Evergreen Advice from Synergy’s Partners
After more than 30 years in the restaurant consulting business, we’ve helped thousands of clients launch new concepts, revive old ones, and set the bar for menu innovation. Though every client and project are different, certain pieces of advice never grow old. Below are a few of our partners’ timeless recommendations, redefined for today’s foodservice operators.
You make money with your hands, not your feet
The next time you’re in your restaurant kitchen, stop and watch the team go about their work. Do they rush from the walk-in to their station to grab ingredients? Do they have to walk down the cook’s line to drop off their finished plates at the expo station? Are they running around the kitchen to access the equipment they need to make specific menu items? If you add up the amount of time that your kitchen team is moving around the kitchen and multiply that total by the average amount you pay for labor each minute, you’ll be shocked at how much you’re paying for people to walk around the kitchen.
Efficient kitchen, cook’s line, and station design reduces roving to a minimum and keeps team members at their stations so they can prep, cook, and assemble plates as quickly as possible. Once cooks set up their station, they should have all of the ingredients, tools, and equipment they need at their fingertips, or at most in a few steps with minimal cross-over. While labor efficiency is an evergreen goal, it’s more important now with fewer bodies in the kitchen.
Lunch is about speed, value, and convenience
With so many restaurants today looking to expand sales, it’s critical to have a lunch strategy build on these three tenets. In today’s environment, we highly recommend that operators adopt this strategy to all day parts.
Many diners are eager to get out and enjoy a sit-down meal at their favorite restaurant, while a significant portion of the dining population still feels apprehensive. As infection rates rise in a majority of states, dining room closures could crop up again in the coming weeks. All of this uncertainty points to a continued commitment to speed, value, and convenience across the board. These are not just sales-boosting strategies — in the eyes of your customer, they have risen to critical needs. Foodservice establishments that can flex with changing constraints and deliver on guests’ evolving needs are poised for greater success in this challenging business environment.
Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves
Monitoring your business expenses has never been more crucial than now. Profit margins in foodservice are notoriously slim, and with lower sales and higher commodity prices taking their toll, operators must focus on watching every penny that goes out the door.
Shoring up expenses on cleaning supplies, paper goods, and utilities certainly help, but your most significant savings opportunities lie in managing prime costs — namely, labor, food, and beverage expenses. Take a look at your P&L and calculate what percentage of gross sales is being offset by the costs. Ideally, prime costs should fall around 65% of sales. If they’re much higher, you have an opportunity to reorient your costs against the reality of today’s volume as a starting point.
Where restaurants often miss the mark is calculating their food and beverage costs. Most operators subtract purchases from sales and call it a day. While this method is quick and easy, it only reveals substantial shifts in the expense numbers, not everyday trends that over time add up to significant added food cost, like over-portioning, excessive waste, and petty theft. By determining accurate per-recipe and per-plate costs, managers and owners can gain greater visibility into their highest variable costs and identify opportunities to fine-tune their operations for greater savings.
You can’t save your way to prosperity
Cutting costs is essential operating procedure these days, but penny-pinching alone won’t get you to continued profitability. There comes a point when further cost reductions begin to negatively impact food and service quality, a consequence that no one can afford.
Generating more sales is always the answer, and one of the most impactful ways of doing so is through upselling. Increase your check average by bundling value-added items together and promoting family-focused meal solutions. Offer special deals and discounts to your loyalty program members to increase purchase frequency. Most importantly, educate your front-of-house staff on encouraging guests to try new items or add on to their order in a helpful and not a sales-y manner.
If you’re not talking, you’re not training
A quality training program for every restaurant position is an absolute requirement for success, but many establishments rely on shadowing or simple checklists. Over and over again, the best training involves thoughtful and detailed communication between trainer and trainee. Some of the most impactful lessons happen on the spot when managers can observe and correct in the moment. This “walking around” training is much more likely to affect real change.
Good training corrects mistakes, but great training involves catching team members doing something right. By pointing out a team member’s success in front of their co-workers, you elevate their attitude along with those of the staff around them.
The devil is in the details
Getting the details right not only increases guest satisfaction, it also elevates your brand in the eyes of your customers who are watching even more closely. These days, keeping the promises you make to your guests is critical. If you’ve committed to sanitizing tables after every use, it must be done without fail. If you’ve designated specific trays for silverware and others for bussing dirty dishes, you cannot mix them up. If you’ve developed a specific policy for solving guest issues, execute it the same way every time.
