Now More Than Ever You Need to Be the Leader

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The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.

Times like these bring out the best in some people and the worst in others (a shout out to all the toilet paper hoarders out there).

It’s easy to blame closing your restaurant on coronavirus. Don’t get all upset (not quite yet), because in many states it’s mandatory to end dine-in service and provide only takeout, delivery, or curbside options.

But how was your restaurant running before this crisis hit? Be honest. Were you:

  • not operating it as well as you should have been?
  • letting some standards slide?
  • not the leader you know deep down you could’ve been?

Okay, here’s the million-dollar question: Are you going to keep running your restaurant that way or are you willing to make the changes you know you must make to ensure that your restaurant thrives?

If you said you’re ready to make the changes you know you must make, keep reading. If not, stop here and return to that series on Netflix that you’ve been binging.

An Opportunity in Disguise

I have a client who opened their restaurant six months ago. On the surface, things were going well: full dining rooms for lunch and dinner, happy guests, rave reviews.

However, their labor and food costs were high, and there were consistency issues with the food. Though the owners are seasoned businesspeople and accomplished leaders, the culture took on a toxic quality. There was a lot of drama, the gossip mill ran full steam, and little cliques started to form. They used the word “team,” yet they didn’t have a team—they had a bunch of mercenaries that only looked out for their own survival.

You can’t grow great things in toxic soil!

One owner confided in me that they felt as though they were fully in reaction mode every single shift, just trying to get through the day. The other owner found themselves in a state of constant conflict with the staff as they tried to enforce the standards that were decided upon when we first opened.

There can be a duality in leadership partnerships: one is an enabler and the other is the disciplinarian (good cop, bad cop mindset). When leadership seems to be on different sides, it’s easy from a distance to see the culture shift taking place. That’s one common issue many restaurants face: you can’t see the problem if you are the problem.

They had already made some big changes in their leadership team: the original management team was let go and replaced by the next available warm bodies that seemed to have potential. I want to go on the record here and say that in the 40 years I’ve spent working in this industry, the “battlefield promotion” rarely works. Why? Because we throw people into a major leadership role and we don’t train them adequately before they take the position. That results in more damage than benefit as they struggle to learn and gain management experience while on the job.

The coronavirus then came along and crashed their sales. What do you do in this situation? Keep limping along and try to hold out until things get better? Or do you step up as owners, realizing that you were heading down the wrong path (culture and systems), and decide to stop the insanity by closing down temporarily? After considerable discussion, we elected to shut it down and regroup.

Read this: COVID-19 Planning: 90 Ways to Survive the Next 90 Days for Bars and Restaurants

Whether mandated or voluntary, closing your bar or restaurant can be a positive. This can be an opportunity to rebuild your foundation (culture), strengthen your framework (systems, team, and menu), and fortify your functionality or profitability (marketing, strategy, and KPI management).

A Plan Starts to Form

Many people would see shutting down a business to regroup as a disaster. We chose to focus more on the opportunity to rebuild a brand and make it bigger, bolder and better. When life hands you lemons, you make fucking lemonade and sell the shit out of it!

That’s where you are right now, like it or not. Your restaurant is caught in the crosshairs of COVID-19 and the government. That’s not a good place to be, my friend. However, we need to make the best of this. How do we do that? We pivot.

There are some restaurants that elected to close completely during this pandemic. Others adjusted their service model by going with delivery and takeout only. A few others totally flipped their concepts into a meal replacement model where they sold all the ingredients for a meal at home (proteins, sides, sauces, etc.) and became the local food commissary. It’s been encouraging seeing restaurants get creative to keep the doors open.

But there’s something you need to understand: When this is over (and it will end), there will be a shift in how people eat at restaurants. Many guests will be happy and excited to return to your dining rooms, while others are going to prefer the convenience of delivery and takeout.

So, do you stop offering those services that you implemented to survive during this crisis when your dining rooms reopen? Oh, hell no! You keep those services in place to create a new revenue stream for your restaurant. Many operators didn’t offer online ordering, delivery or promoted takeout (or curbside pickup) before. This pandemic forced them out of their comfort zones over night.

Read this: (Updated) How the Industry is Coming Together Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

Now that you’ve been displaced from that little bubble of comfort and mediocrity (that’s what it really is), it’s time to make some major upgrades to your restaurant brand!

Cultivate Culture

I talk about culture so often that you might think I’m a broken record. I focus on it because it’s the one thing that separates the good from the great from the outstanding. No bullshit.

Culture is the secret sauce you’ve been searching for to make your restaurant better. Poor culture equals poor performance. Yes, it sounds simplistic but after working with over 1,000 restaurants, I can tell you in all honesty that it’s the truth.

The foundation of any great culture is great core values. One advantage I have is that I see and work with restaurants from around the globe. Don’t think that the problems your restaurant has are any different then restaurants in South America, Europe, Africa, Asia or Australia because all business problems are people problems in disguise. That’s a fact, Jack! Different languages, different geographical locations, different economies, same behavioral problems because people are wired the same way!

You’re wired a certain way and most likely you’re unaware of your strengths and your weaknesses. Well, you might know your strengths, but you ignore your weaknesses is a more accurate way of putting it. You’re not stupid, you just have some introspective blind spots.

If you don’t think you have any blind spots, that’s your first one! We all have blind spots and failing to acknowledge them doesn’t make them go away. That’s called denial and it’s deadly for running a successful restaurant. I have always stood by the statement that ego, pride, denial and mediocrity are the top four reasons restaurants really shut down.

You can counter and say it’s undercapitalization, a bad economy, poor labor pools, oversaturated markets, or now the coronavirus, but no—those reasons I mentioned above are what I refer to as The Four Horsemen of Your Restaurant Apocalypse.

