These 8 Steps Will Help You Fix Your Bar or Restaurant

This will make sense when you finish step three. Image: non-exclusive / iStock / Getty Images Plus

How’s business for you right now? Just okay? Bad? Does it suck?

Have no fear, because there’s a remedy for no matter where you are that can take your business to the next level. If things really suck, this could be the swift kick in the ass your brand needs.

Now, before we get too far ahead, let’s discuss the time it will take to turn around your business. Whatever amount of time it took to get you in this mess, it’ll take half of that time to get you out. Sorry if that disappoints you.

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The good news is that if you want to turn your business around, that starts with one simple solution: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

The formula ahead isn’t an easy one. If you thought this would be easy, that was a misconception. Change is never easy—if it were, everyone would have the bar or restaurant and life they want. We both know better than think that’s how real life works.

Turning around your bar, restaurant or life requires a new mindset. It requires a new you. You can’t solve a problem at the same level it was created, that’s just fact. Of course, you can keep trying to do the same things you’re doing today and hope for different results tomorrow, and I wish you luck if that’s what you decide to do—that’s the true definition of insanity.

If you’re serious about turning things around, really dig into these 8 steps. Without going all in, turning around your business will just sit on the horizon, forever out of your reach.

Step One: Take Responsibility

Your bar or restaurant (and your life) is a direct reflection of the actions you have (and have not) taken. Once you step up and admit that all the problems are your fault, you can move forward. The truth isn’t pretty at times, but the truth will set you free. Granted, sometimes the truth pisses you off first. Get over it so we can get going.

It’s time to stop blaming others for where your business (or life) is. It’s not the economy—there are restaurants and bars thriving across the country. It’s not your staff—there are great people out there working in the industry. It’s not outside circumstances, it’s the meaning you’ve attached to those outside circumstances that’s the problem. Take control of your inner world and your outer world will change. No bullshit here—you must look around at your restaurant, bar or life and say, “This is all my fault.”

Step Two: Get Rid of the Vampires

Right now, you have some negative energy vampires in your restaurant, and your life as well. These people live to tell you why it won’t work. Why you can’t. What’s wrong. What sucks. They seem attracted to anything negative in the world, and they want you to know about it. Is there negative shit in the world? Yes. Are there also some great things happening at the same time? Yes! The universe seeks balance. You can’t have light without dark.

What you focus on, you get. Surround yourself with negative energy vampires and your world will look bleak. Surround yourself with positive people and it will take on a lighter tone and tempo. The hardest thing you’ll have to do in this formula is cut negative people out of your business and life. This is a necessity and you can’t skip it in the Turnaround Formula. Unless you eliminate negative energy vampires, they’ll continue to infect the culture of your business and life.

Check this out: What to Do When Your Formula Stops Working

Once you’ve made the commitment to 86 the vampires, it’s time to call in the positive reinforcements! Join a mastermind group, get a mentor, or go all in and hire a business coach that can keep your negative vampire addiction at bay. It’s possible you’re drawn to negative energy vampires on a psychological level and are torturing yourself because you feel you deserve it. Yeah, I know—we’re all a little bit emotionally masochistic.

Step Three: Control the Bleeding

The most crucial area requiring your immediate attention is likely finance. This can be a hard one to face because many of us tend to ignore the ugly parts of our business and focus on the things that make us feel good instead.

If you’re a chef, you spend more time in the kitchen. If you’re a people person, you spend more time on the floor talking with guests. While those are important areas to focus on, lack of attention to the numbers is going to bite you in the ass sooner or later—it always does. Remember, failure to action is actually an action, it’s just not a very smart one.

You must dig down to the number one thing 90 percent of operators don’t know: the exact cost of everything on the menu. You’d think that knowing the cost of menu items would be common sense. Well, common sense is anything but common. It’s time to get busy understanding those pesky numbers.

Don’t fret if spreadsheets or food costing software isn’t in your wheelhouse—you have a couple options available:

  1. Find someone on your team who’s skilled with spreadsheets and/or costing software.
  2. Contact your local broadline foodservice distributor and ask if they have software. In today’s market, almost every major foodservice distribution company has some sort of food costing software. If you buy most of your product from them, they’ll in turn give you access to it. Some will even assist you in setting it up. Now that’s a real vendor partnership!

Don’t let another day go by without jumping on top of your numbers and extracting the data you need. There’s money hiding in your profit and loss statements. You need to be able to read that sucker like Neo can see the Matrix. Playtime is over!