With all of the added stress, anxiety, and health concerns swirling around, every guest touchpoint must be executed flawlessly. No detail is too small for a guest to notice.
What do you want to be known for?
This is (sometimes literally) the $600,000 question. Though the pandemic has caused many restaurants to shut their doors for good, there’s still plenty of competition for stomach share. It’s just not enough to sell good food and offer good service — being exceptional at something is essential. Are you known for that over-the-top signature item that everyone Instagrams? Do you offer a take-out meal for two that delivers a creative dining experience? Have you elevated a common item to new and craveable heights?
Distinctive and memorable restaurant brands who continue to innovate while responding to guests’ needs, wants, and expectations will win the day, regardless of market conditions or the amount of local competition.
After months of adhering to only takeout and delivery mandates, restaurants in nearly all 50 states are now allowed to offer dine-in service as long as they comply with the regulations outlined by their local government. Georgia was the first state to reopen its dining rooms in late April, while Massachusetts just reintroduced indoor dining on June 22.
Of course, it’s not business, as usual, any longer. The dine-in options come with restrictions, so owners must consult with their local health agencies for guidelines. Generally, however, you will come across rules like these:
- Required cloth-facial coverings for staff and encourage patrons to wear these as well
- Limit the number of people per party and per table
- Reduce overall guest occupancy in the establishment
- Establish 6-feet distance between tables and workstations
- Sanitize dining tables and seats after each sitting
- Provide single-use menus, condiments, and disposable or pre-rolled silverware
- Prioritize outdoor seating
- Implement policies and procedures training for employee and guest safety
- Close-off self-service stations (salad bars, salsa bars, fountain drink area, etc.)
- Establish special hours for high-risk patrons
- Encourage reservations if patrons would like to dine-in
- Install barriers like sneeze guards and partitions in areas where social distancing is hard to maintain
- Provide personal protective equipment for your employees
- Remove board games, books, pool tables, or other shared entertainment items
- Provide contactless payment options for guests
- Implement online ordering of meals ahead of time for those looking to dine-in
The importance of following your local government’s dine-in guidelines cannot be understated. You won’t be hard-pressed to find various restaurants across the country suddenly close their doors (after only reopening dine-in service for a few weeks) due to employees or individuals testing positive for COVID-19. In fact, in Miami, police now can shut down a business on the spot for violating capacity restrictions. Save yourself time and headaches and follow safety guidelines!
Pro tip: If your establishment serves alcohol, you might find this resource handy from the National Restaurant Association on state alcohol delivery laws, including off-premise alcohol sales updated on June 23, 2020.
If you need a review of your COVID training and dine-in environment, please reach out to Synergy. We also offer remote consulting options.
Restaurant Covid Training
Handling difficult customers is an ever-present challenge in restaurants. But, like everything else in our post-COVID world, this too has become more complex. In recent weeks, restaurants have scrambled to reopen by reconfiguring their dining rooms for social distancing and equipping team members with masks, digital thermometers, and disposable menus. Dine-in restaurants are attempting to serve customers with a pent-up need to get out of the house and restart some semblance of normal. Some of these patrons comply with social distancing and mask use, but others are defiantly ignoring these guidelines. This leaves restaurants — specifically, front-of-house employees — tasked with managing customer compliance on top of trying to provide great customer service.
To balance these varied levels of customer cooperation with protecting the health and safety of everyone in the restaurant, team member training is critical. As reopening guidelines and guest attitudes change and evolve, restaurants must continuously monitor what’s happening both inside and outside their four walls so they can train team members to handle guest challenges and update training based on the shifting service environment.
Below is a step-by-step plan for quickly creating and adapting your team member training program in response to COVID-19 guidelines and customer demands:
1. Train team members on scenarios as well as tools. Most team member training programs focus on tools and procedures, like how to use a digital thermometer to take a customer’s temperature, or how to sanitize guest tables. These protocols are obviously important, but what about when a guest refuses to wear a mask? Create a list of possible guest challenges and conduct role-playing sessions so team members are equipped to handle touchy situations, especially those that put other guests and team members at risk, and when to involve a manager. It’s also crucial to remind team members why following their training is essential — not just to them but to guests and the larger community.
2. Review federal, state, and local guidelines every week. Assign one of your managers or your Safety Officer with staying on top of restaurant operating guidelines. By having one person in charge of monitoring these mandates, it places the responsibility on one person and eliminates the need for all managers to keep up with this information.
