What makes one restaurant consistently busy, while the competition is chronically burdened by a dining room full of empty tables? While acute attention to the details of your profit and loss statements are crucial to any successful establishment, it’s not enough to get the full picture. Plus, many of the most important aspects of a successful restaurant are intangible and can’t be classified as a line item on a spreadsheet.
Let’s look at what I believe to be 10 of the most important aspects of running a successful restaurant or bar (and one bonus tip about how critical your location is to your success).
Your staff is critically important. If you want staff to work hard, take care of the guests, and value their jobs, then you first need to do the same for them. Show them they are valuable, and they will do the same for your guests. This is the foundation of your culture. It’s important to have a group who is loyal to you, who maintains the rules and standards, and who wants to stay with you. Challenge them, reward them, mentor and be a leader to them. Always be fair, consistent and empathic. Be firm, discipline, and follow through 100 percent of the time. However, also think how you would want to be treated, or how you would want your child to be treated if they were the employee.
2. Guest Experience
The guest experience must be seamless and immersive from beginning to end. Parking, seating, service, food and drink quality, the payment process, their departure, and all interactions with staff and management in between, must be on point. The goal is to exceed expectations in each individual step. When we fail to meet expectations, even in one category, we can potentially injure a guest’s entire experience and receive a negative review. We want the guest to forget about their troubles and worries, to live in the moment of this dining experience, and to create memories that will bring them joy in years to come.
3. Guest Service
Guest service should be a genuine attempt to proactively give the guest everything they want and more, everything you expect when you’re the guest dining out for a special night. And because no night of service is without its flaws, it’s not always about what happens, but how we handle it. If a mistake is made, acknowledge and fix it. Our job is to make sure there’s a happy ending to every story, even if that means that the guest felt like management heard and responded appropriately to a complaint. Every guest should leave happy every time.
Many of the most important aspects of a successful restaurant are intangible and can’t be classified as a line item on a spreadsheet.
Javier Meneses, of Waterfront Bar and Grill, San Diego’s oldest tavern that’s been nicknamed “San Diego’s friendliest bar,” explains that they received that title by “touching tables, having the staff say ‘hello’ to everyone who walks in through the door, saying ‘bye’ when they leave, and inviting guests to come back. Getting their names and using them. Making the guests feel genuinely welcome and not like a transaction.”
4. Appearing Busy
People go where people are. So much of this business is driven by guests coming to see who else they know there, to be seen by others who are there, or to check in on social media. Our job is to fan this flame. Seat your restaurant so it always appears that you’re full by only opening your sections visible to walk-by traffic. Encourage your patrons to check in on social media and post pictures of their experience. When you are busy and at full capacity, memorialize it with pictures and videos to push the narrative that this is your norm. The more people that believe you’re always busy, the higher the demand for your service will become, and the earlier and earlier that your guests will start arriving, and the quicker you will hit that critical mass point where your property looks full and vibrant.
We want the guest to forget about their troubles and worries, to live in the moment of this dining experience, and to create memories that will bring them joy in years to come.
5. A Special Hook
It always helps to have a gimmick or hook, something special to you that no one else has that gives people something to talk about and a reason to come back. Plus, as the power of social media grows, it is increasingly important to be photogenic with fun, creative, colorful and over-the-top food, drinks and activities. Done right, this can put you on the map. Maybe you create a mind-blowing seafood buffet or a burger that weighs in at 3 lbs. Or perhaps you create a cocktail with such an eye-catching presentation, guests can’t help but snap a picture. If you’re a sports bar, look into having the biggest TV in town, or a mechanical bull for home team bye weeks. Whatever it is, own it, merchandise it, make it yours, and get people talking about it.
6. A Strong Sense of Identity
Know who you are. Don’t try to be all things to all people. It’s like the Field of Dreams saying, “If you build it, they will come.” If there are already five versions of your concept in your market, people won’t be eager to try another. They want something unique. That starts with you. Your passion and drive are integral to your eventual success, and they come from doing what you love and believing in your mission. Create something that represents what you enjoy and what you know. Create something that you’re excited to get out of bed for, something that will help strengthen your passion and spread it to others.
7. Proactive Accounting
Enforce and practice tight proactive systems and accounting. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” This goes for physical items as well as accounting procedures and standard operating procedures. Clearly communicate the expectations, follow through, be organized, label everything, set pars, forecast your sales, and set goals. This starts with really knowing your business, getting your hands dirty and having your ear to the rail every day. Have systems for everything and continually enforce them.
At Our Place in Burleson, Texas, Benji Arslanovski explains how he leads his team: “I am firm how I want things from my staff but I’m fair. I never ask my staff to do something I wouldn’t do; I lead by example.” This all starts from really knowing your business, diving into the details of your profit and loss statements, understanding opportunities for improvement, knowing what physical changes will garner the desired results, rolling it out, and then monitoring it until it sticks.
8. Social Media
A strong social media presence is more important now than ever before. Your prospective guests looking you up before they dine want to see your food, your sourcing, a packed house of other happy guests, and behind-the-scenes action. Think about how to make every inch of your restaurant “Instagrammable,” whether it’s a piece of decor or a place setting. If it doesn’t catch the eye, think about what tweaks would make it more interesting.
I want my guests to feel the culture and magic of our concept through our social media accounts. I want guests to feel like they are part of our family.
Personally, I prefer handling social media at least somewhat in-house. Skip aggressive specials, ads, promotions, or flyers, and instead focus on real-time posting of authentic pictures and videos that happen organically often in real time. I want my guests to feel the culture and magic of our concept through our social media accounts. I want guests to feel like they are part of our family. I look to create bonds and show off what makes us special. But for social media to really take hold, it needs to be powered by the guests and regulars. You want the public creating the stir and frenzy.
Consistency is is one of the most prevalent factors to finding success. Maintaining guest loyalty and increasing the frequency of visits is a key step in maximizing your sales. In order to develop those long-term frequent regulars, and even your more infrequent regulars, your restaurant needs a consistent vibe, feel, and taste. Not only do we need to be consistent on the treatment of our guests and on the temperature, feel, flavor, and seasoning of each menu item, but we need to be consistent in how we treat our staff. We need to give everyone the same training, rules, consequences, rewards, and attitude each day. Consistency defines and manages expectations. It tells both guests and the staff that you can trust us, that we’re not going to surprise you or pull the rug from beneath you. It’s about consistent application of daily pressure.
The food has to be conversation- and camera-worthy. Quality should be top-notch on everything from presentation to flavor. Create craveable items that only you can provide. Yes, we want to have familiar and popular items, but without something special or different, you’re just relying on luck or convenience to bring you that next sale.
Bonus: Don’t Rely Too Much on Location
One that didn’t make the list was location. And yes, the three most important factors when choosing your property are location, location, location. But just as a great location can’t guarantee success, a tough location doesn’t bar you from it. Matt Corona of Boneheads Wing Bar in Rhode Island explains, “My first location is/was in a very challenged area. Nothing around it that was worth driving to. But we went into it with the intent to become a destination. We did that with our (great) food and commitment to service. We have now solidified ourselves as such. We stay busy and people continue to line up and wait to eat here.”