Six Steps to Improve the Culture in Your Restaurant

Contributed by Pat Darling, Chief People Officer

Pat Darling, Chief People OfficerCulture is a big buzzword in large corporations. Many have departments dedicated to enhancing their culture because they know that a company’s culture can make or break the business. However, culture is often overlooked in restaurants.

While you may feel that these buzz words are better left for the big corporations to deal with, every restaurant develops a culture. There is no way around it. If we are not actively shaping that culture, someone else is. Culture effects our bottom line. It defines our brand.  We must make a deliberate effort to establish a healthy culture or it will slowly build into one that we don’t want.

I have personally had a long career in a restaurant and in a corporation.  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” and forget that the guests in front of them 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 is to create a positive customer experience.
  2. Hire the right people. 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. Fill your restaurant with people who are driven to serve.
  3. Drive change within the current staff. With notoriously high turn-over employees are often seen as transient, so 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.
  4. Be fair, yet consistent in your coaching. Observe those who are struggling and coach them on ways they could have handled a situation with a guest or coworker better in a private, safe environment (not in the heat of the moment or in front of others) so they can do better next time. 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 the new culture.
  5. Address the WIIFM. Part of getting everyone on board is to make sure the staff understands how an improved culture directly affects them as an individual. Spell out the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) to the team.  A better culture creates an improved work environment which will lead to smoother shifts for everyone and more satisfied customers that leave larger tips.
  6. 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 1) this can’t be accomplished alone, and 2) employees’ feed of their peers so it is better to have positive role models than toxic ones influencing the staff.

Changing a restaurant’s culture can be a tough process. It is often likened to turning a big ship because it is slow and tedious. But big ships were deliberately designed with a rudder so that they can turn.  They just need a captain at the wheel to set the course and head them in the right direction.

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