Culture is either created by design or default. How did your culture come to be? Did you cultivate and nurture your culture every single day or did you try a couple things and hope they’d stick? The “hope method” is how most business owners attempt to create culture. Hope is great for some things but it’s a horrible strategy for running a restaurant. If your culture is out of control and has become a toxic cesspool, you’re going to need to drain it and start over!

The first things to look at is yourself. The mirror is a fascinating tool: we see ourselves the way we want to be seen. You’re going to need to get brutally honest with yourself now—if you’re not a leader, that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with being the owner. To be completely open, there are very few owners who can operate their restaurants.

When I opened my first restaurant I was more of an operator—I knew how to run a restaurant. The owner side eluded me until I got a business coach who schooled me on how to build a brand and a business. To be truthful, if it wasn’t for that coach, I would have closed within six months. He gave me a second chance to develop myself past what I knew to those areas of business I didn’t know. He crafted and sculpted me into an owner-operator. To be honest, I’m a bit of a control freak, so I wanted to be both. Your situation might be different and now it’s your chance to choose owner, operator or owner-operator.

Read this: View from the Bar: How to Help Employees Weather the COVID-19 Storm

If you want to be an owner, then hire people to run the day-to-day operations. If you want to be an operator, then hire people to build your brand and business. It’s very rare to find successful owner-operators. If you’re struggling, it’s time to choose. Sometimes the things that choke out the growth of a restaurant is the owner working in the wrong position within their company. St. Catherine of Siena said it best: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

Wise words, particularly if you follow them.

Develop Better Habits

Like it or not, your restaurant reflects two things: your habits and what you tolerate.

If your restaurant runs (or ran) smoothly and profits were great, you have more good habits than bad. If your restaurant is (or was) more like a caged death match and profits seem to be more like a roller coaster ride, then you have more bad habits than good.

Either way, here’s some good news: habits are learned behaviors. That means that you can also unlearn bad habits and replace them with good behaviors. However, there’s also some bad news: If you could easily change your bad habits, you would have done so by now.

I know that change is hard. Just look at all those New Year’s resolutions that are made every January 1 and dropped and forgotten by January 17. There are all kinds of excuses for why someone didn’t follow through:

  • I was too busy.
  • I had too much work.
  • It was a waste of money.
  • I didn’t see any results.

Excuses always sound good to the person making them, but they do nothing to move anyone’s life or business forward. Sadly, you can rationalize the shit out of anything. That just makes you a loser, a loser who doesn’t follow through. Is that how you want to be remembered after this coronavirus pandemic is over? You tried to rebuild your restaurant and just couldn’t do it? Was your restaurant already on the rocks before this storm hit and now this is an easy out?

Read this: 7 Ways to Maintain Mental Health and Wellness

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. So, what are some new habits you want to embrace? I’m glad you asked!

Self-Care

Like most restaurant owners, chefs, and managers, you probably tend to take care of everyone else and neglect yourself. You don’t exercise, you eat like crap (even though you work in a restaurant), and sacrifice sleep. Then you come in playing the martyr card and tell everyone and anyone who will listen about what a rough life you have. I see this kind of crap every day on Facebook. Here’s the cold hard truth: If you’re not happy will your life the way it is, do something about it—stop whining and crying about it.

Raise Your Standards

This is restaurant rehab lesson number one: Nothing in your life or your restaurant will get better until you raise your damn standards. Remember when I said that your restaurant reflects what you tolerate? This relates directly to your standards.

What separates the Wolfgang Pucks and Thomas Kellers of the world from the average restaurant operators? Those restaurants have uncompromisable standards. You play the game at their level or you don’t play on their team very long.

Know Your Numbers

Not knowing your numbers is just… How do I say this eloquently...? Fucking stupid! You’re a businessperson and your restaurant must make a profit to stay in business. “Profit” is not a dirty word. If you have conflicting views about money—and honestly, many people are unaware that they do—it’s time to silence those little demons in your head.

The best way to manage your numbers is to track, measure and manage your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These datapoints are crucial to long-term success. If you were caught with less cash in your bank account then you wanted when the COVID-19 outbreak took hold, tracking and managing your KPIs is the key to fixing that for the future.

No bullshit—you either manage your numbers or they manage you. Just look at your bank accounts right now. If the sight of your balance makes your heart palpitate, then it’s time you got on the KPI bandwagon!

Make a Commitment

If you elected to fight against the dying of the light, if you decided to really rebuild your brand from the ground up, I honor you. It takes courage to stand back up after you’ve been knocked down. It takes faith to see a lot of your hard work get erased in a short amount of time and still want to rebuild it. It takes a leader to stand out in front and say, “We got this.”

Maybe you made some mistakes before this pandemic crushed our industry—we all did. Forgive yourself and make a commitment to correct your course. You can’t go back and change the past, but you can change who you are today to create a better tomorrow.

When you commit to a course of action, when you create a new path forward, you want to be monomaniacal in your focus: this is the path you want and you’ll do whatever it takes to reach your destination. Will it be smooth sailing? Hell no! Hey, boats are safest in the harbor but that’s not what they’re built for. You’ve got to get out to sea.

Read this: Not Sure What to Say to Your Landlord? Check Out this Cheesecake Factory Letter

Restaurants came into existence in 1765, because one man wanted to restore the souls of weary travelers. He sold a simple dish called a “restorative.” From those humble beginnings, an industry was born. To disrespect that man and his vision to be a host to others is unforgivable. When you fail to honor his dream, you dishonor yourself.

You’re a bar or restaurant owner. Act like it!

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