Your Restaurant is NOT Special

Not special but it sure looks clean. Image: ijeab / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Let me share with you what I know for a fact from working with restaurants and bars around the globe: Business problems are people problems no matter where you are in the world! On a recent trip to Bogotá, Colombia, where I was speaking at a conference called Expo La Barra, I had the great opportunity to meet with three different restaurant owners. 

The outcomes of each one of these restaurants can be seen in restaurants and bars everywhere. Human behavior is predictable. All humans have the same range of emotions (happiness, sadness, pleasure, pain, confidence, fear, etc.). It’s those emotions that dictate how people run their businesses.

Let’s dive into A Tale of Three Restaurants…

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Restaurant One: The Local Legend

This is a family owed restaurant that has been in business over 40 years. The family operates multiple concepts and is well known in the market. Lately, their upscale sushi concept that marries the flavors of Japan and Colombia has been suffering from declining sales.

The restaurant is in a prominent area of town and they pay premium rent. A common problem in restaurants is overpaying rent because they wish to be in the “trendy” part of town. On the evening that I visit the business, they have only three tables.

Service is impeccable and smooth. The food is flavorful and well presented. They have all the elements of a great restaurant yet there’s something missing. The problem becomes apparent when my Colombian business associate tells me that the owner is not coming to the meeting.

Read this: What’s the Big Deal about Culture?

Culture is the fuel source that provides energy to a restaurant. Without great energy you can have incredible service and food but deliver a lackluster guest experience. That’s because the owner has checked out. When you don’t continue to feed the culture of your restaurant with positive energy, it soon runs out and you’re left with a business that has no soul.

Like all relationships, the one you have with your restaurant will be strained and challenged. Sometimes you need to fall back in love with your restaurant. Think back to those early years when you were excited about your brand and rekindle those feeling. Emotions create energy and energy creates culture!

The owner not showing up for a meeting is the red flag signaling what’s missing in his brand. The sad thing was he didn’t care enough to show up, which is a premonition of where his restaurant is heading. Now, that could change if he got a wakeup call. The real question is, is he willing to pick up the phone when that call comes?

Restaurant Two: The Father and Son Empire

The second meeting my associate and I had in Colombia was with a concept developed three years ago that can be described as akin to a self-contained food hall. The place is a sensory overload. Everything is top of the line. They have a full-service restaurant, a healthy food bar, a private wine tasting room, modern art gallery, bakery, charcuterie, indoor beer garden, and a pâtisserie.

When a guest sits, they’re greeted by a warm and friendly staff that’s very knowledgeable. The cocktails are showstoppers! Flames, smoke and fog rise out of drinks that are carefully crafted behind the marble bar. Great flavor and amazing presentation set the tone for the experience.

Next is the food, a cool menu that blends the best of Spain with the local flavors of Colombia. The consulting chef has a Michelin Star in Spain, which is promoted throughout the restaurant (even though he’s not on the premises). When the food comes out, it rivals the presentation of the cocktails, yet it falls short on flavor. Even the dessert is a show: a chocolate piñata comes to the table for birthday celebrations and the birthday person is given a mini baseball bat to break it. Out spills a treasure trove of chocolate chips, brownie bites, and cubes of white cake upon a custom-made tray. The brownie and cake, however, are stale.

Read this: 5 Ways to Completely Sabotage Your Restaurant, Nightclub or Bar

When you set the expectations high with the cocktails you need to deliver on those expectations throughout the entire visit. Otherwise, you risk devaluing the entire experience. This restaurant was trying hard and yet the food had no heart behind it. Believe that when you cook with passion instead of just following a recipe there’s a difference in what arrives at the table.

Now, this restaurant owner did show up for our meeting and immediately I identified why they’re struggling with their experience. The online reviews reflect the same message: A lot of flash but weak on substance. The owner gave me a tour of the mega food complex right away, talking about the costs of the buildout and speaking of the amenities as objects to be admired. From the largest wine collection in Bogotá (some bottles priced at $4K a pop) to an extensive beer collection (the biggest in Bogotá) to having a Michelin Star chef as a consultant to having the only charcuterie shop with five different Spanish hams available... Yes, it impresses—on the surface.

Upon further one-on-one conversation I find the reason for the disconnect between the image and the brand. He’s in business to impress and earn the respect of his father, a man who built a substantial construction business from humble beginnings. When you’re trying to rise above the shadow of another there’s often a disconnect between heart and head, and it’s apparent in the final experience. It lacks heart. It tries so hard for approval. It wants to be accepted. And it drops the ball. 

My advice to the owner was to find out why he wants to do this, and it can’t be about impressing his father or others. He needs to find his own why, to uncover his core values. He needs to find the missing heart of his brand.

Restaurant Three: The Underdog

My third visit was with a new up-and-coming concept that has a unique spin on roasted chicken. One of the owners is a mechanical engineer who created a grill that rotates over two different beds of hot coals to cook both sides of the flattened whole chickens. They offer just chicken with either housemade potato or plantain fries.

The place is small and everything inside is made by the owners: the grill, the tables, the trays...everything. The place is full of people gathered around wooden tables, wearing plastic gloves and digging into fresh roasted chicken cut into pieces and served on wooden trays with parchment paper.

When the food comes it’s served with a smile and a sense of anticipation overcomes me. Even though I’m a stranger in a foreign country and, honestly, my Spanish sucks, I feel welcome and invited like the staff are friends having me over to their house for dinner.

Read this: Building a Service Team that Dominates

The owners sit down to talk and my translator keeps the conversation going as we dive into the tray of chicken. They talk with their hands and their facial expressions say more to me than they know. These guys love what they do, and they have a mission to not just cook chicken but change the way people eat chicken in Colombia. It shows.

When you have a big vision and the necessary energy behind it, it comes through in your brand. Everyone on their team was infected by this energy and it radiated throughout the atmosphere. Then I noticed a funny thing: As I looked around the room, I saw that everyone was enjoying the chicken and talking to each other! No one was on their cell phone. Normally when you go to a restaurant, you see people on their phone during a meal. No one was at this restaurant, not even me! Serving the food on a tray and providing no silverware makes eating with your hands and sharing off the same tray an act of bonding.

This restaurant is small and their budget is minimal, yet the experience is huge—better than the first two restaurants combined. What a difference when food is served with a mission, core values and heart.

Understand that your bar or restaurant is not special in the problems it presents. Restaurants around the world have the same issues: disconnection from their brand, staff problems, increasing competition, falling profits, growing expenses, and loss of enthusiasm. They also have the same solutions: connecting with their vision, improved staff recruitment, abandoning the ego, not operating in denial, and being open to change.

All business problems are people problems, and those people problems are most likely communication problems. You’re your own problem and you’re your own solution. If you’re willing to accept that, you’re one step closer to creating the restaurant or bar that you want!