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Successful eateries have no time for excuses

June 3, 2022

Resort dining is a lot more than just turning the key and waiting for people to find you. As the seasons change, our Cape Region restaurants must adapt. Some adjust their hours and menu selections. Others offer specials where locals (and smart vacationers) can enjoy savings in various forms. Others put careful consideration into deciding on which weekday they should close – and end up closing on a different day each year. I still remember the words of the late Matt Haley when I interviewed him years ago for one of my first Cape Gazette columns. “If a restaurant can make it to Presidents Day with the lights on, then they’ll survive the summer.” And indeed, whether it is specials, off-menu wine/beer/bourbon dinners or cooking classes, resort restauranting is all about keeping the lights for several long months.

A few years ago, I was asked by the author of a Delaware Beach Life article about restaurants that had closed over a couple of years. During my research it became clear to me that there was a definite and definable reason for every ignominious closing. Washington, D.C. restaurant consultant Jay Coldren of Coldren Hospitality summed it up nicely in his blog: “I explored the genesis of ego-related issues within the restaurant industry and the impact that these big blind spots can have on [a] restaurant’s bottom line. But diagnosing the source of these problems is only the first step. Ego-related problems are always emotionally charged, and bringing them to light can challenge the core beliefs of your key people. Business owners need strategies and techniques to combat, harness and redirect the source of these hurdles in a way that contributes to the success of the business.” Well said, especially when a few failed owners – not all, mind you – choose to blame “the economy” rather than their own lack of skill, operating capital or whatever. I wonder if that failure to take responsibility for their actions helped hasten their demise.

Economy or not, some of the restaurants did indeed have serious flaws. The lack of server training is the primary subject of daily emails I receive from disappointed patrons. For a young person taking a job in a restaurant, the lack of comprehensive training translates into ownership’s lack of concern for customer service. “If the owner can’t be bothered to train me,” they say, “then I’ll just wing it.” They wing it, and voila! – people go once and never return. In fact, at one now-defunct eatery, I asked the server about the preparation of a particular dish. She launched into an annoying soliloquy on how she was a vegetarian and would never eat that. Blah, blah, blah. A properly trained server would never have done that.

And the kitchen is no different. Personnel who lack oversight have no incentive to check the accuracy of orders. Quality restaurants employ expeditors to do that job, and well-run restaurants take the expo station very seriously. Without an expeditor or any oversight in general, orders that come out wrong are delivered with wide-eyed innocence by apathetic servers. Apologies are few and far between simply because they don’t know any better. On a visit to a place that closed several years ago, a simple ham and cheese sandwich took 45 minutes (the restaurant was empty). I mentioned that to the owner, who stared back at me in expressionless silence. A fellow restaurateur in Bethesda, Md., used to amaze me by never being on the premises. As he locked the door for the last time, he claimed that he was a victim of his (largely untrained) staff and, yup, “the economy.”

Of course financial difficulties are real and can wreak havoc on many industries. But the fact remains that there are many restaurants that stay busy. I believe it all boils down to four qualities that successful eateries have in common: (1) You will almost always find the owner(s) or a skilled, well-paid manager on the premises tending bar, busing tables, greeting guests or cooking. (2) Smart restaurateurs adapt quickly to economic changes with careful menu and price management, smart advertising and strategic cost control. (3) They make heartfelt efforts to right the inevitable wrongs, and most importantly; (4) The staff admires and respects them – mainly because of reasons 1, 2 and 3.

A restaurant is nothing more than human beings who need to make mistakes in order to learn. A smart owner or manager turns that to his or her advantage to improve the guests’ experiences. After a while, perfection can actually become a habit if a team is well trained and motivated.

Running a consistently successful restaurant is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. It’s almost like you start anew every day. People who have achieved that goal have no time to make excuses. Even given the vagaries of resort dining, consistently good food and service beat “the economy” every time.

 

  • 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.

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