things restaurant owners do that hurt their brand

Right now you’re most likely asking yourself, what the hell is this guy going to say? With a post title like this, I would worry too. Not to fear, the lessons I am going to share come from my own near four decades of experience in the restaurant industry. I’ve been a success because I made a lot of mistakes (a lot). I wish to share with you the pains I have had to endure over the years, and perhaps my lessons will become your saving grace. Time will tell.

Running a restaurant is not the glorious image that we see on TV and movies. It can, at times, become a brutal battle where it feels like you are in the fight for your life. Other times, it’s a chaotic ballet of a thousand pieces coming together to create a memorable experience that lifts people to new heights. Many of my early years were more like the first – a battle that I felt obsessed with winning. If you’ve been in the industry for any time, you have your scars as well and not all of them visible.

Mistakes are a blessing if you’re willing to be open to the lessons they bring. The truth is that many mistakes are blind spots that we have. If you don’t think you have any blind spots, then that’s your first one. We ALL have blind spots. Here’s a golden rule to write down: the person (or restaurant) with the least number of blind spots wins!

Stupid Thing #1: You Fail to Get a Different Perspective

There is a classic saying by Abraham Maslow: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail.” The issue is that not every problem you face in your restaurant is a nail. We have held on tightly to outdated management theories for so long that doesn’t work with the modern workforce.

It’s time to open your eyes and see that the people that work with you are not like you. I know, not exactly groundbreaking news; however, it needs to be said that because our industry still has a high turnover, things need to change. Industry change starts with self-change; you are the epicenter of that.

Stupid Thing #2: Your Ego is Writing Checks You Can’t Cash

There is a fine line between having a healthy ego and one that just sucks energy from a room. Granted, you need a healthy ego to make it in this business. It’s a brutally competitive market that chews up and spits out new restaurants like a T-Rex on a herd of cattle! The weak do not survive.

If you let every little comment or negative review impact your business, you’re heading for disaster. Unhealthy egos want to lash out and fight back; the internet is not the place to do that. Many restaurant owners have learned the hard way that social media can, at times, not be very social at all.

Are you going to have critics and haters? Yes, if you are open to the public. Do you need to defend your brand? Yes. Do you need to make it personal? No. Being professional and keeping that ego in check is the best course of action. So, that guy complains about the lack of flavor. Maybe he is a heavy smoker and drinker; perhaps his taste buds are dead? You don’t know other people’s problems and drama, so don’t make it about you.

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Stupid Thing #3: You’re More a Friend Than a Leader

Leadership is an imaginary line. You may not realize that – many don’t. When you elected to run a restaurant, you crossed an invisible line that took you from being a friend to being the one responsible. That lesson is one you need to respect.

Now, being the leader doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk. You can be a leader and be polite, respectful, and hold the line. Leadership is about setting the tone and being the example for the brand. 

You can’t afford to keep jumping back and forth from a friend to a leader. What happens then is your team can’t adjust to your erratic behavior, and quite frankly, it freaks them out. The common comparison I hear is that the boss seems like Jekyll and Hyde. When your staff thinks of you like that, you need to pick a side of the line to be on and then stay there.

If you want to be their friend, that’s fine. Step down from your role as an operator and become just an owner who’s not involved in the day-to-day business. Hire a professional to run the restaurant like a business, and you play investor.

Stupid Thing #4: You Don’t Know Your Numbers

The number two restaurant sin is not knowing your numbers (The number one sin is mediocrity in case you were curious). It’s baffling that restaurant owners have no clue what menu items cost. They overpay on rent. They don’t know their prime costs. The list goes on and on. They want to own a restaurant, yet fail to treat it like a business. It’s more like a hobby. A very expensive hobby.

There is a common saying that goes, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” Many restaurant owners would do much better if they took their business a little more personal! The profit and loss roller coaster sucks for your stress levels and quality of life. Being worried if sales are going to happen this weekend to make payroll is a situation too many can relate to.

So, what do you do? You cowboy up and make a serious commitment to own your numbers. You have to take control of your finances before you can say you won the restaurant game. The world does keep score, and you must play the game to win.

taking a photo of food with iphone

Stupid Thing #5: You Think You’re Marketing

Those Facebook and Instagram posts you put up a few times a week are nice. Seriously, nice pictures. Do you think that is marketing? Hardly. You’re just making noise in an already crowded social media world. Billions of users are trying to get attention, and there you are posting a picture of your guacamole. Not very original and not very attention-getting. What? You say it’s your great-grandmother’s recipe handed down three generations? Why didn’t you mention that! Better yet, why didn’t you make a video of you making the guacamole and telling the story of your great-grandmother? Now, you have my attention.

There is a difference between noise and impact. 95% of restaurants on social media make noise. They post the same boring things as everyone else and they call it marketing. The reason you market is to differentiate yourself from the competition. How are you going to do that when your posts look very much the same? You can’t.

Stop playing small with your marketing efforts! You need to double, no, on second thought, you need to triple down on your social media! Whatever you are posting now, take that to times three. Oh, and don’t forget to hit the review sites as well like Google, TripAdvisor, and Yelp. Yes, we have a love-hate relationship with review sites. Why not make them work for you? Embrace the dark to get to the light! Marketing is not about getting a sale; it’s about keeping your brand top of the feed on their mobile devices. You don’t reach that by posting once in a while.

Stupid Thing #6: You Fail to Adapt to the Market

The market sometimes changes quite radically and rapidly. If you’re an independent restaurant, your greatest advantage is your ability to make changes fast. I mean, like tomorrow fast!

Too many restaurant owners know they should make a change, yet they sit back and wait. They throw out the excuse that they need more data. No, you need the backbone to make a decision and take action! While you’re waiting for information, a more aggressive competitor has already implemented and taken a good chunk of the market. You snooze, you truly do lose.

Part of the duty of a restaurant owner is to look into their crystal ball and make a bet on where the market is going. The ability to anticipate is what separates those brands that get a jump on the market and those that have regretted things years down the line. 

Early on in my restaurateur life, I lost quite a few opportunities because I waited too long. Today my motto is “commit first and figure the rest out.” You want that same mindset.

young chef plating food

Stupid Thing #7: You Don’t Understand the Importance of Culture

All business problems are people problems in disguise. Those people problems are related to a toxic culture. Few have a clear understanding of how critical culture is to brand success. While we tend to think that the brand is the most important element, it’s the culture of a brand that creates the brand. Too many times, restaurants put the cart in front of the horse.

Within any 15-minute meeting with a restaurant owner, I can narrow down exactly where the culture issues are coming from. Give me a day, and I’ll have a plan on how to clean up their culture. I hate to tell you this; most culture problems start at the top of the food chain… that means the owners and managers. Now, when you’re aware of a situation, you have the power to change that situation. If you know that you might be the problem then you have two options: make the changes you need or not.

To take no action is an action. It’s just not smart action. As with all things in life, you have a choice. Choose wisely. 

Restaurant staff management just got easier, employee turnover just became a thing of the past.

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Donald Burns is The Restaurant Coach™, named one of The Definitive Restaurant Experts to Follow and One of 23 Inspiring Hospitality Experts to Follow on Twitter. A restaurant consultant for a $4.2-billion-dollar company, he is the leading authority, speaker, author, and international coach on how restaurant owners, operators, and culinary professionals go from just good to outstanding. A former USAF Pararescueman (PJ), restaurant owner, and Executive Chef with Wolfgang Puck, he has the unique skills to break restaurants free from average and skyrocket them to peak performance. He works with independent restaurants that want to build their brand, strengthen their team, and increase their profits without sacrificing their lives to their business. His first book: Your Restaurant Sucks! Embrace the suck. Unleash your restaurant. Become outstanding. is an international bestseller and received the 2019 Industry Book & Author of the Year Award by Nightclub & Bar.