Talent wins games; teamwork wins championships
Restaurants are not without their share of drama, and some of that centers around various and sundry conflicts between the back of house (kitchen) crew and the front of house (dining room) staff.
Michael Jordan’s words in the title of this article were meant for sports, but well-run restaurants aren’t all that different from competition on the field. Gary Cannon, 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.” The same sentiment was echoed by Chip Miller, who was at the time the executive chef at Blackwall on the Beach in downtown Rehoboth. He emphasized 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, that attitude will affect the smooth operation of the business.”
Before Chip came to Rehoboth, he worked at Blackwall’s 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; from the front-of-house buspersons and runners to the servers and bartenders; from the back-of-house people in the dish pit [dishwashing area], to the food prep areas and on the line [where the plates are assembled]. Ownership and management are key to creating - and maintaining - the sense of cohesiveness and loyalty that keeps restaurants running smoothly.”
When an owner or a general manager isn’t afraid to get down into the trenches to ensure that the operations are efficient, the staff takes notice. “Ivory tower” managers and owners are not appreciated in restaurants. Gary Cannon emphasized that when employees see the management working as hard as they do, “That’s what makes it a real team where everyone admires and respects the coach. If the coach earns and deserves that respect, it’s easy to see how it can bring the team together.”
If you’re 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, 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 are often 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 10+ years know that I admire well-run restaurants. But it’s important to remember that they are populated by humans, and mistakes will always be part of the equation. But strong, involved management and dedicated employees (who understand that their income is directly proportional to the success of the eatery) will be poised to correct the inevitable mistakes. The occasional reader who is not familiar with the inner workings of food service will sometimes scold me for not nitpicking every little misstep that might occur. I refuse to engage in that Yelp!-like behavior. 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, success only happens if the entire team - from the coach on down - works toward that common goal.