t work…but they do.

A friend of mine that lives in LA told me that they were at the Roosevelt Hotel bar and their bar bill for two drinks had an auto gratuity added.  This friend has worked in the restaurant industry for a long time and knows that auto gratuities are normally only added to large parties.  Quick math told them that two people shouldn’t constitute a large party so they asked the bartender why there was gratuity added?  The bartender, who seemed offended to be asked, replied that their policy is to add gratuity to every bill.  Of course, their policy didn’t seem to include the requirement to tell the customer this when presenting the bill since my friend had to find out by mistake (it’s easy to overlook a large bar bill in LA).  After this explanation my friend paid and left.

When the story was retold to me I was surprised at the policy (and the attitude).  I know my friend knows that they don’t have to pay auto gratuities if they don’t want to (even if it IS a large party) so I asked why they didn’t refuse to include the tip.  To which they replied with just a certain look that says, “Come on…” and I knew right away what they meant.  Most people would be too embarrassed to question a tip much less refuse to pay one unless the service is truly awful.

The problem with auto gratuities is that they assume a certain amount of service is provided, but no one is really checking.  So if the service sucks no one is going to take the auto gratuity off.  Guess what?  When the server knows auto gratuity is included…their service is usually below standard.  Naysayers can of course argue this point with their personal stories of when they were a server and they “ALWAYS gave great service” (which is impossible by the way), but in my 20+ years working in this industry I can confidently say that most if not all servers “call it in” when they know there’s an auto gratuity.

Now before any of you get up in arms about the merits of tipping let me say that I think tipping is appropriate.  However, I think that it should be solely up to the diner on what the tip should be.  Does that mean that the server runs the risk of getting less than 18 to 20 percent, or worse getting stiffed?  Yes.  However, I have said it before and I’ll say it again.  If you’re a good server (or bartender) you’ll make good tips at the end of the day.  Besides when was the last time ANY server refused a tip because they knew they gave bad service?  Auto gratuities should die a slow painful death.

why the restaurant industry will be changing in the customers favor

My friend who has worked for Olive Garden for over 20 years told me that the company recently sent notice to all tipped employees that regardless of what their hourly rate is they would all go back to making minimum wage.  My friend at the time was making over $14 for their service and this change represented a $400/month deduction.  But the Olive Garden made it clear that this would not be a big financial burden for those employees because “Hey, you make your money on tips!”  The message here is…we don’t need to compensate you…that’s our customers responsibility.

The same company also reduced employee hours so that they wouldn’t have to provide health coverage…they blamed the impending hardship that would be caused by Obamacare (even though it has yet to take effect).  They also have slowly changed from offering fresh pasta made on premise to prepackaged pasta made cheaply in a commissary along with other prepackaged processed frozen food that they warm in a microwave (something that never existed in a Olive Garden 20 years ago).

The Olive Garden (and their sister restaurant Red Lobster under the same company umbrella, Darden Restaurants) is losing customers and money.  This despite attempts to revamp their menu (  But why?

Any company, not just restaurants, that thinks they can reduce employee benefits and pay, lower the quality of their product, and still make money is lying to themselves and their investors.  The two most important things to running a successful business are a valuable product and great service, in the restaurant business this translates to food, front of house staff, and back of house staff.

How is this good for the consumer?  Customers reward those restaurants that provide great food and great service from happy employees.  If Olive Garden wants to make money then they will need to follow suit.  But if their history tells us anything it’s that they probably won’t because customers are not truly important to them anymore…money is and that’s the irony.  They can’t see how the two are really related beyond the fact that Olive Garden apparently thinks customers are just supposed to pay for this out-of-touch business plan.

The outcome is that future restaurants that want to be successful will have to follow the proper model.


Feel free to share this formula with anyone that’s interested.

you can’t train customer service

Some of you are thinking, “Oh yeah, tell that to my manager.  We have a twelve step program that teaches us all about providing great customer service.”  I don’t doubt that’s true and I have actually been guilty of doing this same thing.  I see a crew member that isn’t providing great customer service and I would sit them down and talk to them about the steps they missed.  But did the customer notice?  Isn’t that the best judge of whether someone is providing great customer service?

I’ve worked in the restaurant business for over 20 years and I don’t think I could remember more than 5 of the 12 steps of service we used to drill in to servers heads.  I know I wouldn’t notice one missing if I was dining out.  But what I would notice is if a server or staff member had low energy or a bad attitude.  I would notice whether or not it seemed like the person wanted to be there, if they cared anything about getting my wife her dressing on the side, or if we liked our meal.

Restaurateur, Danny Myer, doesn’t use the term customer service.  He uses hospitality.  I like that better.  It speaks to a persons personality and how they make you feel.  If that’s how you define great customer service then no 12 step program is going to help.  You have to hire the right people and take care of them.  Not everyone is meant to be a scientist, a doctor, or a lawyer.  By the same logic there are certain qualities that a person must have to work in restaurants.  Your interviewing and recruiting should center around finding people with these qualities, and your training and development should focus on how to keep these people happy.  HAPPY CREW = HAPPY CUSTOMERS.  Everybody understands that.

If you’re interested in hospitality I recommend reading “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer.

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