Remembering What Matters Most

It was far from my finest moment.

Rather, my behavior from that Sunday in question better resembled the coyote falling into a never-ending chasm, ultimately crashing next to a hastily constructed and freshly painted wooden sign that read “Welcome to Rock Bottom.”

While memories from that singular moment continue to define a since unparalleled level of EU (Emotional Un-intelligence), they also shine as evidence of the service industry’s most intimate and sacred truth:

The only perspective that really matters is that of your guest. 

Or customer, client, visitor, patient, user, etc.

When you can focus on what matters most to that person, at that time, you essentially remove the unnecessary. Everything else is white noise, a distraction to your core purpose.

If you can just remember to focus . . .

Better Get Here Early

I had read too many articles about famous chefs and their restaurants in magazines such as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Gourmet, etc.

They all painted a very egocentric portrait of success, one in which the creative vision of a singular person was enough to delineate potential success from near certain failure.

Working within the presence of extreme self-confidence and an absence of industry knowledge and experience, I quickly adopted elements of this persona into my personal approach to restaurant ownership.

An example of this involved our most expensive menu item, Veal Marsala. Unhappy with the quality of veal portions received through local purveyors, I opted to purchase cutlets hand trimmed by the butcher at a local market.

Unfortunately, using a fresh product meant there was no back-up. I would only purchase what I anticipated selling. Once we were out, we were out.

Note to my Food & Beverage professionals: If this already makes you cringe, just wait . . . it gets better.

The weekend had been busier than expected, and we sold a lot of Veal Marsala. Popping into the local market for some insurance portions on Sunday, my butcher hit me with, “Sorry, Tim, we didn’t receive a delivery today.”

“Oh, well,” I thought to myself on the drive to the restaurant. “If people want Veal Marsala, they better get here early.”

How eerily accurate a prophecy that turned out to be.

One Strike, You’re Out

We opened the doors at 5:00pm and sold out of Veal Marsala within the first four tables.

Next thing I know, the flood gates open and the restaurant is packed. Tickets were flying into the kitchen as I frantically tried to keep pace with the wave of food orders coming in.

The rush lasted about an hour, without incident. Walking across the kitchen for some water, I heard the hostess tell one of the servers, “I just sat an eight-top in your section.”

This would usually have me doing cartwheels, but I was admittedly drained from both the rush and the business volume from the previous two nights.

After delivering a couple of bottles of wine to her new table, the server popped back into the kitchen to confirm, “Tim, are you sure we’re out of veal?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I responded as I made my way back to the stove, sipped some water, and took a deep breath. Suddenly, there was a guest standing right beside me.

He was from the table of eight and immediately started waxing on about how he came in specifically for the Veal Marsala, how I ruined his evening and embarrassed him in front of his friends.

We exchanged a few unprofessional sentiments before I did what any Emotionally Un-intelligent, egocentric person would have done:

I threw him out of my kitchen.

The Previous Behavior is Under Further Review

It wasn’t pretty.

My staff, bless their hearts, were very loyal and whispered encouragement to me as the guest stormed out, which made the situation even more unsettling.

Later, the server and I discussed the circumstances leading up to my meltdown:

The guest and his wife had dined in the restaurant the Sunday prior and had absolutely loved the Veal Marsala . . . they returned this Sunday with six of their friends, three couples who had all planned on enjoying this newly discovered delicacy . . . when informed we were out of veal for the evening, the guest stated it was their whole reason for choosing to dine here . . . he then stood up, apologized to his friends, and headed into the kitchen.

To add perspective . . . it was highly inappropriate for the guest to come back into the kitchen. There was no “May I speak to the owner?” or any extension of that sort.

Dangerous for him, potentially even more dangerous for my team.

But instead of responding to the situation calmly, perhaps escorting the guest to a more emotionally neutral area, I went straight to DEFCON 4, opting for a completely chaotic meltdown that included threatening language and undeniably threatening gestures.

I lost focus on what mattered most: This guest had increased his initial investment in my restaurant by 300% in one week, turning a table for two into a party of eight, without the need for additional marketing or advertised discounts.

A more resilient me would have sought an empathic perspective. “Should’a” and “could’a” are trigger words in hindsight, but I should have offered a personal invitation to return, backed by the guarantee that his favorite dish would be cooked to perfection. It could have saved a potentially valuable customer when I needed it most.

Instead, I threw him out of my kitchen . . . “Welcome to Rock Bottom.”

Clarity, Please  

Even the best of us can get caught up in the whirlwind of activities that define our lives, both personal and professional.

Service is an emotional exchange. That’s why it is so important to have a firm grasp on what matters most, using that as an advantage to promote calmness and clarity within your actions, and those of your team.

A couple of tips include:

Facetime With Your Culture

To begin, please ensure your culture is readily identifiable to everyone on the team. Goals and forecasts don’t mean a thing if your staff doesn’t understand the why behind the what.

Then have evidence of your motto, vision, mission, service standards, etc. visible for everyone to review at any given moment. This could be posters, banners, pocket cards, or whatever suits your environment best.

Review these foundational aspects daily . . . remember, we are what we repeatedly do. Drive awareness deep into the emotional subconscious of your team, where we need it to be.

Be A Living, Breathing Example

If I were to examine my behavior from a consultant’s perspective, I’d probably use one word to describe our discernable culture: Desperation.

I was a walking timebomb of emotions. Who knows what type of influence that was having on my staff?

Begin each day with a look in the mirror and verbally express what matters most. Re-visit this activity as frequently as necessary throughout the course of a day.

Driving this deep into your subconscious is important to building trust and self-confidence, both in yourself and your team.

Perfection Desired, Excellence Required

An optimist will continue to seek perfection, regardless of the circumstances. Which is good, you need positivity to pull you through sometimes.

A more pragmatic approach is to build excellence into your standards of performance and behavior.

Standards outline expected behaviors, which should align with exceeding the expectations of your guests or customers. Through repetitive review, and dedicated discussion to the “what if?” possibilities, this allows an incredible sense of calmness in the moment of truth.

Resolutions are approached with clarity of conviction, an ally in your efforts to bridge expectations with your guests, increasing the chances of retaining their trust and loyalty, and providing at least one more opportunity to serve.

An Ego-Friendly Approach

Restaurant ownership was my introduction to an extended career in hospitality leadership, one that provided the opportunity to meet some of the celebrity chefs I have previously mentioned reading about.

My first assessment was correct . . . they were very egocentric. But aren’t we all, to an extent?

It’s only human to possess what the French refer to as “amour-propre”, a sense of self-worth and esteem.

Sensibility directs how we use that self-worth to create a prosperous environment, one focused on engaging others through what matters most to our mutual success and happiness.

And avoid joining the coyote on that one-way trip to Rock Bottom.

This is Tall Tim, and I Am At Your Service!

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