By: Hannah Howard
Great restaurants have magic. The food, the space, the staff, the service, the guests: it all adds up to something bigger than the sum of its parts. When you go, you know you’re somewhere special. You leave with a happy belly, mind, and spirit.
Years of working in restaurants big and small, thriving and struggling, have left me prepared to battle many a bump—or boulder—in the road. Here’s a few of those unfortunate pitfalls, so that you might be better equipped to preemptively steer clear.
Don’t rest on your laurels
It’s easy to keep doing what you’re doing. Change takes a lot more effort and potential pain. I dined at a great restaurant last week. I knew its greatness was in the not-too-distant past, as I had experienced it. A few years ago, I had attained that rare great restaurant experience elation. Last week was a stark contrast.
Everything was wrong. The waiter brought ethereal focaccia, but neglected to deliver water or menus for several people. When the meal finally proceeded, it was a comedy of errors. Soup without spoon. A “rare” burger cooked within an inch of its former life. I could go on.
Instead, I want to say that quality needs constant tending to, and even something wonderful can slip slowly and steadily into mediocrity, or worse. That’s the natural order of the universe. Excellence is rarely easy.
Take a step back and survey your restaurant. Do this often. Enlist some impartial, honest acquaintances to report on their experience. Be honest with yourself. Are you proud?
My friend pointed out that despite the unfortunate food and sad service, the place was pretty much full. Maybe they could rest on their old reputation; maybe that was enough.
I believe, though, that the restaurant could be twice or thrice busy if it was really kicking butt. If something is seriously great, there is no end to the possibility for wild success. If you are not up to snuff, you are standing right in your own way.
Treat everyone as if they matter
That’s because they do. I helped open a wine bar that became highly trendy and neverendlingly busy. My (super cool) mom came in with her friend right around opening time, and was emphatically ignored.
She told me the story with despair, as she had once frequented and loved the place. I relayed the story to a manager, now a friend.
“I think the servers know they will be busy every night,” he said, “That is there’s one unhappy guest, a few more will come in behind them. They don’t feel they have to work that hard, or go above and beyond.”
They don’t, for now, but this subpar performance will come to bite them in the butt. I used to only hear: “You worked there? I love that place!”
Now I hear: “I never go there anymore. The staff is so rude.”
Don’t be so impressed with your own grandeur to think for a second that rudeness is a virtue. There are plenty of other restaurants where customers feel welcomed and valued. Soon, your guests will head elsewhere.
Also, bad news travels fast. That hurt, ignored man might tell a few friends. Those friends will tell a few friends. That dazzling reputation you worked so hard to build can be much easier shredded to swift oblivion.
Don’t fear change
Your truffled mac n cheese is the talk of the town. A few years down the road, you’re still selling it every night, by the boatload. Why would you dream of taking it off the menu?
Because everything needs fresh air. You might encounter a bit of grief or anger at the disappearance of the beloved dish, but your guests will soldier through. Or, some will not. But for the few you lose in protest, you will gain many fold in delight about the more original, fresh, life changing creation your chef whips up.
Your bored chef will be newly inspired to keep thinking about what else she can do. The staff will be abuzz about the change, and their excitement will be contagious. The customers will feel it, too. They will know something special is brewing at your restaurant. They will feel it in the air.
Don’t grasp at straws
If you’re a struggling restaurant, resist the temptation to start pulling every trick out of the book in a desperate flurry. Free wine on Mondays. Family dinner deals on Sundays. Jazz brunch. Coupons.
Your customers can sense desperation, and it’s not a good look. Special events and thoughtful extras can add some pizaz to your place. But they can’t rescue a sinking ship.
When times are tough, look with a brutally honest eye at your restaurant. Would you be excited to dine there? This is the time to make serious, thoughtful changes for the better. If your standards are sliding, your menu is tired, your paint is peeling, your staff is lacking in inspiration and motivation—now is your moment. Put in the effort. Your customers will notice. Your restaurant will sparkle.