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Individual commitment to a group effort keeps good restaurants on the top

August 25, 2017

Last weekend I had the pleasure of listening to a(MUSE.) restaurant GM Glenn Vernon and Blackwall Hitch Kitchen Manager/Head Chef Chip Miller on the radio. The interview centered on the various and sundry conflicts that could arise between the back of house (kitchen) crew and the front of house (dining room) staff. 

I was reminded of local restaurateur Gary Cannon who was a guest on the same radio show about a year ago. The owner of Gary's Dewey Beach Grill compared his former life as a personal trainer, college football player and lifeguard to his current life at the helm of a busy restaurant. "It's a team. An actual team. No different from sports where success comes only if everyone works together," he said. Vernon and Miller both asserted that the common goal of customer satisfaction is the driving force behind successful eateries. "If you're there only for yourself and to pull down a paycheck," Glenn said, "that attitude will affect the smooth operation of the business." 

Before Chip came to Rehoboth to manage the busy kitchen at Blackwall Hitch, he worked at Blackwall Hitch's huge and perpetually busy riverfront restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, Va. "In the summer, the restaurant seats 500 people. Teamwork is absolutely essential in a facility of that size," he said. "From the buspersons and runners to the servers and bartenders in the front of house, to the back of house people in the dish pit [dishwashing area], the food prep areas and on the line [where the plates are assembled]." Both Vernon and Miller made a point of crediting their restaurants' owners for the sense of cohesiveness and loyalty that keeps their businesses running smoothly. The owners of both restaurants aren't afraid to get down into the trenches to ensure that the operations are as efficient as possible. Both managers told me that not one of the truly dedicated employees ever speaks poorly of the owners. "That's what makes it a real team, where everyone admires and respects the coach," both managers agreed. If the coach earns and deserves that respect, it's easy to see how it can bring the team together. 

If you are a fan of this business of eating, one of the most educational shows on Food Network is Chef Robert Irvine's "Restaurant Impossible." The outspoken host is called in to determine why this or that restaurant is failing and to (maybe) resolve the problems. He never meets the owners or staff until the cameras are rolling, and his off-the-cuff frustration can be painfully obvious. 

After watching the show for many years, I've seen patterns begin to emerge. One of the issues that pops up with not-so-surprising frequency is conflict between the kitchen and the dining room staff. A self-centered chef or line cook intimidates servers who ask to have customers' dishes corrected or modified. Or a server spends more time looking at her cellphone than she does helping with side work. Or a manager works out his power issues by abusing the staff. The list goes on and on, and when Irvine finally identifies these human roadblocks, the issues can often be traced to absentee ownership. The screaming cook, lazy server or blustering manager have understandably risen to power to fill the vacuum left by the lack of strong onsite management and/or ownership control. 

Visitors to this page over the last seven years know that I admire well-run restaurants. They are, however, populated by humans, so mistakes are always going to be a part of the equation. But strong management and dedicated employees (who understand that their income is directly proportional to the success of the eatery) are poised to correct the inevitable mistakes. The occasional reader who is not familiar with the inner workings of restaurants will often scold me for not nitpicking every little misstep that might occur. It's not the mistakes with which I am all that concerned; it's how the staff reacts to them, resolves them and puts systems in place to ensure they don't happen again. Whether it's on the football field, or in a kitchen or dining room, winning can only come if the entire team works toward that common goal.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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