Square Pegs for Square Holes

Posted by at 15 February, at 13 : 13 PM Print

The most difficult part of managing a restaurant is managing people. Menus can be redesigned rather easily; vendors can be changed; equipment can be purchased… Getting people to do what you need them to do is not so easy. So, it’s important that you hire properly, spend time and resources on training, and hold your staff accountable for performing their job functions to the standards that you have established. Or course, having people on staff that enjoy their work and are engaged in the restaurant’s mission is the mark of a successful restaurant.

There are many things that go into engaging your staff; too many to list in one column. But one that I find is critical is to have the right people in the right positions.

The typical criteria (and usually the only criteria) that restaurant managers use in assigning staff into job roles is prior experience. Someone with server experience, is destined to be a server. Someone with host experience is destined to be a host or perhaps a server-in-training. There is little out-of-the-box thinking that goes into the equation, and once someone is hired, his or her value is based on whether that individual performs well in the position he/she is placed.

To begin with, need to accept as truth that each position requires a specific set of skills, and that specific personality types are better suited to specific positions. Unfortunately, an individual’s resume may not indicate experience in the job for which he or she is best suited. And for this reason, we often miss the mark and sacrifice people that might otherwise bring great value.

To drive home this point, let me recant a story related to one of the best staffing decisions I’ve ever made. At one point in my career, I owned a bakery café that was part of a franchise system that I took over from an existing franchisee. One of the employees that I “inherited” when I bought the place was a dishwasher named Kenny who worked the dinner shift. Ours was a fast casual restaurant (customers placed their orders with a cashier and then picked them up at the window, much like Panera Bread) whose business was concentrated around the lunch hours. And much of our business was to-go. As such, there wasn’t much for a dishwasher on the dinner shift to do, so, in an effort to maximize efficiency and “do more with less” during the low volume parts of the day, Kenny was given the additional responsibility of acting as dining room porter, wiping down tables and keeping the dining room clean.

In many ways, Kenny was a great dishwasher: every plate that came out of his station was clean and when he closed everything in the dishwasher section was in order and thoroughly broken down. Similarly, he always left the dining room in great condition. The problem was that Kenny didn’t move fast. His attention to detail was perfect, but it came at the expense of speed. Because we needed him to work in both the back and the front, he was always falling behind.

The supervisors on my management team argued with me that Kenny should be terminated, but I knew he was worth salvaging. Kenny was quiet, and never got into the goofing off or socializing that can plague a restaurant. He was dependable – was never late and NEVER missed a shift. He took great pride in his work and I knew he was someone that I wanted to keep on the team.

At the same time, I had overnight bakers who were very sloppy. Their station was always left a mess when we opened the next day and while their finished product was not terrible, the presentation needed to be improved. Further aggravating the situation is the fact that they insisted on working together three nights a week. I didn’t need two full-time bakers – I needed one baker for five shifts and a relief baker for two.

After much contemplation, I arrived at a solution that would solve several of the restaurant’s issues: I offered Kenny the opportunity to become a baker. When I stopped to think about it, I found that the job was perfectly suited to Kenny’s personality – because he didn’t fraternize with his fellow staff members, I knew he would be happy working by himself through the night. More importantly, the job of baker required an attention to detail that would result in beautiful pastries and beautiful baked goods. Kenny’s methodical detail-oriented approach to washing dishes and the tremendous pride he took in his finished product were just what was required of the position, and exactly what was lacking in the bakers that he replaced. As a bonus, we never came into a mess in the morning – he left his baking station as clean as he did the dishwasher station.

It’s important to note here that I could not simply move Kenny from dishwasher to baker. While I did not require an intermediate step between the two positions, I made sure that Kenny was properly trained. I sent him to a nearby sister restaurant for a week of training and I gave him a strict set of expectations. The position was a significant step up in pay, and I expected him to earn that increase.

In the end, Kenny didn’t disappoint: he proved to be the best baker in the concept’s entire 100-plus system (by the CEO’s assessment, not by mine!). Kenny not only replaced the two bakers who were putting me over a barrel, he was a dramatic improvement. And he appreciated the opportunity that he had been given and showed this in his work ethic and dedication to the restaurant’s success.

After this experience, I made sure to look at all staff members differently. I was no longer quick to dismiss an employee that demonstrated a positive attitude but was somehow underperforming. Kenny taught me to always look for a square hole for each square peg!




Constantine N. Kolitsas is a restaurant consultant living in the New York tri-state area. His company, CNK Consulting, has helped numerous businesses improve their operations, develop their concepts, and increase profitability. For more information visit or call 1-888-869-6068.



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