12 Ways to Seed Culture, an integral part of opening and running a restaurant

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Written by Eli Feldman

I’ve been involved in 10 restaurant openings in the last 7 years.  Openings are exhilarating but incredibly exhausting.  The to-do list is miles long and many of the items on that list are about licensing or budgeting rather than the sexy stuff like menu development and wine selection.   There are a 1000 ‘opening a restaurant’ checklists and critical paths you can download but few of them offer much to set you up for success post-opening.   None of these lists address one of the most critical factors in determining the long term success of a restaurant- culture.  I’ve always believed that the idea of building culture is false.  Building, to me, implies taking specific pieces or materials and following a clear plan to yield a defined outcome.  Culture is not built, it is something you seed, foster, and tend to constantly.

Over the course of opening 10 restaurants I started to really think about what seeding a great company culture requires.  How do you prepare and cultivate fertile soil in which culture can thrive?  This is the living list that came from trying to answer that question.  I say living because there were 8 at one point, 12 now, and I’m sure more will come in the future.

One more thing:   culture is not just internal.  Branding and marketing, at their best, are an outward expression on of an internal culture.  As you read through this list it can be helpful to think of how each item can impact a team internally and guest experience & demand externally.

Distill to a Simple & Resonant Vision
This is the simplest possible answer to the question “What is this place?”. Getting this statement right and making it resonate  helps answer two more crucial questions:  “Why would I work here?” and “Why would I eat here?”  It’s a distillation process because it often starts with something long and fuzzy but the goal is to reduce it down to the essence.  If this statement is more than 10 words in total- keep distilling.

Codify and Articulate the Values that Underlie the Vision
What is important in the pursuit of achieving the vision?  There’s lots of debate around the validity of terms like Vision, Mission, Values.  Regardless of what side you’re on in that debate, there are specific little ‘v’ values that underlie what you do.  These can be purchasing decisions, feelings you want to evoke for guests, etc.  Its important to know and be able to articulate what these are so you can… actively hire for the values and traits that you want.

Actively Hire for the Values and Traits You Want
It is very hard to hire for the traits you want if you’re not clear on what those are.  If creativity is most important, job postings and interviews can be designed to assess a candidate’s capacity.  Same is true for empathy, positivity, or really any other trait.

Establish Clear Hierarchy, Organizational Structure and Reporting Relationships
This might sound pretty corporate but it doesn’t have to be.  If one person is going to hire another for a role and eventually provide a paycheck there is an inherent hierarchy.  Absence of transparency and clarity often leads to having to reinforce hierarchy in more heavy handed ways- counterintuitive, I know.  Everyone likes to know where they stand and who to go to if they face a challenge.  Make it easy!

Think Through Potential Career Paths in Conjunction with Organizational Plan
It can feel a little strange to think about what a career path looks like for a potential employee you haven’t even met yet but it’s still important to do.  Not every position will have a lot of mobility but for those that do, thinking through what that looks like informs compensation, hiring decisions, and also allows you to speak attractively about opportunities with candidates.

Management Jobs Needs to Be Designed
As chefs and restaurateurs we tend to think about design as something we do once with respect to the physical space.  Seeding and fostering a great culture means thoughtful design of managerial roles.  A key question in this is ‘Are daily tasks and service roles aligned to reinforce a given positions leadership responsibility?’  The most obvious example of this is scheduling.  It’s all too frequent that we put all scheduling in the hands of the Chef or General Manager.  This undermines the development of other managers who often benefit from both the anchoring of responsibility and the leadership mandate that scheduling provides.

Integrate Sous Chefs and Assistant Manager into Hiring Process Early On
Setting the stage for leadership begins at the very beginning of the interview process.  An interview process should include all the people who will play a meaningful role in leading the employee.  This can be tricky at opening because often all the pieces don’t come into place in the right order but whenever possible try to make this happen.

Include Gratuity and Trajectory of Gratuity in Financial Modeling
There are some interesting experiments happening about what model could replace tipping but the practice isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Service roles are professional roles and those in them are right to expect income growth, like any other profession.  Take the time to apply your financial modelling to gratuities; it will inform how you staff and design your service.  The more steps of service and intricacy you design, the more staff required and the greater strain on the gratuity pool.

Provide the Tools & Knowledge to Establish Accountability from Day 1
To be clear, this accountability is two-fold: Leaders are accountable for providing tools and knowledge, team is accountable for taking advantage of these tools.  This one seems obvious but is really hard to do in the tornado of opening.  It’s important that educational materials (service manuals, recipes, menu descriptions, etc) actually take physical form and get handed out as close to day one as possible.  The message needs to be clear- ‘this stuff is important and we didn’t wing it so neither should you’.

Seize Early Opportunities to Improve by Listening to Team Members
The collective experience of the team often contributes much better ideas and processes than whatever you’ve come up with in pre-opening planning. Listen and don’t adhere so much to that plan that you miss opportunities to improve.

Elevate the Dialogue
Don’t be afraid to engage the team with discussions that challenge them to think about their work differently.  People want the work they do to have meaning and purpose- help them see it, regardless of position.

Be Patient but Persistent and Find Joy in Small in Victories
Culture takes time and constant effort.  Progress may not always look the way you might think. I worked with a chef who learned to hone in on fish tubs to monitor kitchen culture. He knew that when all old tape labels were removed before they went to dish that discipline and attention to detail were where he wanted them.

About the author

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Eli Feldman

Eli Feldman is the founder of Three Princes Consulting and Clothbound and has worked in restaurants for over a decade. He is most excited about raising the dialogue around the hospitality industry. He often dances in the morning to start the day off right.