The Food Network is a popular TV channel in my house. One of our favorite shows is Restaurant Impossible, where chef Robert Irvine has two days and $10,000 to help turnaround a failing restaurant. It’s amazing to see the commonalities shared by these struggling businesses and the strategies Irvine uses to address their ills. I’ve gleaned several tips from Irvine that can apply to just about any business turnaround or general leadership situation.
- Know what your customers want — A common situation that Irvine encounters is a restaurant that has lost sight of what their customers want. I remember one example of an aging Italian eatery that looked like a retirement home cafeteria even though it was located smack dab in the middle of a college town occupied by thousands of young adults. They clearly had lost sight of what their customers wanted, and as soon as Irvine helped them retool their business into a hip, upscale place attractive to the twenty-something crowd, they began to flourish.
- Clarify roles & responsibilities — In virtually every failing restaurant there is a lack of effective leadership. Over time the leaders have become burned-out, stopped caring, or tried to make up for deficiencies in other team members’ skills and end up spending too much time in the wrong areas. One restaurant owner was not only the head chef, but he also ordered all the food and supplies, managed the books, and came in at 4:30 a.m. to clean tables! It’s critical for any successful business to be clear on the roles and responsibilities of its team members so that everyone can be focused on their specific area of expertise and the sum of the whole will be greater than its individual parts.
- Master the basics of your business — Irvine will ask “So what are your food costs?” and it’s mind-boggling to see how many restaurant owners have no clue as to how much they’re spending on food. Many of them seem to have no grasp of the basics of their business: determining the right pricing of dishes based on food costs and profit margin, understanding the need to quickly turn tables to serve more customers, or how to run an efficient kitchen. It’s critical for any successful leader to master the basics of his/her business. You may have all the talent and potential in the world, but if you can’t master the fundamentals then you won’t go very far.
- Less is more — Another common ailment of struggling restaurants that Irvine encounters is having too many menu items. On a recent show he had an owner read the menu out loud and it took nearly 15 minutes! So much for quickly turning tables. Irvine frequently encourages the business owners to pare down their menu to one page of items they can produce excellently, rather than being mediocre at producing a lot of things. Successful leaders understand the importance of focusing their energies on the few critical items that will result in the most gain.
- The importance of having skilled people — It’s dumbfounding to see how many restaurant owners entrust their kitchen to cooks who don’t have much experience or training. The bottom-line reason people come back to a restaurant is the quality of the food. The decor and service can be great, but if the food stinks you’re not going to be very successful. Irvine has to help the owners make tough decisions about getting skilled people to work in the kitchen which often means letting go of long-term employees who just aren’t qualified for the job.
- A few key changes could bring dramatic results — Anyone who has tried sprucing up their home knows the value of a fresh coat of paint. Sometimes there are a few key changes that can result in dramatic gains. Irvine brings a fresh, outside perspective to restaurant owners who have gotten locked into their own way of viewing their business. By focusing on a few important areas such as menu selection, kitchen operations, and decor of the restaurant, Irvine helps the owners focus on the key areas that will give them the most bang for their buck.
These struggling restaurant owners didn’t find themselves in their situation overnight. It was the result of small decisions made over the course of time that landed them in their current plight. Sometimes that’s the case with us as leaders, too. We start out with the best intentions and then slowly lose steam as the months and years go by. These lessons from Restaurant Impossible’s Robert Irvine can get us back on track to being the successful leaders we started out to be.