By Mark Moeller | Restaurant teams of all kinds –– from an ice cream stand to a fine-dining establishment–– are susceptible to one common enemy: ego. I’ve seen egos get in the way of restaurant operations time and time again, from my time as a chef, consulting with clients, and as a patron. I’m sure you have, too.
I once met a friend for dinner at the bar of a new tapas restaurant. We ordered a variety of dishes, including the calamari. When it came out, we tasted it, looked at each other, and said, “Wow, this is salty.” The bartender came by to ask how everything was, and I told her the calamari was a bit too salty for us. She apologized and asked if she could get us another one. We thanked her and said we wanted to order something else. Being in the business, I knew that if one is salty, the next one would be too. She sent it back to the kitchen. The chef was not happy and sent out another, complimentary. We asked her why, and she said the chef insisted and wanted us to be happy. We were happy. We were enjoying our evening and ready to sample more of their menu. Now we had to taste this second dish, which––wait for it––was salty.
The chef took it very personally. He brought out a third serving himself. My friend and I were exasperated at this point. The other patrons around us started noticing, and they tasted it, too. Lo and behold, it was salty.
What had been a great evening was turning quickly into a negative experience. On one hand, there was a simple explanation for the saltiness. Calamari comes from the sea; if it hasn’t been well-rinsed or if it’s been sitting too long in a brine, it’s going to taste like the sea.
More than salty calamari, this story is about ego. The chef couldn’t let it go. Not only did it impact my experience, but it affected the guests around us. There were a lot of ways this situation could have been diffused. I wasn’t upset over the salty dish. I wouldn’t have cared if they charged me for it either––it happens. I’m not of that ilk, and neither are most people. What people want is to be heard. This chef wouldn’t listen, and the next time I passed by, the restaurant had closed.
One of the most common reasons that a restaurant struggles is that they don’t listen to the people coming through their doors, which includes guests and the restaurant team. The most important and one of the hardest things I teach my clients is to listen. Exceptional service requires that you listen to feedback, use it to validate your guests, and adjust appropriately.
It’s critical to remember the reasons why you first came into the business. Do you have years of experience in a Michelin-starred kitchen? Are you a bartender who wanted to mix inventive cocktails using liquor from local distilleries? Is your bar and grill a retirement endeavor? No matter the circumstances, by checking in with your skill set, you can identify your blind spots.
As a restaurant owner, I surrounded myself with people smarter than me, and I listened to what they told me about their areas of expertise. There is one question that every operator should be asking themselves and their team every single day: “What can we do better than we did yesterday”?
If management can get into a positive mindset about improving and asking their team for input––and really listen to their answers––a lot can go right. You don’t have to implement every idea, but their insight can boost your restaurant’s value proposition and improve your team’s morale.
People get so set in their ways that they get scared to change, and they lack direction because they don’t know the solution. Back to the calamari––maybe you hadn’t realized how salty it was, and when your chef tastes it, they agree. Now you have identified a challenge, and you can work together to fix it. Try reaching out to your distributor, talk to other chefs in your network, test a new recipe or two. Or maybe that initial guest feedback can teach you not to leave squid sitting in brine.
Let’s say the calamari was perfectly well-prepared. It was a fresh shipment and received excellent praise from other diners that night. The chef could have made the patron feel heard by listening the first time. Instead of sending out another helping, the chef could dazzle them with the next dishes they ordered. They’d go home remembering how delicious the griddled shrimp or patatas bravas were. If the calamari came up, they’d appreciate how kind and easygoing their server was about the feedback.
Feedback provides you with an opportunity to change your menu. It also helps you offer an exemplary dining experience through exceptional customer service. There’s no room for ego in this business.