Sports are a big deal in Boston. That’s why I was excited to head to the Celtics’ playoff game the other night, and to check out a hot new restaurant in the area beforehand. I made a reservation with plenty of time to spare – or so I had thought. Upon arrival, the host was nowhere to be found, and when he did arrive, I was told my table wasn’t ready. After finally being seated, it seemed like an eternity before our waiter greeted us – and I was now getting nervous about time. Appetizers were out of the question if I wanted to catch Brad Stevens’ team tip off.
I began to wonder – why aren’t more restaurants able to provide adequate service during “rush hour?” And what are the lost opportunity costs?
In the age of the customer, empowered consumers expect immediate value—no matter how complex or disruptive it may be for businesses to create these experiences. It is clear that the restaurant industry is one that is struggling to adapt quickly enough to meet customers’ evolving needs. So what is the appropriate way for restaurants to manage change and why does it seem so difficult?
In the age of the customer, empowered consumers expect immediate value – no matter how complex or disruptive it may be for businesses to create these experiences.
One key barrier to innovation and flexibility is restaurant staffs’ tendency to take direction from just one central source of authority (typically the chef or general manager). This creates a linear culture that limits experimentation, celebrates ego and perpetuates the status quo.
Kitchens historically operate on the brigade system, which was developed in the mid-1800s by French chef/restaurateur Georges Auguste Escoffier, who could be considered the Henry Ford of the culinary world. His system is taught in culinary schools across the world and applied in most of today’s kitchens.
Within the brigade system, chefs delegate responsibilities to the individuals responsible for managing different areas of the kitchen. This top-down approach fosters a rigid culture in which the only response expected from the kitchen staff is “yes, chef.” We see this exemplified on the TV show Hell’s Kitchen, where contestants’ most common response is “yes, chef.” Essentially, a good employee does not ask questions, and even if they did, the chef has all of the answers.
Today’s businesses consider the ability to constantly innovate a key factor in their ability to survive and thrive. So how can restaurants keep pace with change if their leadership – and staff – are satisfied with the status quo? Simply put, it’s time for restaurants to explore an alternative to business as usual.
Three drivers of change
As the restaurant industry grapples with the following challenges, it is clear that the brigade system is no longer the solution to operating effectively.
1. Evolving customer expectations: Guests are becoming more knowledgeable and discerning. As their culinary IQ improves, so too does their tendency to vocalize their customized preferences. In response, restaurant operators are paying close attention to food allergies and dietary restrictions in hopes their efforts will help improve hospitality and sales.
Meeting customers’ evolving needs often requires staff to veer from the norm, which can lead to disruption and complexity in the kitchen. It is no longer practical or efficient for one person – be it the chef or manager – to oversee each decision. With training and a deeper understanding of the processes, the kitchen staff could take on increased responsibility which would in turn foster a more autonomous and flexible workplace.
2. A talent crisis: Restaurants have historically relied on skilled staff to create and deliver a quality product. For example, Escoffier’s brigade system calls for employing an abundance of highly experienced, specialized labor to deliver the optimal customer experience.
Yet today’s restaurateurs are dealing with an increasingly scarce and diluted labor pool, with less skill and experience to offer than ever before. To compete for talent, restaurants are increasing wages and offering special benefits. As more flexible work opportunities (such as driving for Uber) arise, restaurateurs view recruiting – and retaining – talent as their top challenge. In addition, they need to adjust to the fact their kitchens will be comprised of less-skilled labor.
3. Stringent rules and regulations: From tipping to pay equity, federal and state labor laws continue to affect restaurants’ workforce, operating model and bottom line. Additionally, restaurants must deal with increasing food safety regulations.
Burgeoning rules and regulations typically lead to new costs, problems and complexities for restaurants. This is due to their tendency to simply integrate these changes into their traditional, legacy operating models. Instead, restaurants should evaluate which areas of the business the change will affect, and prepare accordingly.
For example, pay equity laws require all employees be paid the same for comparable work. Restaurants should consider this an opportunity to identify how less staff might be able to achieve more work at an equally efficient pace. In other words, restaurants must ensure that each staff member is working at maximum capacity, and eliminate inefficiencies where possible.
The way forward…to be continued
The opportunity for restaurants to transform their operating models has never been bigger, and the stakes have never been higher. In order to keep pace with rapid change, restaurants must revolutionize their approach and foster an innovative culture. In my next post I’ll explore the key areas restaurateurs should focus on in order to optimize their operating model for the future.