3. Conduct regular safety and compliance walk-throughs. During each shift, the manager on duty must walk the dining room to make sure team members and guests are complying with all service and safety guidelines. This helps take some of the enforcement pressure off of team members and demonstrates your restaurant’s commitment to the health and safety of all.
4. Use pre-shift meetings as a key communications tool. Take a few minutes before each shift to gather all team members and discuss how the restaurant is adhering to COVID guidelines. Make it a point to cover a different topic each time, like hand washing, sanitizing, and mask use, to keep team members engaged. If someone on the team has done an exceptional job, recognize and praise them in front of their colleagues. Pre-shift meetings are a great opportunity to answer questions and alert team members to any new training requirements.
5. Conduct weekly management meetings. Gather all managers once a week to review any new guidelines or requirements identified by your designated manager or Safety Officer that might require new training. In addition, each manager presents what they’ve observed during their shifts — success stories, new challenges, and recommended changes to existing procedures.
6. Provide team members access to the latest information, tools, and training. Team members are more likely to carry out what they’ve been trained to do when you make compliance as easy as possible. Make Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), FAQs, and training information readily available through employee bulletin boards or go digital with restaurant operations software.
7. Deliver ongoing team member support. As part of their shift walks, managers should identify team members who may need additional compliance and guideline training. The goal is not to punish but to provide additional support to help those team members be successful. Support can take the form of on-the-spot coaching, an offline conversation, or retraining on specific procedures or scenarios. Providing this level of oversight and development makes it clear to team members that compliance is an ongoing priority.
8. Lather, rinse, repeat. This process of presenting a training plan, administering the training, and supporting the training with oversight and coaching, is critical to making your COVID compliance efforts successful. In fact, this process can be used for any restaurant training program, including the introduction of new menu items, upselling, and food safety.
As restaurants continue to feel their way through a complex and confusing path to normalcy, training all team members should be a constant goal. Team member training is not a “set it and forget it” effort. With the rapid pace of change in today’s hospitality environment, safeguarding the health and safety of your team members and guests is your most important endeavor.
Pivot Strategy for Curbside and Delivery
As states and the federal government limit restaurants to drive-thru, take-out, and delivery business, foodservice establishments are forced to pivot their business model overnight. Third-party delivery services like DoorDash and GrubHub are responding with free delivery and lower percentage fees but as more people hunker down at home, these services may not keep pace with demand.
By switching to curbside pickup and self-run delivery, restaurants can maintain a level of cash flow, provide work for key staff members, and serve their local communities during these incredibly challenging times. And while it’s tough right now to think about it, this crisis will end and guests will flock to restaurants once again. Weathering this public health crisis presents operators the opportunity to hone their systems for survival today and prosperity tomorrow.
Knowing Your Guest: Evolving Perceptions and Concerns
We’ve all seen the news reports of empty grocery store shelves, and Costco lines circling the block. As concern for personal health and safety skyrockets, public perception surrounding the safety of restaurant food grows. According to a Datassential survey conducted during March 13 and 14, consumer’s fears are focused on the cleanliness of employees and food safety. Based on previous viral outbreaks like Norovirus and E-Coli, today’s restaurant guests are acutely aware of hygiene issues in restaurants and workers coming in sick.
These concerns, coupled with the unknowns surrounding coronavirus, compound each other in the minds of consumers nervous about home confinement and getting access to essentials. In putting together a business strategy focused on take-out and delivery, it’s critical for restaurants to provide verbal, written, and demonstrated policies that address customer fears.
Below we’ve included detailed and actionable steps on how to pivot to today’s restaurant business reality while building trust with customers, staff, and the community. This plan is based on three objectives; namely, cutting expenses, preserving sales, and improving operations.
Step 1: Cut Your Menu
A smaller and more focused takeout and delivery menu helps reduce expenses and complexity in this critical time. You also want to reduce menu complexity for your customers who are undoubtedly overwhelmed during these uncertain times. When paring down your menu, look at your product mix and identify top sellers along with items with good profit margins and those that are easy to make. Look for menu items that cross-utilize a number of ingredients to keep inventory low.
Most important, select menu items that will look and taste great out of a to-go box. For some customers, their take-out order is an introduction to your food. It’s critical to make a great first impression so stick with items like undressed salads, cold sandwiches, and sauced foods for your to-go menu. Items that don’t hold up well include hot fried foods, nachos and quesadillas, and delicate fish.
