Are Restaurants Sustainable, when Labor is in Question?

 

 

Tim Doolittle

Chef & Consultant

C.Y. Hospitality

 

Much attention and effort has been given to creating and maintaining sustainable restaurant menus and ingredients in the last 3 decades.  Thanks to early pioneers like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and more recently the likes of Rick Moonen everything from Minor’s Lettuce to Lionfish have been touted as “the” ingredient that define a sustainable kitchen.  These adjustments to buying and food supply systems have served the restaurants, communities, guests and the environment well.  Really, it all makes for good business practices with great benefits on the back end for all involved.  Thankfully the trend has been embraced and recognized by the public and press.

Today’s restaurants have benefited from the work of farmers, purveyors and others in a way that is immeasurable. With those systems and supply lines in place, the modern restauranteur has a new supply line issue.  Labor.  Anyone who has been an operator in the hospitality business over the last 15 or more years can attest to the decline not only of personnel, but their skill level and dedication to our craft. This is, I believe, a universal issue. It is not limited to a geographical area or sector of the industry. Chefs deal with it. Bar managers deal with it. Fast casual operators are not immune. Country Clubs, hotels, catering, the list goes on. These challenges are real and threaten to derail operators who are not savvy enough to adjust their outlook.  Depending who you ask, enrollment in culinary schools may or may not be on the decline. Certainly, with the abrupt closing of all Cordon Bleu affiliated programs in the United States an argument could be made that a decline is obvious and inevitable. Regardless of the statistics, the issue of good quality labor is just as critical as the overall labor shortage for restaurants nationwide. Not only is the labor shrinking, but the wages are rising as the push for $15/hr. minimum wage is sweeping the country. Even without a mandated wage increase, operators can expect to pay more (and possibly get less) when it comes to staffing.

So the question becomes;

 

-How sustainable is this model?

-How can restauranteurs pay higher wages without raising prices to unreasonable levels?

-How will the quality of food and service be affected by skill levels?

-Where is the next generation of operators going to come from?

-How do we create an environment to attract and retain staff?

 

 

So many questions, so many possible answers.  Solutions should likely involve a combination of several things.

 

-More competitive wage and benefit packages.

-More attractive schedule options.

-Showing appreciation for all levels of employee.

-Development of staff skills.

-Creative scheduling.

-Some level of automation or elimination of duties.

-An understanding public who is willing to pay more for dining.

 

As we move forward into this uncharted territory I look forward to studying how operators deal with these issues. It is possible that only the strongest will thrive, or survive. Hopefully the adjustments we make to our businesses will be as beneficial as our sustainable menus have become. I, for one, am not ready to let go of my dining habit, nor am I willing to pay double for it.

The LTO Shell Game

Tim Doolittle

Consultant Chef C.Y. Hospitality

When considering a Limited Time Offer (or even a daily special) our first considerations should be things that are less obvious. For example, we should ask if the proposed item fits the concept. Is “Chez Pierre” the best venue for a carpaccio? Perhaps we should consider beef tartare instead. Probably the most important question should be whether or not the guests are inclined to be excited by a new offering and therefore order it. “Tomas Deli” might want to consider a tongue sandwich that appeals to both the older clients in their neighborhood as well as the hipster crowd that tends to hang around in the afternoon. Knowing what your clientele craves before they even realize it is a massive leg up. Listening to your crowd is important, but understanding them is useful and may allow restaurant operators to exceeding expectations.
In my years working in Las Vegas for Wolfgang Puck I saw this anticipatory menu design at work often. The Venetian has vast convention space to offer and was among the busiest properties on the Las Vegas strip. This was a blessing for the dozens of restaurants built to service them, but brought a host of challenges as well. For example, we would sometimes go from serving a couple hundred guests per shift to double that, or more. Labor allocation and preparation was critical to operating within our budget, no matter what volume we were achieving on a given day, so we often were pushed to our limits. One of the “best” crowds to wash over Venetian each year was “JCK”. This was an annual meeting of Gemologists, diamond traders, jewelers and all the related businesses to the bling industry. During this trade we offered an amazing falafel special. It was an item they knew would appeal to the high number of Jewish diamond traders from across the globe. This item would only appear on our menu during this particular week. People would trek from all corners of the Strip to our doors for their yearly treat of fresh, amazing falafel. The operators of our restaurant were pros at recognizing what a particular crowd would consider special or extraordinary. When the construction, outdoor, or gun crowd was in town we would offer large, expensive cuts of beef. When the cosmetic or wedding planning crowd was in house we had lighter, fresh, less masculine things on offer. All met with great success and satisfaction, usually this meant a return trip the following year during their pilgrimage to the trade show.
Bottom line; Anticipating the cravings, delivering the “next” craze, being one step ahead of the competition because you are in tune with your clientele is infinitely useful. Happy guests feed a successful restaurant in the same way that the restaurant feeds its guests.
Finding a restaurant consultant, chef, or any operator that has the broad vision required to fully understand your guests is key in creating a successful business. C. Y. Hospitality can help identify, target, attract, and retain your customer, call us today.