Step Four: Redo Your Menu

Your menu is your number one marketing and profitability tool. Too many operators treat it as an egotistical statement about who they think they are. That Port Poached Bosc Pear with a Blue Cheese Gelato is freaking cool. But if no one is buying it, it’s a waste of valuable menu real estate.

Everything on your menu must contribute to sales and profits. Remove your ego when putting items your menu because you can’t cash in on narcissism. Many have tried, and they’ve failed miserably.

The first place to start is knowing your ideal guest profile. In marketing they call this your “avatar.” If you don’t know precisely who your avatar is, you’ll spend a lot of your time throwing darts at a board, blindfolded and hoping to hit the bullseye. Hope isn’t a strategy you want to invest in.

Check this out: How to Amp Up Your Menu

You can have the most amazing menu in the world, but if no one comes in to spend money on it you have a losing situation. This puts you in a tricky area known as “brand positioning.” If you’re too similar to others in your market, you’ll just blend in and be background noise. Go too far out there with strange culinary creations that don’t give guests a sense of familiarity and they’ll stay away. People like a measure of certainty when it comes to menus. Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy is common. Bison Meatloaf wrapped in Cherrywood bacon with white cheddar mashed and a port sauce might be enough past the middle to peak interest.

Lastly, your menu must be three things:

  1. Approachable: If you’re trying to impress your market with your badass culinary skills that you think will get you on The Food Network, think again. If your guests can’t understand or relate to your menu, then they won’t buy. I love when a chef says to me, “They just don’t get it.” No, you just don’t understand your market.
  2. Containable: You can have a wicked menu but if your team can’t execute it flawlessly during the rush then you’re going to have problems—big problems. You also need to make sure you have storage for all the ingredients you want to use for the items on your menu. Can your team replicate the dishes as taught when it’s busy or do they take shortcuts to get themselves out of the weeds? It’s far better to have a smaller menu that your team can knock out of the park every service than risk having an overly ambitious menu that only works during slow times.
  3. Profitable: Lest we forget, businesses need to make a profit. I know many talented chefs who can create food that would absolutely elevate you to another dimension of reality yet they can’t lead a team or figure out how to make money. Owners are willing to take a chance on talent until they can’t deliver results. Then they find themselves changing restaurants, again. Their common excuse: “They didn’t understand what I was trying to do to elevate the food.” No, they did, they just got tired of paying for it and not getting any return on their investment.

Step Five: Raise Your Standards

One of the major causes of restaurant decline is a lack of or lapse in standards. Sure, when you started you were fired up and ready to take the restaurant market on. What happened? It can be summed up in just three words: You got comfortable.

It happens to us all from time to time. You lose your zest, your mojo, your drive. Sometimes getting a little taste of success can be a dangerous thing. You must be careful when you become successful. It can be like starting a marathon and blasting off the starting line at a record-breaking pace. You look around and don’t see anyone really close to you, so you back off a little (a.k.a. you got comfortable). You’re just cruising along thinking you’ve got this thing locked up and the victory is already playing in your mind. You’re daydreaming about wearing the first-place ribbon and medallion around your neck. And then you’re passed by some young kid who blows by you like you were standing still. What the hell? Where did they come from? Too late.

You desperately try to catch up but they’re so far out in front that you’re straining and struggling. You should’ve kept your pace and run the race like you were in second place. You lowered your standards and now look what has happened.

Check this out: How to Get Your Weekdays to Not Suck

Now come back to reality and look around your bar or restaurant right now. Are there standards you’ve let slip? Have you become comfortable and allowed the competition to take your market share? Did you think that once you made it to the top it would be easy to stay there?

Do you hear that phone ringing in the background? That’s your wakeup call. You need to get back what you’ve allowed to slip away. It’s time to cowboy up and get your standards back! Will it be easy? No. You let shit slide for a while and now you want to just pick up the pieces like it was yesterday? Sorry, it doesn’t happen that way. You allowed complacency to burrow into your culture and it’s going to take some hard work to get that sucker out.

It starts with raising the standards for what you’ll tolerate. You must make a list of your nonnegotiable things. This list is your commandments carved in stone and carried down from the mountain. Remember that a standard is a standard because it’s called “a standard”! It’s not called a “flexible option.” Make your list and check it twice, then let the team know who’s naughty and who’s nice.

Step Six: Communicate!

I have preached this for years: All business problems are really people problems in disguise. All people problems are usually communication problems. However skilled you think you are at communicating with others, you can do better. Most likely your communication sucks and therefore your restaurant is in the same situation. There’s a direct relationship between restaurant success and the level of effective communication within the brand.