Beyond your standard menu items, consider adding family meals and meal kits to your to-go menu for a value-driven price for families on limited budgets. These can include pre-cooked mains and sides with storage and reheating instructions, or build-your-own meal kits for items like tacos or rice bowls. Offering multiple days worth of meals for a discounted price are attractive to customers who need to watch their spending. Designing to-go items tailored to the unique needs of your customers demonstrates your commitment to them, and reinforces your positive brand image in their eyes.
Step 2: Pay Attention to Packaging
Your to-go packaging is just as important as the food inside, so make sure that team members who package to-go meals understand what packaging to use for each item. To address customer concerns about food handling, use a sticker to alleviate any worries about tampering. Create a checklist for your to-go orders to ensure that team members are checking order accuracy, correct packaging, and utensils. On this checklist, it’s helpful to include a list of specific cleaning and sanitizing procedures you’re following in the kitchen to reassure customers about your commitment to safe practices.
Step 3: Enforce Food Safety and Employee Health Policies
Considering the public’s concern about restaurant kitchen cleanliness and food handling procedures, it’s more important than ever to retrain and reinforce proper hygiene and sanitation practices. Below are a few ideas to help you exceed these standards:
- Managers should familiarize themselves with the CDC’s guidelines on hygiene, as well as answers to questions about food and the coronavirus
- Create a team member check-in procedure to make sure they are not showing any signs of illness, their uniforms are clean, and they are practicing appropriate personal hygiene practices.
- Retrain all team members on correct handwashing and glove usage. Set a 15-minute kitchen timer all day to remind every team member to change gloves and wash their hands.
- Retain kitchen team members on sanitizer bucket and solution usage. Quat sanitizer solution is effective for only two hours or if it becomes dirty. Set a 60-minute kitchen timer to remind team members to fill a clean sanitizer bucket with fresh sanitizer solution.
- Set a regular schedule for a manger to check dishwasher functioning and water temperature, as well as usage and inventory levels of required cleaning and sanitizing chemicals. Place orders when 25% of chemical pars have been reached.
- Ensure that all to-go packaging, napkins, and utensils are stored underneath a shelf or tabletop, wrapped in a bag, or are turned upside down to prevent physical contamination. Keep packaging inventory in cases until needed.
- Instruct managers to monitor the kitchen for food safety compliance and spot-train as needed.
Step 4: Develop Low- or No-Contact Guest Service Steps
When setting up procedures for taking, filling, and completing to-go and delivery orders, design each step to minimize contact between team members and guests for everyone’s health and safety. As you develop your service procedures, include ways to demonstrate your commitment to recommended hygiene steps. Below is a set of recommended steps of service for to-go and delivery orders:
- If you’re using third-party delivery services, encourage guests to place their orders on your website by clicking links to delivery companies. Many are waiving restaurant fees if guests place orders from the restaurant website.
- If your POS is enabled with touch-free payments, encourage guests to set up Android or Apple Pay through your website and social media feeds.
- For guests using a third-party delivery service, let them know on your website that they can request a no-contact delivery by texting their driver.
- Designate a manager or shift supervisor to take phone orders and enter them accurately in your POS system. Make sure to capture a guest name and phone number for each order and a pick-up time for advance orders. For curbside pickup orders, provide guests with a phone number to call when they arrive for their order.
- For advance orders, package orders no more than 20 minutes in advance to maintain food temperature and quality.
- Package all orders using the above-mentioned order checklist and a clean set of gloved hands. Once the order is filled and checked, staple the checklist to the outside of the order bag.
- When guests arrive and call for their order, have a greeter wearing gloved hands open the door and direct them to the cashier. If the guest is paying with a credit card, the cashier uses hand sanitizer and puts on a new pair of gloves before ringing up the purchase. Once the cashier hands the credit card back to the guest, the cashier removes and discards their gloves in front of the guest.
- Place signs at the cashier and on the front door listing specific cleaning and hygiene practices you are following to instill confidence in guests.
- Consider using staff members as delivery people, as long as they have required personal auto insurance. Train your staff to deliver orders while wearing new gloves for each order and by calling the guest to let them know their order has been placed at their front door.
