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Why 'Yes Chef!' Is No Longer the Answer

by Richard Vellante
May 22, 2018

Why 'Yes Chef!' Is No Longer the Answer

by Richard Vellante
May 22, 2018 | Comments (0)

Sports are a big deal in Boston. That’s why I was excited to head to the Celtics’ playoff game the other night, and to check out a hot new restaurant in the area beforehand. I made a reservation with plenty of time to spare – or so I had thought. Upon arrival, the host was nowhere to be found, and when he did arrive, I was told my table wasn’t ready. After finally being seated, it seemed like an eternity before our waiter greeted us – and I was now getting nervous about time. Appetizers were out of the question if I wanted to catch Brad Stevens’ team tip off.

I began to wonder – why aren’t more restaurants able to provide adequate service during “rush hour?” And what are the lost opportunity costs?

In the age of the customer, empowered consumers expect immediate value—no matter how complex or disruptive it may be for businesses to create these experiences.It is clear that the restaurant industry is struggling to adapt quickly enough to meet customers’ evolving needs. So what is the appropriate way for restaurants to manage change and why does it seem so difficult?

Our reliance on legacy operating models

One key barrier to innovation and flexibility is restaurant staffs’ tendency to take direction from just one central source of authority (typically the chef or general manager). This creates a linear culture that limits experimentation, celebrates ego and perpetuates the status quo.

Kitchens historically operate on the brigade system, which was developed in the mid-1800s by French chef/restaurateur George Auguste Escoffier, who could be considered the Henry Ford of the culinary world. His system is taught in culinary schools across the world and applied in most of today’s kitchens.

Within the brigade system, chefs delegate responsibilities to the individuals responsible for managing different areas of the kitchen. This top-down approach fosters a rigid culture in which the only response expected from the kitchen staff is “yes, chef.” We see this exemplified on the TV show Hell’s Kitchen, where contestants’ most common response is “yes, chef.” Essentially, a good employee does not ask questions, and even if they did, the chef has all of the answers.

Today’s businesses consider the ability to constantly innovate a key factor in their ability to survive and thrive. So how can restaurants keep pace with change if their leadership – and staff – are satisfied with the status quo? Simply put, it’s time for restaurants to explore an alternative to business as usual.

Three drivers of change

As the restaurant industry grapples with the following challenges, it is clear that the brigade system is no longer the solution to operating effectively.

1) Evolving customer expectations

Guests are becoming more knowledgeable and discerning. As their culinary IQ improves, so too does their tendency to vocalize their customized preferences. In response, restaurant operators are paying close attention to food allergies and dietary restrictions in hopes their efforts will help improve hospitality and sales.

Meeting customers’ evolving needs often requires staff to veer from the norm, which can lead to disruption and complexity in the kitchen. It is no longer practical or efficient for one person – be it the chef or manager – to oversee each decision. With training and a deeper understanding of the processes, the kitchen staff could take on increased responsibility which would in turn foster a more autonomous and flexible workplace.

2) A talent crisis

Restaurants have historically relied on skilled staff to create and deliver a quality product. For example, Escoffier’s brigade system calls for employing an abundance of highly experienced, specialized labor to deliver the optimal customer experience.

Yet today’s restauranteurs are dealing with an increasingly scarce and diluted labor pool, with less skill and experience to offer than ever before. To compete for talent, restaurants are increasing wages and offering special benefits. As more flexible work opportunities (such as driving for Uber) arise, restauranteurs view recruiting – and retaining – talent as their top challenge. In addition, they need to adjust to the fact their kitchens will be comprised of less-skilled labor.

3) Stringent rules and regulations

From tipping to pay equity, federal and state labor laws continue to affect restaurants’ workforce, operating model and bottom line. Additionally, restaurants must deal with increasing food safety regulations.

Burgeoning rules and regulations typically lead to new costs, problems and complexities for restaurants. This is due to their tendency to simply integrate these changes into their traditional, legacy operating models. Instead, restaurants should evaluate which areas of the business the change will affect, and prepare accordingly.

