Building the "Unfair Advantage" in Your Restaurant

"The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization's ability to learn faster than the competition." Peter Senge

The dual pressure of an economic downturn and increasing chain competition can have a serious impact on the independent restaurateur. And yet it is under these conditions that some thrive and grow.

While many opinions are valid about how this happens, I want to submit two ideas I think are important to the issue. First, find ways to exceed customers' expectations and then, second, grow employees that exceed customers' expectations.

We need to bridge the gap between what the customer expects and what the customer gets. And we need to do it in exceptional ways. When we do that we can develop a winning culture that is "unfair" to our competition.

McDonald's has become iconic, not because of how exceptional their food is (in the customers' opinion) but because they consistently meet customer expectations, from one end of the country to the other. The fact they are so consistent, makes them exceptional in the fast food market.

Further, they train young employees to significantly contribute to that consistency. Yes, the same kids that can't figure out how to make their beds or put dirty clothes in a hamper are arriving to work on time and cooking "perfectly" seasoned meals, delivered hot to the window and they do it "just in time."

McDonald's exceeded customer expectations and redefined the term "fast food."

Understand and Exceed Customer Expectations

So, we recognize that one of the most certain ways to grow any successful business is to exceed customer expectations. The problem is how do we learn what the customer expects or the customer needs. The answer is we ask!

Restaurant consultant Jim Laube, asks the question, "Are you working in your restaurant or working on your restaurant?" The distinction is, being out front talking to your customers or staying in the back dicing up tomatoes. I understand there is a time for both but too often the boss is in the kitchen doing jobs better suited for minimum wage workers, while the customer is out front wondering why his menu is dirty, the restroom isn't stocked or half the lights are out in the parking lot.

Ask your customers, then shut up and listen.

Not long ago we were having dinner when I noticed a bus boy wiping tables with a rag dredged through water that looked as muddy as the pot holes in the parking lot. When he completed "cleaning" the top of the table, he used the same rag to wipe the chair seats before depositing it back into the dirty water.

When I questioned the manager about the cleaning process, he explained that, "It's hard to find good help these days." I rudely responded, "It's a lot harder to find good managers." The customer is not interested in excuses, just results.

Ask questions that get them talking, "What could we be doing better?" "What did you really enjoy?" "When you talk to your friends about our restaurant, what would you tell them?" Have a conversation about one of the questions with three or four customers a night and you will quickly begin to learn more about your customer's expectations.

Ask your employees, then shut up and listen.

Your front of the house staff are the closest to your customers. There's a good chance they recognize customer expectations long before you do and they will share that information if the organization culture encourages them to. Have conversations with employees to uncover what is going well and what is not working. Tom Peters said excellence in an organization can be measured by how fast "bad news travels to the top.".

Ask your suppliers, then shut up and listen.

Have conversations with your suppliers about trends in the business. While you don't need to know secrets from someone else's kitchen, your suppliers often know what is and what is not working. Many are in 40 to 60 kitchens a week. Take advantage of their product and market knowledge. Is your supplier bringing you new product samples and money-making ideas? Or is he or she just bringing you products and prices? Demand more. Do you make money buying food or selling food?

Use all of your resources to discover what your customers expect. The next step is to grow employees that meet or exceed those customer expectations.

Growing Employees that Exceed Customer Expectations

A friend of mine told me about a company meeting she attended at which 10 minutes was spent talking about the training and performance goals for new employees and 45 minutes was devoted to debating various aspects of the annual company picnic and softball tournament.

She concluded that this occurred because, "The management team knew something about company picnics."

This is typical of what is happening in many organizations across North America. In the case of the above organization, the company picnic is recognized as a motivational function, one that might even help to curb a turnover problem.

Retention of good employees, growing new staffers and improving mediocre performers is critical to industry today. The question is how do we accomplish these things.

The answer is in training and development practices, not in picnics. While picnics can't hurt, seldom will an employee make a life commitment to turn performance around because he or she might miss the annual event next year.

Setting the Standards

There is a five-step process to insure employees are prepared to become more effective your organization. We call it the Performance Model.

The Performance Model process







Here's how it works.


