donald burns the management sandtrap

Being a leader is tough. I mean that. It’s hard to get up, get motivated, and head to work trying to keep your energy high while running a restaurant shift. Some days you feel like you got this under control and other days you feel like your restaurant runs you.

What separates those good days from the bad days? It’s your mindset. Okay, that sounds basic and boring… but it’s the truth. You determine the success or failure of each day by the meaning you attach to each situation that pops up.

These mental sand traps are the biggest obstacle you will face. Forget about the tight labor market. Forget about increased competition. All those external battles need to be fought after you win the battle between your ears that goes on 24/7. You are your own worst enemy. You get pulled into these sand traps that keep you stuck in a real-life version of Groundhog Day (yes, the 1993 movie with Bill Murray). Escaping these sand traps is the only thing that is going to set you free.

Trap Number One: I Have to Do Everything Myself

The ego loves to play this card. That voice in your head saying that no one does it better than you is such bullshit that it needs to be laughed at. Now, you might be really damn good at the task you are talking about. However, unless you are running a one person food truck, you are going to need other people to run your restaurant. So, save the martyr drama for someone else. That doesn’t fly around here.

When you take away an opportunity for your team to participate with tasks you are sending them two unconscious messages:

  1. I don’t trust you.
  2. I don’t think your skills are good enough.

Both of these messages have dangerous consequences that you might not be taking into consideration. When you lose trust and respect of your team you might as well be doing everything yourself, because people do not want to work for a dictator.

This trap has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You get what you expect from people. If you expect your team to be a bunch of “lazy kids” that don’t want to work hard, guess what you see in your restaurant? Yeah, a bunch of “lazy kids” that don’t want to work. Well, here is a question that needs to be answered by the person saying that statement: “Who hired them?”

That’s what I thought. You see, many of the problems you have in your restaurant are a result of poor decisions made by the person running the show. If you want to break free from this trap you need to realize that the “easy” decision and the “right” decision are often at odds with your conscious. Do you hire another person (with no personality and a permanent frown) to just fill a spot on the schedule or do you hold out for that one who has personality (and a genuine smile)? One is the easy choice, the other is the right choice.

donald burns restaurant management trap

Trap Number Two: My Opinion is What Matters

Many managers feel that they have to have all the answers and that their word is law. Some see themselves as Moses bringing down the tablets from the mountain with the commandments chiseled upon them. When you think you know all the answers, you’ve already lost. You can’t know everything. What you need to do is understand that you don’t HAVE to know everything. You just need to be able to find the answers!

Now that might mean asking others for help or guidance. For many, that is a scary situation to be in because they hold tight to that mental trap that they have to have all the answers. The real fear here is what others think of you. We don’t like looking like a fool and being called out for not knowing the answers.

Here is a great quote from Shakespeare to remember: “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

Better to be a fool who is willing to learn and grown than a stubborn jerk who won’t take the input of others. You have people right now on your team that have a few great ideas on how to help your business improve. Are you willing to listen? Are you able to drop the ego and learn? Are you capable of changing habits that are holding you back?

If you said no, then your chances of closing or losing more staff, just escalated to the danger level. They say that a fool and his money are soon parted. Well, a stubborn fool who won’t change their restaurant will soon see profits shrink and turnover grow out of control. Once again, there is an easy choice and there is the right choice. Choose wisely.

Trap Number Three: You Work for Me

The reason people leave your restaurant to take another position down the street is usually a version of this. When you talk down to people and treat them like shit, they will take it for a while because they might need the job.

Some will stay for years and deal with the mistreatment. They look down. They look afraid. They are doing the bare minimum to just get through the shift. They are the walking dead and your culture reflects that. No energy. No passion. No exceptional guest experience. Average at best. Remember that being average sucks.

If you treat your people like this, then you are not the leader, you’re just a bully that gets a power trip off of treating people poorly. Then those same people complain to everyone that will listen that “there are no good people out there.” There are great people out there, they just stay away from you if you have a reputation for being a jerk.

I once worked with a restaurant in Boston that was trying to grow its brand. They had a hard time finding people to work for them. After a couple of days observing the managers in action, the problem was very apparent. The Director of Operations was scolding a line cook for some minor infraction and he reached in his pocket, pulled out one of his business cards and said to the cook, “Here’s my card. Let me see yours.” The cook, of course, didn’t have one and said that to the manager. The manager replied, “That’s right, because you are nobody here! Now do what I tell you, you work for me!”