Staying True to Concept is Harder Than it Looks

Tim Doolittle

All restaurants, all businesses for that matter, start with an idea.  Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but generally in the hospitality industry a passionate spark is the genesis. The ‘big bang’ that follows can be a universe that is exciting, frightening, fun, and confusing all at once.  Often the best and easiest path back to tranquility and clear thinking is returning to those early first moments of inspiration and simplicity. In the developmental stages of a restaurant there are usually very few people involved.  Maybe it is a chef and partner, or perhaps a family, often it is a few executives at a conference table (and this is before any guest fills out a comment card or doubt creeps up in post-opening operations). But as the idea becomes a reality it is inevitably and infinitely larger by nature and that original core group becomes a populous.  Suddenly there are lawyers, real estate agents, accountants, consultants, friends, family, foodies, and colleagues adding their opinion to the primordial stew that is bubbling into an actual business.  I truly believe that these opinions should be considered, especially those of the paid experts that are invited into the mix.  The difficult thing can become sorting through all this input and understanding what adds to the original concept, and what detracts from it.  Here are some points to consider as the concept evolves.

 

-Does a given point of view fit the concept?

-Does the concept fit the targeted population?

-Can I see the logic in a given proposed idea?

-Are well informed opinions as important as passionate ones?

-Who can help me refine my concept?

-Will I be happy with the final incarnation?

-How do I want the community to perceive the business?

-Is my vision for the business marketable, viable, and sustainable?

-Who is best suited to edit the vision(s)?

-How do I refocus my business if it loses its identity?

-How do I know when to reconsider a concept and allow it evolve?

 

There is no universal answers to the complex questions posed above, each depends greatly on the context of the individual situation.  Sometimes clarity can come from simply asking the question, answers become obvious, and the clouds lift without much effort.  Other times, questions linger and remain a mystery until “end of times” become more of a reality than the original concept ever was.

 

 

Who is in Charge Here?

Tim Doolittle

Hierarchy in restaurant environments sometimes becomes a battle of wills.  Whomever thinks they won, the staff and guests are the losers.

Many of the restaurants I have worked in have been military-like in their discipline and structure of their management.  Some were a literal “free-for-all”. I will let you guess which places were more successful in their efforts and their bottom line. Typically, the less managed staff who were fighting for control were the product of either an absentee owner, or worked for someone who simply was not interested in doing their job. Whether chef, manager or owner we all have an obligation to lead our staff.  Beyond that, we have an obligation to lead with strength, passion, understanding and compassion. Finding these qualities within ourselves is often more difficult than actually putting them into practice.  Finding the balance between these traits can become second nature, or it can be a constant tug-of-war between logic and emotion.  Better this battle be internal to one person, rather than outward for all to see. Below are some of the guidelines I have used to structure staff, both management and hourly.

 

-Set clear boundaries for all involved

-Give each person defined responsibilities

-Show appreciation often

-Keep tasks/responsibilities within the skill level of each person

-Disagreements need mediation, not regulation

-Encourage staff development

-Offer incentives (financial or other)

-Participate in operations

-Lead by example

 

If we can find the discipline and wisdom to operate our businesses as a sergeant runs his platoon, we will find some of our soldiers are assets, some are liabilities. The most rewarding professional experiences I have had were environments where I was held to a high standard, by people with high standards for themselves. A little fear of failure, a lot of pride, and a strong leader are a good mix to bring staff together and create an enviable work ethic that will benefit your guests and your business.