What Restaurants Can Teach About Leading


My first foray into management was as a shift manager in a quick-service restaurant chain. Over the years, my career has spanned almost every segment of the industry, including upscale dining, catering, and retirement communities.

One of the greatest pleasures I ever felt was that of a well-executed shift. Running a smooth dinner service on an extremely busty Friday night is like a well-rehearsed orchestra – all the pieces coming together in harmony, leaving the audience with a fantastic experience.

In reflecting back at some of the methods I’ve seen in the restaurant industry, there are some practices that virtually any leader in any industry can incorporate to bring their teams to a higher level of performance. Here are some of the best ones:

  • Pre-meal meetings. An essential ingredient to many manager’s shifts. A gathering of the shift team before the start of service to review specials, shift happenings, quick team updates, etc before the huddle breaks and service starts. A key communication method to make sure everyone is on the same page for the day. How do you communicate with your teams each day?
  • Training and cross-training. The best operations will dedicate time to mastery of a station before starting to cross-train to other areas. Want to learn to be a saucier? Gain mastery of prep or desserts. Once you’ve gained that, the slide down the line to saute. Service side (or “front-of-house”) positions may mean mastery in the hosting functions before learning to be a server then bartender. If done properly, it can foster motivation for people to work towards proficiency in one area in order to be considered for training in the more sought after functions. Build desire for people to learn and grow. Give them opportunities to move up and learn something new.
  • Table touches. A number of concepts require table touches of their management staff. The basic goal is to interface with every customer party at least once to see how their experience is. It also lets the guests know that management is present and accessible in the store. On busy nights, when the entire place is jumping, the most skilled at this will interface with their guests in a smooth and intimate way without having the guests feel rushed. Keep engaged with your customers by having an open line of communication. Go to them. Take care of any issues on the spot.
  • Small offices. Offices in restaurants, particularly chains, are small. The reason? Managers should be out on the floor training, building the brand and driving the pace on the floor. Offices? Only a place to do schedules, reconcile the day’s receipts, and calculate inventory costs. Be accessible. Don’t manage from the shotgun position. The old MBWA model still has application.
  • All eyes on the plate. A regional director drilled us on keeping our eyes on the plates instead of our people. If we were heading into the kitchen and a server was heading out to a table, our eyes were the last line of defense to ensure product quality and presentation were perfect. Clean plate presentation, garnish, steak knife, everything in place or fixed quickly before going out to the guests. Are you checking your finished product? Is it something your team can be proud about? Get as many eyes on the “plate” before it ships.
  • Presentation. While the food drives customers to your locale, it’s usually the service that brings them back. The plates may look good, but if your staff isn’t also well-presented, in both appearance and behaviors, your brand suffers. Your people, as well as your product, are the image of your brand. Make them present well.
  • Sense of urgency. When it’s peak dinner time, 5th gear is the only gear. “All hands on deck”. A brisk and controlled pace, with a focus only on serving customers and nothing else (schedule requests can wait) gives the team a “laser focus”. The customers are rolling in, and nothing else matters during peak times. Is your business ready to meet the customer’s demands? Do you work hard to get better lead times, service times, or sales? Customer care is always Job #1.
  • Get your team’s head in the game. Many staff come in with their minds on their personal lives – just like every industry. A good leader will be a quick ear and let their people purge, offer comfort, and then get them to focus on their customers for the shift. They will also be an ear in the down times and help people work through their work-life balance. Great restaurant managers are people their staff trust implicitly but also rally the troops together to better serve the customer. Manage disruption in the workplace and keep everyone’s eyes on the goal. Be a people leader and help them through those issues that impact their work and ability to service your clients.
  • Sales contests. Gamification. Tic-tac-toe. Sales bingo. Most chef specials. Contests for sales happen frequently and give an extra spark to motivate the staff. Savvy leaders also link their cooks (“back-of-house” staff) to foster teamwork through the whole store. Gift cards, Free meals, Cash prizes, Lottery tickets. Priority on a day off request. These rewards add a gamification to the work day and can create a healthy competition and buzz in the store if done with a fair benchmark and proportionate reward. Make it fun. Make it rewarding. A little, done consistently, goes a long, long way.
  • Travel paths. A term mostly in the quick-service realm but used in most all segments. A manager is responsible for the entire restaurant, inside and out. Bathrooms. Exterior awnings. Parking lot cleanliness. Climate control in the dining room. Exterior lighting. The best leaders in the industry will know each shift what the overall condition of their store is. They know that everything the customer experiences from the road sign in the distance to the restrooms adds or takes away from the brand, and they want to be on top of it all. Do you know at any given moment where each aspect of your business stands? If not, move around and find out for yourself.
  • Aces in places. In training and developing your people, use the slower days to get them up to speed. On your busiest days, it’s “aces in their places.” When showtime starts, having your most skilled and productive people in their best spots will ensure the best service and smooth shift. The ultimate goal, however, is to get as many aces in each position as you can so you can carry the same level of execution each day and each shift. 
  • Mise en place. Everything in it’s place. Double checking before the shift gets rolling that all the food, knives, pans, towels, etc are ready to go. Nothing stalls service more than dropping out of the line or away from the dining room to get something. One industry leader calls it “work hard between meals, and coast during busy times.” As Ben Franklin’s poem: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost … for want of a battle the kingdom was lost, all for the want of a nail.” Don’t let the small necessary things ruin the big picture.
  • Managers on the line. Busier than normal? Cook calls in sick? Need to show that new host how to pace the seating? Restaurant managers are noted for rolling up their sleeves when their staff is “in the weeds” or setting the example by helping in a position on the floor. Many will even just pitch in to get a chance to work alongside their team just to keep engagement flowing. Do you work alongside your people to let them know you’re part of the team? Or to connect with them? Do they know they can count on you to strap on your boots to come to the rescue if need be?

Granted, not every leader in the food-service industry does these. Many fail to use these methods and manage poorly. Some are more creative and come away with excellent results.

Leaders in many industries can easily apply some of these skills to better equip their teams and be a more effective leader. Remember these lessons the next time you dine out, and you’ll see a number of these in action.


(image: shiftgig.com)


About Paul LaRue

My goal - To encourage you to lead & influence others with positive impact.

Posted on October.21.2014, in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: