We we’ve all seen it: restaurant staff members huddling in gossip rings, fiddling with their cell phones, or snacking while they’re on the clock. It’s a combination of feeling listless, lethargic, and apathetic, and it’s ultimately unproductive.
And with that, the “suspension of disbelief” for guests, as California-based chef Jeffrey Wall puts it, is lost.
Save for the small fraction of operations that consistently pack the house with patrons, downtime is inevitable in the restaurant business, be it throughout the day, between service, or seasonally.
Regardless, “Professionalism [should be] at the heart of what we do,” says Kate Edwards, culinary management instructor with the Institute of Culinary Education. “You’re not having people over to your apartment.”
More critical than simply avoiding downtime is grasping the rhythm of an individual restaurant, Edwards says, to understand what each business needs throughout every part of the day. Each staff member should have clear expectations for managing quiet periods, she adds, putting downtime into two possible efficiency buckets: organization and education.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all program,” says Michael Maxwell, partner at Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting, adding that training, teaching, practicing and creating can also come out of downtime. “Create sales machines cloaked in hospitality.”
Maxwell also points to the importance of restaurant owners staffing efficiently as they create the schedule.
Chef Patrick Ayers, owner of Cloverdale Restaurant and Farm, a Steamboat, Colorado-based fine dining restaurant that opened less than a year ago, recently applied a staggered start time to curb front-of-house downtime.
“We have an opener who is responsible for setting up the dining room, making sure napkins are clean and folded, utensils are polished, the floor is clean, bathrooms are clean, etcetera,” Ayers says.
He says that if there is ever idle time in his dinner-only eatery, his staff is advised to spend time in a library upstairs. Because the menu changes frequently, servers at Cloverdale know to learn the intricacies of the items they’re serving.
“’I don’t know’ is not an answer at my restaurant,” Ayers says.
Chef Wall, who worked as executive chef at restaurants in Atlanta, Denver and is presently developing a concept in Santa Cruz, California, quotes internationally acclaimed restaurateur Charlie Trotter’s book Lessons in Excellence, about what it takes to build a successful team, declaring “That’s not my job” an intolerable statement in his kitchen.
“The way I run my kitchen requires a lot of planning,” Wall says. “There’s a lot of projects that take one month, three months, six months…depending on what we’re doing. There’s always something to do, even if there’s a lull. … We make everything from scratch.”
That can mean processing dozens of pounds of Fresno chili peppers for housemade hot sauce, preserving lemons, and more time- and labor-intensive projects.
“In the springtime, the cilantro starts to flower, and the seed is fresh coriander. It’s a pain in the ass to harvest,” Wall says. “If the whole kitchen team spends an hour doing it, versus one low level person, it’s little things like that…or having a service team that’s willing to say, ‘The stations are clean, the tables are set; Chef, what can I do for you?’”
Wall demonstrates leniency with his team, recognizing the long hours, little compensation and scarce glory that comes with being in the trenches.
“You have to offer a little bit of solace to the team,” Wall says. “They work brutal hours, don’t see their families, don’t make good money, and when it’s quiet and they’ve been productive 98 percent of the time…go ahead, drink some coffee.”
Wall says this attitude helps him retain the talent he finds, because, as he points out, “hiring and re-training are your worst nightmare” as a restaurateur. “It takes a lot of foresight to hold onto people, to give them more skills, and make sure the entire team is cross-trained,” he says.
Jason Raffin, chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s Comstock Saloon, has a similarly tolerant approach.
“We do deep-cleaning, reorganization, test kitchen and sometimes just joke around and have meaningful conversations about the future or our personal lives,” Raffin says. “While I find special projects on occasion, I’m not one to force my staff to do unnecessary work if it is slow. We all deserve a break, and if it is incredibly slow (which barely ever happens), I allow them to make decisions on whether one of them would like to leave early.”
Edwards says one challenge that has cropped up only in recent years is cell phone usage.
“Cell phone use is rampant,” she says. “What I always talk about in customer service trainings is when you’re standing in uniform, your actions send messages. Just a peek at your phone indicates indifference.”
Some restaurants, indeed, have a zero-tolerance policy as it relates to technology.
“If anyone was on their phone in the dining room, they would be fired,” Ayers says. “That’s so fundamentally opposite of how we operate. It’s unacceptable in the dining room.”
Ayers demands that his 20-person staff remain focused throughout the entirety of their shifts, regardless of quiet stretches.
“The guest with a 9 pm reservation is just as important as the guest with a 5 pm reservation,” he says.
For extended periods of downtime, perhaps in seasonal businesses, there are positive ways to give staff time off, and save on labor costs.
“If your business needs to be more thoughtful about its bottom line, cut some costs, track the business; as a manager you need to use your best judgement,” Edwards says. “If you need to, give folks time. Effective use of downtime can reduce labor costs, help maintain morale, and improve guest service.”