I told the owner what I saw and that he had to fire the Director of Operations. He wouldn’t (or didn’t have the backbone to) get rid of him. I canceled my contract with them that day and walked away from a very lucrative deal. I don’t tolerate people treating other people like that. Usually it’s the owner or upper management that is the problem and they have to be able to admit that. I don’t have time to modify your behavior in the time allocated that we have to work together if you don’t realize that your restaurant is a reflection of you. 

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I coach in 90-day blocks that have clear outcomes. Behavior modification takes some time up to a year to work. I love a good challenge and if the owner had shown some clues that he wanted to change, I would have taken it on. He didn’t and he was content with the way his pitbull of an operations director was taking care of business.

All business problems are really people problems in disguise. 90% of those people problems are created at the top of the management chain. Culture flows down, not up, and it starts with you as the leader.

Trap Number Four: That Won’t Work Here

Another trap that keeps managers stuck is the trap of complacency. You’ve done things the same way most of you career and perhaps they have served you well. Here’s the bad news: markets change and you must change with them.

Don’t think so? Do you remember the once big chain called Howard Johnson’s? At their peak that had over 1,000 locations. They failed to change their way of doing business as markets changed and by 2016, the very last one in existence closed its doors. No ticker tape parade. No going out with style. Just a slow dissolve of a once great brand. You would be shocked how many restaurants close each day that no one hears about. They just quietly close. You only hear about it when you hear that a new restaurant is going to open in that location.

Many of those restaurants could have been saved if they were open to new ideas and strategies to grow their brand. Being open minded is a trait that all successful restaurants share. They look for creative ways to create more value. They seek ways to be more convenient for today’s guests. They brainstorm ways to recruit staff in a tight labor pool.

If your brand is not being innovative and pushing to become better you just maintaining what you have. Having a hold on and protect what I have mindset does work for very long. They are a new restaurant concept in your market right now that are hungry and aggressive to take your market! If you just try to maintain you will lose the battle.

You can approach your strategy as either chess or checkers. When you play checkers you are trying to keep up and react to the market. They do a $5 happy hour menu, so you do one. They do a “kids eat free” night, so you do as well. It’s far better to be aggressive in your conquest of the market and play it more like a game of chess. You plot your moves carefully and are always ahead of your competition. To do this effectively you’ll need a strategic plan and a calendar so you know when you implement your strategy. The most successful restaurateurs are always open to new ideas, especially if it can give them an edge.

When clients say, “That won’t work in my market,” I ask why. The reply is usually, “We’ll we tried that and it didn’t work.”

“Oh yeah, how many times did you try it?” I’ll ask.

“A couple. It didn’t work.”

The problem is not that it didn’t work. The problem is you didn’t give it a chance and didn’t make adjustments to see that it worked.

donald burns restaurant management trap

Trap Number Five: My Problems are Different

I would bet that you feel your problems are very unique. Sorry to rain on your pity party, but they’re not. I travel around the world working with restaurants and I can say with certainty that all restaurants share similar problems – people.

Don’t take this the wrong way: running a restaurant is simple. It’s not easy – however, it’s not rocket science either. Actually, it’s more like people science! And 80% of those people problems start at the top.

Bad attitudes, bad habits, and bad hiring contribute to much of the drama that gives a restaurant a tarnished reputation. Granted, reality TV shows that showcase restaurants yelling and screaming at each other doesn’t help. If you have a restaurant that is full of drama here are a few tips to stop it:

  1. Don’t tolerate it anymore. Drama is great for movies and bad for restaurants. It only exists because the leader allows it to happen. Sometimes you’ve just got to say, “No more.”
  2. Don’t add to the drama. You would be shocked how easy it is for owners and leaders to get dragged into the drama and how they escalate it. Good intentions don’t mean much when people get their feelings hurt. Also, reread tip number one above.
  3. Get rid of those that cause the drama. It can be said that 80% of the drama in your restaurant is caused by just 20% or less of your team. Those few bad apples really do spoil it for everyone. In order to stop the drama, sometimes you’ll need to just remove those people from your team.

Now if you are the one causing all the drama, give yourself a timeout and realize that your restaurant and all its problems are your fault. It’s hard to admit that the problems in your restaurant are on you. They say, the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. That’s a good place to be because when you’re pissed at least you’ll do something to change it.

It was mentioned at the beginning that you are your own worst enemy. It’s true. You are also the hero that can turn your restaurant around as well. You need to decide which person you want to be. Awareness precedes choice and choice precedes change.

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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.