Step 5: Make Marketing Organic and Authentic
In this precarious climate, you may resist the use to market to your guests for fear of looking opportunistic. You can avoid this by taking a “let’s help each other” messaging approach. With more of the population facing home confinement, a message of caring and honesty makes a genuine and lasting impact.
Some marketing and messaging suggestions include:
- Have your top leaders and owners post to social media instead of your marketing team. This may sound counterintuitive but their lack of polish will make their message feel more authentic.
- Be forthcoming and honest in your messaging. Everyone is facing a new set of challenges right now, so encourage guests to do business with you so you can provide them with freshly prepared foods brought directly to them.
- Ask guests to post a review on Yelp that describes the great experience they had with your take-out and delivery.
- On social media, post photos of your team members wearing gloves or sanitizing the kitchen to emphasize cleanliness. If you are donating food to local charities, make sure to spread the social word.
- Besides bounceback coupons, you can include kids coloring books and crayons, small toys and games, or cookies with a handwritten message to make a heartfelt connection with guests.
No one knows what the next few days and weeks will hold for the foodservice industry. By putting these strategies in place, restaurants can work to weather the coronavirus storm and ultimately come through with a stronger brand identity in their communities and a more efficient business overall.
Restaurant Startups: Planning for Manpower
Starting a restaurant is a dream for many, especially for those coming from a culinary background. For the dream to become a reality, there are often significant hurdles to overcome, and merely having culinary knowledge isn’t enough. But let’s say you’ve got the business plan completed, business funding gets secured, you’ve got your suppliers in place and your location is being remodeled– things are starting to take shape, right?
Not so fast—you need manpower. According to a 2018 HubSpot report, 59% of restaurant owners say hiring, training, and retaining staff is the biggest challenge they face. We can certainly attest to that! In our 30 plus years consulting restaurants new and existing alike, we see that manpower planning is a big issue that most owners gloss over. Not hiring the correct number of people is one of the biggest mistakes operators make when opening a restaurant!
The management team needs to create a realistic labor schedule that will be required to support their different levels of volume and service standards. What often happens is operators do not develop a staffing hiring plan, and they find themselves scrambling to cover post-opening shifts, resulting in unanticipated overtime. Not only is it costly for the operator and skyrockets their payroll costs, but it also burns the staff out, and they get exhausted trying to help cover shifts while they wait for the manager to hire more people. When overtime happens for extended periods, it also begins to affect morale negatively.
During the restaurant opening, you’ll need more staff, since many will drop out or be asked to leave. With that in mind, management needs to consider how many team members will be required to open the restaurant and what the ideal number of staff will be needed to run it once it normalizes efficiently. They need to keep these two numbers in mind when hiring. The restaurant staffing needs would be calculated based on the restaurant normalizing 3-4 weeks after opening.
Let’s take a look at a concrete example. If you believe you need 60 or more front of house and back of house staff members to cover all shifts, then you need to host a hiring fair and hire 160 people. Why 160 and not just 60? The reality is that 12% to 15% never show up for orientation, while 10% will attend orientation and decide the job isn’t for them. We find that 10% drop out during training, and another 10% will prove not to be a good fit for the job.
A reasonable timeline is for management to organize a job fair 6 to 7 weeks before opening. To attract enough people, be sure to have a lot of exciting things to talk about, such as benefits, work culture, and other employee perks. Get organized first: find a venue, assemble your team, prepare your interview questions for each role needed, and spread the word about the job fair through social media and other news outlets (radio, television, print ads). Plan on hiring at least hiring 2 to 3 times the people you need!
Don’t forget that successful staffing doesn’t end at hiring. You must have training processes in place as well as the critical employee handbook. When employees quit, you should conduct exit interviews to understand their choice and to uncover any issues that may be causing employee dissatisfaction.
As you can see, adequately staffing your restaurant is no easy feat; however, with proper planning, it can be done!
How To Keep Your Restaurant Managers Happy and Engaged
In Q2 of 2019, most restaurants experienced management turnover at a rate of 39%. However, GM compensation at full-service restaurants increased by 1.7%, and in limited-service establishments increased by 2.3%.
The interesting point is that a significant share of restaurants report that they are understaffed at the rate of 52% for non-GM staff, and 19% for General Managers. Further research, provided by Gallup, shows that 49% of General Managers are not engaged. The reason for this is a substantial lack of balance between work life and home life. Managers are more likely to be committed and opt to stay when they have adequate work-life balance. Only 11% of General Managers strongly agree that their job allows them to spend enough quality time with their family and friends.