The first step is setting expectations. The employee, new or existing employees, must know what performance is expected now and what will be expected of them tomorrow and the next week as they learn their job. Expectations clarify the requirements for the position and process of the training that will be performed.

Expectations for the new employee would outline his or her daily activities for the training period. Unless expectations are clear, employees will be stressed, unhappy and uncomfortable. Expectations for the wait staff would include how long patrons should wait before they are greeted at the table. For the prep chef, expectations might include how lettuce is to be cut and how it is stored once it is prepared.

Skills and Knowledge

The second step in the Performance Model is to make decisions on "Skills and Knowledge." Decisions about "Skills and Knowledge" are made based on a couple of questions:

1st What does the employee need to know and what do they need to be able to do?

Does the wait staff have a working knowledge of the daily specials before the shift? Do they know which desserts they should be moving tonight? Does the prep chef know how to make your house dressing?

2nd Does the employee have the "Skills and Knowledge" to do the job? If they do not, when and how will we give them what they need? Who will train the new prep chef on the operation? If we are in an interview situation and find that the applicant has no experience using specialized equipment, we must decide if the applicant would be worth hiring based on how long the learning curve would be.

Providing "Skills and Knowledge" is the responsibility of the manager. To insure that you are providing a new person the information and tools that are required, you might ask each of your existing staff to make a list of what they think they needed when they first started.

This list will give you a starting point. Compare, edit and develop your first draft of the "Skills and Knowledge" package. When this list is complete, work with your new hires or non-performers and add to the list as required.


Next, we examine possible "Obstacles" which will prevent this person from meeting performance standards. "Obstacles" are not excuses.

Obstacles" in the front of the house would include the waitress finding condiments or knowing how to operate the coffee maker. "Obstacles" are not reasons for failure, they are part of the job we have to solve or improve. It is the manager's job to identify potential "Obstacles" with the employee and help him or her to work through them before they are a problem.


The fourth step in our five-step process is to give "Feedback." Performance or progress, as well as the lack of them, need to be recognized and talked about with the employee. "Feedback," as a coaching function is perhaps the most important skill a manager must posses.

There are two important types of feedback to consider, Positive Feedback and Corrective Feedback. While delivery of professional feedback is almost a science, a couple of important points can be addressed here.

Positive coaching feedback must be given to reinforce and encourage the continuance of good work behavior.

This type of feedback will give the employee the confidence to continue using a desirable skill. Positive feedback eliminates doubt in the employee's mind about whether they are on the right track. Don't wait until they are doing it perfectly, instead recognize progress. Without this positive reinforcement, a person might not continue making progress with a behavior that would eventually work well.

"Trixie, you have really made progress handling children in the dining room. I noticed you asked one of the parents tonight if you could bring her crying young son a complimentary scoop of ice cream. That was really very professional. If the child would have been a diabetic, bringing ice cream would have been a real problem. Good thinking."

Corrective feedback helps the employee correct or recognize how they can develop a behavior. Here we are coaching for competence. While it may seem threatening, Corrective Feedback is designed to give direction and help the person grow more successful.

"Sparky, an important part of your job is to insure that we have both steak and waffle cut fries prepped in 6 ounce portions. This afternoon we ran out of portioned steak fries and that cannot happen. What steps will you take to insure there both fries are always bagged and available?


The fifth and final step in the Performance Model is Consequence. There must be positive and negative consequences associated with good performance, bad performance or the lack of progress. Consequences are not always a hammer. Consequences should be positive when behaviors or results are positive. Remember that behavior that is rewarded gets repeated.

Working with the employee, the manager must learn what positive or negative consequences will motivate the individual. In some cases, giving a good employee extra hours of work will enable them to earn the money to send their children to summer camp. Giving another good employee extra hours will mean he or she misses their kids soccer practice. The manager needs to carefully consider the consequences, understanding that one size does not fit all.

The more we learn about the employee, the better we can design consequences that motivate them to improve performance.

Learning and using the Performance Model will take some effort, but I can promise it will work much better than a company picnic.

"You can have the greatest product in the world but if you can't sell it you still got it." Diamond Jim Brady

Conclusion: Growing the organization involves two steps; discovering customer expectations and then training the staff to meet and exceed those expectations.


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