The way forward

Change is happening faster than ever in the restaurant industry, and those who fail to evolve their operations will not survive. The restaurant industry traditionally attracts “doers” – those who are quick to serve people and respond. However, the pitfalls of this culture are chaos and disorganization.

Restaurants are in need of open-minded leaders with strategic vision, problem-solving skills and the ability to objectively analyze situations. These leaders must expect to hear more than “yes, chef” in the kitchen, ensuring that staff is properly trained, feels comfortable offering input and is capable of making important decisions.

I am constantly approached by staff with questions. I sometimes respond to their inquiries with another question, “what do you think we should do?” All too often, they stare at me with a blank face and expect me to have all the answers. Over time, though, I have seen my staff grow and become more proactive in offering solutions.

Restaurant leaders, including myself, must continue to focus on improving our staff’s skills and inviting new ways of thinking. Those who are serious about transforming their culture and optimizing their operating model for the future must focus on the following:

Mindful observation

Take time to mindfully observe all interactions throughout the restaurant, such as those occurring between servers and customers or chefs and kitchen staff. Consider the following: how did we create value for the guest? Follow the customer’s experience and record your observations. You may be surprised to learn that many of your expectations may not be met.

For example, we noticed that our guests were waiting increasingly longer for their meals. After observing our cooks in the kitchen, we were surprised to discover that they were leaving their workstation to replenish product, which was slowing down the rhythm of their cooking process. After experimenting, we responded by reallocating the replenishing work to a specific team member, which left the cooks to focus on completing their primary task in a timelier manner.

Holistic decision making

All too often, leaders make decisions without understanding how they will impact other facets of the business. Successful change implementation requires determining which people and processes will be affected. For example, a restaurant executive considers having a manager run food to all guests with a food allergy in order to exhibit their commitment to hospitality. However, the executive should first identify how this task might affect the managers’ workload. If the manager was to run food to all guests with an allergy, it would affect their availability to perform other duties, such as providing timely guidance to servers. An alternative solution would be to properly train and allocate food allergy-related responsibilities among key servers, who are already in direct communication with the guest.

I’ve been fortunate to learn from past situations in which I’ve made decisions without evaluating their impact. I once developed a creative vegetarian dish that happened to require 12 different ingredients. When I shared the recipe with the cooks, their response was “yes chef, of course we can make that.” The reality was that the complexity of the dish lead to increased prep time, food storage issues and ultimately was never executed properly. In retrospect, I (along with the cooks) should have recognized that the addition of this menu item would disrupt our standard approach, which consisted of fairly simple recipes that required little prep time and minimal storage space.

Better questions

I’ve learned that asking good questions can lead to better answers. Leaders should question the process of why and how things happen throughout the customer experience. Truly understanding the customer’s reaction is critical to improving the process moving forward. Refrain from making assumptions about the customer or staff member and instead identify where the process may have failed. 

For example, business was beginning to heat up at one of our new restaurants. We noticed a few of the servers were becoming flustered and that their guests’ dining experiences were taking longer than average. It would have been easy to blame the issues on the server, but instead we got curious. We asked the servers if there were certain challenges they’d been experiencing, and they explained how they needed to retrieve rolls and dishware from different parts of the restaurant and would often have to wait for supplies. To help address this issue and improve service, we placed necessary supplies in a more convenient location and changed our dish cleaning system to ensure clean dishware would be consistently availability.

Experimentation and reflection

Solving problems requires controlled experimentation and most importantly, careful reflection on what works and what doesn’t. Beware of making decisions with the sole purpose of cost reduction, and implementing seemingly quick fixes such as increasing headcount or implementing new technologies. By experimenting, reflecting, learning and then applying, you will make more informed, calculated decisions that solve your restaurant’s most pressing challenges. 

The opportunity for restaurants to transform their operating models has never been bigger, and the stakes have never been higher. In order to keep pace with rapid change, restaurants must revolutionize their approach and foster an innovative culture. My team and I have witnessed the positive outcomes that can be achieved by challenging age-old processes, experimenting (and even failing), advocating for change and implementing new ideas.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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