While the balance of work and life is essential, so is recognition. Recognition goes a long way in building commitment and engagement. Only 32% of all managers polled noted that they received recognition or praise for doing a good job in the last seven days. More interestingly, is that only 27% of General Managers surveyed strongly agree that the mission and purpose of their organization make them feel like their job is important. When employees strongly agree with the company mission and purpose, 92% plan on continuing to work for the company one year from now.
Restaurant owners need to remember that your General Manager is the most valuable asset you have and they are the shepherd of your sheep. They bear all the responsibility for maintenance, food, beverage, labor costs, ongoing training, and hiring. They are the person that the police and fire department calls in the middle of the night and they deal with every possible problem that arises daily.
When we distill these statistics down, what we believe to be true is your General Managers will be happier and more engaged if your company culture, mission and purpose is clearly stated and lived by all. Managers want a predictable schedule with two days off per week so they can have some balance in life, allowing time to see their kids baseball and soccer games. A little praise and recognition for a job well done will go a long way in building commitment and loyalty. Equally important is financial appreciation. We strongly recommend creating a realistic bonus program that is achievable based on key performance metrics the General Manager can control. Finally, most Managers want health care benefits or some form of stipend to offset their health insurance costs. Being mindful of these crucial elements will help you create an environment where your managers can thrive.
Keep an eye out for Senate Bill 850!
A CA senator has proposed strict rules on employee’s schedules. The new bill states that employee schedules must be posted seven days in advance of the shift. Also, the schedule must be made for a minimum of 21 days. Any changes within seven days would require a“modification” pay of $50 per day. The penalty for failing to comply can be as high as $4,000.
Why? Senator Leyva from Chino, CA, is convinced a person would struggle to pay their bills when they don’t know when they are working. The University of California at Berkeley is backing up such legislation reporting that studies show racial and ethnic inequality when the practice of changing schedules is allowed.
Our take: If we keep legislating this industry, there will be fewer restaurants for people to work in. Add this to the minimum wage increases, and the cost of doing business in California gets further prohibitive!
How I Became a Restaurant Consultant
How did you decide to become a restaurant consultant?
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and working at Windows on the World Restaurant in the North Tower of the original World Trade Center, I had the opportunity to meet and ultimately work for Joseph Baum, who at the time was the most prominent and renowned restaurant consultant in the world who created many iconic New York restaurants.
My exposure to Joe and his team of industry giants who traveled the world helping organizations create new and exciting restaurants and unique dining experiences that changed how people used restaurants was my inspiration. I thought Joe had the ultimate career and I hoped that someday I would have the opportunity to leverage my knowledge and experiences to help others and become a restaurant consultant.
What was your best memory while attending the CIA?
My education at CIA was an incredible experience, and the Chef’s and instructors were fantastic. What made it memorable was the ability to take classroom education and skills and then apply them on weekends while working at Windows On The World Restaurant. For the first two months I was pitting olives in the Garde Manager Kitchen, and then one evening, there was a kitchen altercation, and the next thing I knew, I was making soufflés and decorating cakes in the pastry kitchen. Being avid skiers, The Chef and I hit it off immediately. As a result, he moved me around many parts of the kitchen, and I got an amazing education working in the busiest restaurant in the world.
A very close CIA friend managed to land a part-time job working on the Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown NY, on weekends. Because all of the exclusive parties and events at the estate he needed a Co-Chef to assist in all of the food preparation and service. It was often a laid back event allowing us to get to know many of the guests as they were always excited to hang out in the kitchen and watch us prepare the food. From those experiences we got to know many political leaders and foreign dignitaries like Dr. Henry Kissinger and his wife who were regular guests.
What did you do after you graduated from the CIA?
After three years at Windows On The World, I decided I wanted to learn more about Dining Room Management, so when a new opportunity presented itself as a Maître D at a highly regarded restaurant in Theater District, I decided to make a career move. It was an old school restaurant with excellent table service and lots of tableside cooking. I was given the challenge to learn the business from another perspective and hone my dining room hospitality skills and improve the guest experience through elevated table service.