It starts with the basics: You need to talk to people. Notice that last sentence said “to” people, not “down to” people. Respect needs to be a core value that all restaurant cultures embrace. We’ve drifted so far away from the essence of what the restaurant industry was built upon: hospitality. You remember that word, right? It means to be a host. To welcome people and make them feel taken care of. We’ve forgotten that as an industry overall, and not just hospitality towards guests—hospitality toward our team as well.

Teams function best when there’s trust and respect. Those two elements come from great communication. You’re going to need to take your communication game to the next level if you truly want to turn around your business. For many, this is where they stumble and fail. They think others need to communicate better to them. Stop the poor, pitiful me bullshit—it’s time to step up and be the leader your brand and team needs.

Be open and authentic with your words. Integrity goes a long way to building healthy communication. Don’t hide behind text messages, emails, or posted memos on the employee bulletin board. Instead, have verbal conversations with your team. Without solid communication your turnaround is doomed.

Step Seven: Out-train the Competition

This step is where you take to the offense in the Turnaround Formula. Training is what separates the good from the great from the outstanding. It’s the one thing that can elevate your brand past the competition. Right now, your competition is doing the bare minimum for training and that’s your advantage and opportunity.

There might be restaurants in your market that have more talented chefs or mixologists on their payrolls. Let me say that talent alone won’t keep a brand at the top unless they harness the power of training. Training ensures that mistakes are minimized. Training ensures that consistency is, well, consistent! Without it, your brand will lose trust with your guests. Lose trust and it's game over. In an oversaturated market you need to keep every guest you can.

Where do you start? With yourself, of course. Make learning a part of your culture. Learning cultures always outperform cultures that just train during the beginning of the hiring process. You spend a lot of time and money getting people to join your team: job ads, interviews, orientation, products for training, uniforms… What a waste of money not to continue the educational process. Restaurants get better when the people in them become better people. That's dependent on learning, growing, and self-improvement.

Check this out: Protect Your Money: Why You Must Have Regular Month-end Evaluations

You should never allow another restaurant or bar in your market to out-train you! Never. That’s one thing you do have total control over and it’s the one element that allows your brand to truly stand out from the crowd.

Offer short training sessions at pre-shift meetings. Hire an outside consultant to come in and conduct a workshop. Send a few people from your leadership team to a conference. Buy the team some books and start a monthly book club. Go visit local farms and vendors for tours and learn the stories behind their brands. Do something that gets people out of the normal grind and allows them to learn and grow.

Now, if you say you don't have time to train, that’s just bullshit. You have the time, you just don't see the value in it. That's cool—I’m sure your competition does.

Step Eight: Market Like a Motherf**ker!

That's right—play time is over! You’ve completed the first seven steps of the Turnaround Formula: you’re taking responsibility for everything in your restaurant, you’ve purged the negative energy vampires, gotten the financial bleeding under control, refreshed your menu, raised your standards, leveled up your communication game, and made a commitment to out-train everyone in your market. Now it's time to open the floodgates on your marketing machine.

You want to blast your revitalized brand out to the world—now’s not the time to be shy. It's time to make your voice heard across all social media channels! Post double what you’re posting right now. Two weeks later, post double that. In two more weeks, double that!

I want your brand to be on the top of all social media channel feeds. You do that by becoming relentless in marketing. Don't back down on this. You just spent the last few months bringing your brand back to life—don't let it slip away into cardiac arrest again!

Be bold. Be outrageous. Be funny. Tap into emotions. Stop posting those boring food and drink pictures like the other 95 percent of the industry does! We’ve become desensitized to food pictures because that’s the same crap everyone else is posting. Instead, tell me a story with video. Tell me the reason why you started a bar or restaurant. Take me on an adventure to the local farm where you buy mushrooms. Share celebrations like birthdays and anniversaries with your guests and your team.

Check this out: A Winning Bar Experience: What One Chain Learned About Personalization

Marketing isn't about getting sales, it’s about sharing experiences. The big secret to social media success isn’t really a big secret: it's about being social. That means focus more on others and a little less on yourself.

The Turnaround Formula listed above is a lot like a recipe: If you leave a step out, you’ll get a different result. Don't skip over the areas that are tough or difficult for you to face. In fact, if you have an area listed above that makes you uncomfortable, do that one first! Human nature is to turn away from the hard stuff in life and business. The cold, hard truth is that avoiding the hard stuff is exactly what puts bars and restaurants in positions that require them to be turned around.

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