Six Steps to Improve the Culture in Your Restaurant

Jeffrey StoneWritten by Jeff Stone, CEO of Compeat, for Modern Restaurant Management 

According to Forbes Magazine, companies with highly engaged teams show a 21% greater profitability. Engaged employees are more loyal and productive, which is good for everyone involved. In fact, one of the biggest factors in recruiting and retaining top talent is a company’s culture. However, culture is often overlooked in restaurants.  If you are not actively shaping that culture, someone else is; something this important should not be left up to the employees to carve out themselves.

Culture defines your brand and deliberate efforts should be taken in order to establish a healthy culture before it slowly take a left turn into one you don’t want.  I’ve had a long career in the restaurant industry, and in corporate America I found that basic culture builders are the same across all industries.  Below are six steps that can be taken to change a restaurant’s culture based on my personal experience:

  1. Define the right culture. Every employee needs to understand that you expect a certain level of service and exactly what that is for their role. It is easy for a server to get into a rut of “doing their job”. They forget that guests may be celebrating a milestone anniversary, a birthday, or engagement and need to be treated as they would expect to be treated should the roles be reversed. A server’s job is not turning a table –  it’s to create a positive, long-lasting customer experience.
  2. Drive change within the current staff. With notoriously high turn-over, employees are often seen as transient and managers often accept certain levels of behavior that should not be allowed. Changing the current culture is a tough process, but it can be done if they trust you and agree to be part of the process. Start an open dialogue with your employees about the need for change. Clearly define the problem and outline what is expected going forward. Be present during shifts and recognize employees when they emulate the right culture. A poor culture is easily picked up by new employees, so do not hesitate in starting the process with your existing staff.
  3. Be fair, yet consistent in your coaching. Observe those who are struggling with the changes and coach them on ways they could have handled a situation with a guest or coworker.  This is best done in a private environment, not in the heat of the moment or in front of guests. If an employee has been repeatably coached and is unable to embody the level of service that you expect, it may be time to recognize that this person it not a good fit for your restaurant.
  4. Hire the right people going forward. While skill and experience are important, personality trumps experience when hiring restaurant employees. Most people who work in the restaurant industry do so because they have a passion to serve others. This can’t be taught. Moving forward, be sure to fill your restaurant with people who are driven to serve.
  1. Create a Team Mentality. A group is a collection of people who coordinate their individual efforts to be compliant with your goals. On the other hand, a team is a group of people who share a common purpose and several challenging goals. Members of the team are mutually committed to the goals and to each other.  They believe that they can do more together,  do it better, and can continue to grow. It takes a strong leader to convert a group to a team, but it can be done.
  2. Constantly reinforce your culture. Unfortunately, we can’t just state “this is our culture now”, walk away and expect it to change. We must live it every day and lead by example. It can be helpful to establishing a core “culture team” of star employees who live and breathe your culture – and have them be the constant reminder to their peers.  In most cases, this is ideal because this can’t be accomplished alone and employees’ feed of their peers. It is better to have positive role models than toxic ones influencing the staff.
  1. Reward and recognize. You can establish a simple reward program where each week or month, one employee gets a small reward for exemplifying your values.  This can be as simple as a free meal on their next shift, parking close to the door for the week, or a $5 dollar gift card for coffee.  In addition, free recognition should also be given daily, even if it is just a shout out to an employee “caught in the act” of living the culture.  “Great teamwork for running those salads Alex”, or “Great customer service on table seven Laura” goes a long way in reiterating your values and boosting morale – and it’s free!

Creating a restaurant’s culture can be a tough process, but changing a poor culture can be even more difficult. Think of your culture as a large ship at sea. You’re the captain at the wheel and setting the course. With you at the bow, difficult tasks like turning the ship, are easier and easily accomplished.

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