In the late ’70s, I decided to move back to Aspen Colorado and try and open a food service business with my close friend from the CIA. After carefully surveying the market we determined that the two big voids in the marketplace were catering and a need for a great bakery to service the local restaurants. Given the lack of real competition and affluence in the market, we believed we could be successful if we could raise enough capital to launch the business. We found a great location and obtained a small loan, which allowed us to purchase used restaurant equipment at an auction. We leveraged our education and work experiences and began catering private events and baking European style breads and desserts. As young entrepreneurs we made everything from classic charcuterie, croissants and wedding cakes to ice carvings and sold them to restaurants and hotels. The catering portion of the business began to get a lot of traction and we picked up many private parties from wealthy business people and celebrities like the Bee Gees, Diana Ross, Lucille Ball, the Kennedy’s and several international political figures who had private aircraft and always wanted the best, so catering was always an over the top event.
In the late ‘80s, I was recruited by El Torito Restaurants, the largest Mexican dinner house chain in the world, to run all food service for a 220-unit organization with twelve restaurant brands and $420M in sales annually. Working for a national brand that was in a huge growth and acquisition mode and working with fantastic restaurant operators was a unique opportunity. My responsibilities were broad and included menu innovation for domestic and international restaurants, quality assurance, kitchen operations, training, and supply chain. This exposure to food, beverage and how to run highly efficient operations gave me the confidence and skillsets that I believed would be extremely useful as a consultant to small to mid-sized companies.
How did you make that transition?
I realized that I had obtained a lot of knowledge working for El Torito, and I had a great gift of helping restaurant managers be successful. As an entrepreneur I wanted to do more with my education and experiences so given the contacts that I had made in the restaurant industry I decided this timing was right to make a career move. I wanted to create a small restaurant consulting company that would focus on helping restaurant operators optimize their financial performance through menu innovation and restaurant operating efficiencies.
In 1988 I launched Synergy Restaurant Consultants. I was very fortunate (and lucky) to land several large accounts that occupied all my time. I knew it was time to expand, so I reached out to my close friend Danny Bendas and former business colleague who also happens to be a CIA graduate and industry professional, to join me on this new journey. Since then we had the pleasure of working with over 270 domestic and international chains and over 1,600 independent operators. Over the years our team has grown with talent from around the US and globally. I am so thankful for my business partner and the incredible team we have built. Their contributions have genuinely made Synergy a leader in the industry and a better company.
What is your biggest accomplishment as a restaurant consultant?
I wouldn’t say building a highly regarded national brand with an impeccable reputation and being recognized as industry leaders and subject matter experts in all areas of the restaurant business. Instead, I would like to believe that Danny and I, along with the rest of our team, make a positive difference in people’s lives. That is what brings me the most happiness and fulfillment.
Exceptional Customer Service: Your New Secret Weapon
Crush the holiday competition this year by focusing on what’s most important — your guests
With the holidays upon us and restaurants gearing up for that big end-of-year sales push, how can operators grab their share of diners? Lots of chains offer LTOs or double loyalty points to increase foot traffic. Other concepts offer seasonal specials or deals on gift cards. With your competition jockeying for your customers, how can you stand out and grab your fair share?
As with most strategies in the restaurant business, a “back to basics” approach usually reaps the greatest rewards. One of the most essential strategies for success is great customer service. As consultants, we travel across the US and around the world each year, dining in every kind of establishment from fast food to fine dining, sampling every cuisine available. Without a doubt, the biggest driver of a great guest experience is the front-of-house team that consistently delivers warm and engaging hospitality.
As another year draws to a close, we wanted to share some great customer service examples from one of our most admired restaurant chains, the Hillstone Group. Founded in 1976, the company operates 15 separate concepts in a dozen states. Each location offers a menu of around 30 items, all of which are consistently well-executed. While the food is stellar, we regard the Hillstone service model as “the gold standard” in the restaurant industry.
After visiting more than a dozen Hillstone locations across the country, we’ve compiled a list of outstanding customer service techniques that the company employs to turn guests into raving fans:
Take a Team Approach: While each table is assigned a lead server, several waitstaff will touch that table during the guests’ visit. Front-of-house staff are trained to circulate throughout the dining room, looking for empty plates and glasses to whisk away before the guest even notices. Similarly, servers run finished dishes from the kitchen as quickly as possible, even if that food is going to a table delegated to another team member. This coordinated approach places the emphasis on serving the guest and removes the “that’s not my table” mentality from the equation.
The Eyes Have It: We’ve all dined in busy establishments and felt frustrated when it’s hard to catch the eye of your harried server — or any server — when you need more water or another fork when yours hits the floor. Not so at a Hillstone restaurant. Servers and runners are trained to make eye contact with guests as they travel through the dining room. This technique focuses the staff on guests’ needs in an immediate and personal way.
