How to Herd Cats: 7 Secrets to Getting the Bar or Restaurant You Want

"Onward, my trust steed!" Yep, this is really happening. Image: iridi / iStock / Getty Images Plus

They say the restaurant and bar world can be a circus, and they’re right! It is, at times, like you’re the ringmaster and you have three rings to handle at the same time: the lions, the tigers, and the bears...oh my! In the restaurant world that’s the culinary team, the service team, and the bar team. Sometimes, getting everyone to work together is a lot like trying to herd cats.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, it’s just a challenge at times. Sometimes, it’s a very big challenge. So, let’s break out the catnip and get these animals to come together and sing “Kumbaya”!

The first step is to make a little change to your mindset. Yes, I know you thought this was going to be about how to change them! Sorry to disappoint you, we’re going after the one person we can change, and that would be you! Contrary to popular opinion, your team is not the issue—it’s you. Don’t act shocked, you probably had some idea we were going to go there.

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So, if you really want to herd cats, the trick is to be the ultra-alpha in the group. That means being the example they want to follow. You don’t chase cats or call out for them to “come here.” Cats (and your team) tend to have a mind and personality that doesn’t conform easily to obedience.

In your training, to become a cat wrangler, you’re going to need to put on your big boy or girl pants and cowboy up! Where we’re going there’s only one direction: forward, becoming a better leader. Any other direction will just lead to your exit from this business. Seriously, the industry is full of half-ass managers who just work the floor like the living dead. If you want to get more out of your bar or restaurant, your staff and guests need to get more from you! It’s a simple equation that many have completely ass-backwards.

To get to the level of cat wrangler you’ll need to follow these 7 secrets handed down from the wise cat-herding masters who walked the trail before you. Forgetting a step could be dangerous for you: you never want a mob of angry cats (your team) to turn on you. So, proceed with caution.

#1: Stop the drama. That means your drama!

People are attracted to drama for a variety of reasons. Perhaps seeing someone who’s worse off makes you feel better about what’s going on in your own life. Some people are addicted to the endorphins that are created when drama comes calling. Some just want to feel important, and out of a need to feel significant they create drama.

Whatever the cause of drama, here’s the secret to stopping it: Drama needs an audience! If you don’t participate and feed the fire that fuels drama, it tends to fade away. It may go out kicking and screaming, but at least it will be gone.

It’s a safe bet that when you put a group of people together in a restaurant there will be at least one person who’s on the drama train. They like to stir things up and instigate drama to maintain their twisted view of what’s normal. Addictions take many forms, my friend, and the addiction to drama is no different. It destroys cultures and slowly kills brands if left to roam your bar or restaurant.

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Now, if you can’t spot the drama starter in your restaurant, you either don’t have one…or it’s you! If it’s you, it’s time to get into a quick four-step drama-free program!

  1. Admit that you like drama.
  2. Make a commitment to stop causing drama.
  3. Tell the team you’re a drama addict and are on a recovery program (via this workshop).
  4. Pause and re-frame. Wear the wristband you’ll receive in the workshop mentioned above to remind you to STOP THE DRAMA! When that old feeling starts to swell inside you, you only have about 5 seconds to stop it before the crazy shit you say to create drama comes rolling out of your mouth. Ask yourself this question: Is what I’m about to say going to improve my bar/restaurant or my relationship with this person? If no, then just shut the hell up.

Repeat as often as needed until you find your compulsion to create drama diminish.

#2: Learn to communicate. Yes, you’re going to need to learn to play nice.

I don’t care where in the world your bar or restaurant is located—all business problems are really people problems in disguise. Now, the second part that goes along with that statement is: all people problems are really communication problems. 

Those communication problems stem from being a lazy manager. You know you should communicate better, yet you just take the easy way out and fail to do so. That’s being lazy, whether you’re willing to admit it or not. Before you get defensive, which won’t help the situation, know that it’s okay if you’ve been a little lazy about communicating with your team. We’ll just keep it our dirty little secret. However, now is the time to overcome that laziness.

To do so you’ll need to get clear on a few questions:

  • Do you have high standards?
  • Do you know your core values?
  • Do you like people?

Let’s break each one of those questions down.

Do you have high standards? Saying you do and actually having them is more often than not the issue. When you have high standards you’re constantly telling, teaching, and preaching those standards day after day, year after year. You’re a living example of the words you say and the actions you take. That’s called integrity. Hypocrisy is an epidemic in the world.

Do you know your core values? Not knowing this is like not knowing who you are! It’s so fundamental and yet so often overlooked. If you don’t know exactly what you stand for, you’re not a leader—you’re just a sheep like most of the population that follows the crowd and never has an original idea. Know what the hell is important to you as a person. Then you can decide what’s important to your brand. It all starts with you as the true leader uncovering your values.

Do you like people? Piss-poor communication comes from people who, at their core, really don’t like other people. It’s cool if you’re one of them, just be honest and step away from management. Not everyone is a made to be a leader, and that’s okay.

#3: Be an example. In other words, get your shit together.

Now, if you decide that you want to follow the path of leadership it’s time to step up and do what leaders do: lead by example. You can’t be a hypocrite. You can’t fake being sincere to guests. You can’t pretend to care about your team. Being a true leader means being authentic and transparent.

Leadership is taking care two primary things:

  • Yourself
  • Your team

Yourself: Being a true leader means making sure you take care of yourself first. Stop playing the martyr and sacrificing your health. Think of it like the battery on your phone. If you went in to work with only a 25 percent charge and couldn’t recharge your phone all day, how long would it last before it ran out of power? That’s exactly what most people do when they don’t take care of themselves. They go to work with little energy and run themselves into the ground. When you’re low energy, you make bad decisions. You bark at your team. You do stupid shit.

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Your team: After your internal battery is fully charged it’s time to focus on the energy of your team. Look at the culture in your restaurant like a big, vertically oriented pipeline. At the top is the energy source (leaders and owners) and that energy flows down along the pipe to the next levels: managers, shift leaders, hourly staff, and finally, guests. I can tell exactly where the energy of a bar or restaurant’s culture is being clogged up very quickly. I find it sad to say that 8 out of 10 times, that clog is at the top. If your energy is at a level 10 and your team is at a level 9, your guests will have an exceptional experience, guaranteed.

#4: Train like your life depends on it, because it does.

The antidote for mediocrity is constant training. Special operations teams in the military don’t just train before a mission, they train every single day. There’s a great saying in Latin, “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” which means, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

If you want to build a restaurant that stands out and get your team (the cats) all heading in the same direction, training is your crucible. Too many operators see training as something to just get through after hiring so they can get new people on the floor or on a station in the kitchen as quickly as possible. That’s a major, misguided mistake.

You want to be the bar or restaurant in your market that out-trains your competition! Other restaurants might be able to knock off your food and décor—don’t let them out-train you! Refuse to lose the training game. Be the place that never stops getting better by always, always, always training.

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You can tell when watching a movie which actors have practiced their craft. They come across as believable. They come across as real. They transfer emotions from dialogue on a page to an Oscar-worthy performance on the screen. Your bar or restaurant can win its own version of that golden statue too, if you’re willing to put in the work to become so damn good that you stand out in your market due to an extremely polished performance. You get that from training like your life depends on it. 

Wait, hold on there, potential cat wrangler—we’re not done yet!

If you want the last three secrets, you’ll have to attend my workshop at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show on Wednesday, March 27, 2019 from 10:00 a.m. to 10:50 a.m. Don’t miss out on the world’s largest expo for all things related to the bar, nightclub and restaurant industry! Register for your badge today!

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