■ By CONSTANTINE N. KOLITSAS, Consultant
SO, you’ve worked hard for decades, and your children are coming of age and showing an interest in the family business. You’ve thought about this day for years, and you’ve been looking forward to it. But how have you been preparing for it?
Too often, the children of restaurateurs go from busser or host to manager/owner without ever having worked outside the parameters of their parent’s business. While it’s hard to have your child working for someone else when they can be their own boss, it’s a wise decision to exile them to the outside world for a year or two so they can be exposed to how other restaurants operate. It opens their minds, broadens their awareness, and helps them to gain skills and insights that they may not otherwise develop. Think of it like this: Would you hire a CEO who has never worked for anyone but Mom or Dad? Would you loan money to someone whose experience is limited to having worked one job all their life? Of course, there are hundreds of examples of extremely successful business operators that have never worked outside of the family cocoon. But at what cost and with what missed opportunities?
From here, I’ll address the restaurant-owner-to-be…
If you are considering taking over a restaurant from your parents, the best thing is to go to work outside the nest right after college (and don’t use the business as an excuse to skip college – any kind of business degree will be a huge benefit!). Even if it will be a decade or two before you’re asked to take over, go out and learn while you’re still ripe and impressionable. Don’t wait ten years in your family’s restaurant before you decide to step out and learn new things. By then you will be set in your ways, won’t get used to working in an environment where you are (sort of) the boss, and will find it hard to play nice in the sandbox with others.
So, where should you go to work? First of all, it doesn’t have to be just one place. It’s best to take two years and switch jobs every six months so there is a broader spectrum of experiences from which to learn. I suggest the following trajectory: First Stop: a high volume business that is in the same niche as yours, but maybe as much as 45 minutes away. This experience will be the most comfortable for you. If it’s a diner that your family owns, then go to work in the busiest diner within a 30-mile radius. You know how a diner operates, so it will be an easy transition. What you should look to learn is how different systems either enhance or diminish efficiencies, quality, and execution. What is the restaurant’s culture? How does that culture impact service and food quality? What kind of role does the owner play? How does the owner lead by example? Look for good habits to emulate and poor habits to avoid. See how an owner’s poor behaviors make you feel as an employee, and then you can understand how your behaviors will make others feel when you become the boss. Did you want to work for that person? Why? Why not? At the end of the day, recognize that you can’t get anything done without the support of others, and make sure you earn that support. Analyzing another owner’s goods and bads should help you a great deal.
Second Stop: Go to work in a restaurant that is in a different niche. Go upscale from where you are. So if the family has a diner, go to work in a casual-dining restaurant or an upscale place. This will give you insights as to how your family business compares in quality and value and will help you to understand in what ways you can compete and pull customers away from that niche, or, conversely, where it makes sense to concede some areas of the market where you simply should not compete. Even more importantly, you will see how different systems function, and how customer engagement differs.
For your Third Stop, go down a niche. Again, if you’re going to run the family diner, try fast food or fast casual. Fast casual has been growing steadily for over a decade and is redefining how customers eat out. In a previous column I wrote about speed of service, but this is important to repeat here. For your sojourn into fast casual, look at how the entire culture is built around getting the customer in and out as quickly as possible. The reason isn’t because the restaurant wants to turn the table; the reason is because the customer wants or needs to get in and out! Analyze and break down the business’s processes and systems and take with you what is applicable to the business you will be running.
For your Last Stop, I suggest finding a position in an area restaurant that is known for its culinary creativity. Food is hip, and trends change. Get a feel for the directions that the most creative chefs are taking the eating public and make sure you eat as many of the menu items you can while you’re there!
The benefits of going out into the workplace and learning from other businesses are many. To compete in the restaurant business, you need to understand that you are not just competing against other businesses similar to yours. There are eating options everywhere, and any building where a customer lifts a fork has something to show you.
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 cnk-consulting.com or call 1-888-869-6068.