Little Touches, Big Impact: Many restaurants serve their martinis in a chilled glass. But at Hillstone, you’ll get a new chilled glass when you’re half-finished with your drink. This small gesture creates a huge guest impact and enormous goodwill. At Hillstone restaurants that serve water from glass bottles, under-counter reach-ins are strategically placed in the dining room, so the servers always have access to a cold bottle of water for any table. These seemingly small gestures have been carefully crafted to elicit an emotional response from the guest. From a brand standpoint, putting so much effort into something as small as a chilled glass or cold water demonstrates Hillstone’s commitment to making the guest feel welcome and important.
It’s Personal(ity): While the restaurant industry is keenly aware of the nationwide labor shortages, Hillstone maintains strict hiring standards for their servers to obtain the personnel required to execute their customer service program. First and foremost, they hire for personality and attitude before experience. The company knows they can train their recruits on the procedures needed to be successful. Hillstone would rather hire people with less server experience so they can develop them from the ground up and spend less time breaking bad habits.
Train to Meet Expectations: In the Hillstone model, a thorough and detailed front-of-house training program is a given. Servers and runners go through extensive instruction based on specific goals and processes — nothing is ambiguous, and new team members know exactly what the company expects and how to achieve it. While the investment is significant, it’s another way that Hillstone demonstrates its commitment to be the best when it comes to customer service.
How can you adopt a more customer-focused service model? A good place to start is to check your online reviews and any customer feedback you’ve gathered or have been given. Do customers comment on food not coming out hot from the kitchen? Develop a strategy for solving the issue, then train your team on the new procedure. To solve the cold food problem, you can try heating your plates in an oven beneath a stovetop or in a cheese melter. If servers are constantly running back to the kitchen for additional condiments regularly requested by guests, redesign your tablescape to make these items available.
Finally, look for opportunities to genuinely surprise and delight your guests. Maybe that means surprising each table with a sample of a new menu item or creating a Welcome Kit for each new guest that contains the manager’s business card and a bounce-back coupon. Give your team the strategies, tools, and training they need to succeed, and you’ll soon be setting new standards for customer service.
Leveraging Tech to Improve Customer Experience
We all know a warm smile and courtesy go a long way in the hospitality industry. There’s no underestimating the power of person-centric service. But in today’s day and age, customer service is so much more than training your staff best practices. In the restaurant space, guest satisfaction is dependent on a multitude of things, from the speed of service to quality and taste of food.
You can have the friendliest and most skilled staff on hand, but if the systems you have in place aren’t up to date with consumer expectations and preferences, you won’t score high on the customer satisfaction scale. Luckily, technology for the restaurant industry exists to help operators increase efficiency and visibility. Let’s look at how modern restaurant tech can assist you with elevating the customer experience.
Mobile-ordering and delivery: Convenience is at their fingertips, literally, when people are able to order food online. You can build an app like Dominos or Burger King, and if that’s not in your budget, you can sign up for third-party delivery services like UberEats, DoorDash, and GrubHub. Make sure to have an area in your restaurant that indicates where to pick up phone and mobile orders, too.
Kiosks: Self-ordering in-storae via kiosks can significantly speed up the ordering process. According to recent research from Tillster, more than 65% of customers said they would visit a restaurant more often if self-service kiosks were available. The benefits not only include shorter wait times but heightened order accuracy, reduced labor costs, more upselling opportunity and of course, improvement of the guest experience. Moe’s Southwest Grill is planning to open all-digital, kiosk only locations in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, Virginia. Denver restaurant chain, Birdcall, exclusively uses kiosks for ordering at their locations. If kiosks don’t fit your budget, you can offer tablets for table-side ordering—guests will still enjoy a self-service experience.
Loyalty Programs: Sure, punch cards are still around, offering things like one free drink on your 10th purchase. But in 2019 it’s time to time to turn to technology to elevate your loyalty programs and get more people engaged with a great loyalty program to boost customer retention and guest satisfaction. Companies like Upserve, CandyBar and Fivestars offer automated loyalty programs that either connect to a customer’s credit card or phone number, helping to create a more seamless process in rewarding your loyal guests.
Technology will always have a hard time competing with great human customer-service, but when used strategically in conjunction with a well-trained staff, it can greatly enhance your guests’ experience.