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Organization is at the forefront of efficiency. Just ask Steve DiFillippo, restaurateur and owner of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse. A living example of how being organized can catapult one person into a restaurant empire, at 24 years old, this Boston University and Cambridge School of Culinary Arts graduate took the original Davio’s on Newbury Street in Boston and spent the next few years turning it into nine restaurants. He authored a book, It’s All About the Guest, and consumers can find his Davio’s signature spring rolls in grocery stores nationwide. As he went on to woo shoppers on QVC, he focused on charitable support of Best Buddies, Taste of the NFL, Rodman Ride for Kids, and the Anti-Defamation League, New England. To boot, DiFillippo still cooks meals for his wife and four kids.

With this kind of schedule, he has amassed two simple rules that keep the crew happy and the ship on course. The first is to get and stay highly organized.

“The key to improving and maintaining efficiency when running a restaurant, especially one with multiple locations in my case, is to stay organized and have a to-do list each day,” says DiFillippo. “On Monday mornings I make a list of tasks for the week to help me stay on track and make sure to maintain my calendar. If you make an effort to stay organized, you’d be amazed at how profitable your business can be.”

Steve DiFillippo, owner of Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse
Steve DiFillippo, owner of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse

DiFillippo’s second secret is being physically present in his restaurants. It seems obvious, but many restaurateurs lead from the sidelines, which can lead to gaps in efficiency. Not good, says DiFillippo. Rather than sequester himself in an office, DiFillippo spends his time in his nine restaurants nationwide. Despite having several properties, he still oversees changes in the menu, hosts meetings and interacts with his staff, who he sees as “inner guests.”

At the Squeeze In in Reno, Nevada, owner Shila Morris says she fosters efficiency through systems her associates can follow and in which they can take ownership.

“I pinpoint areas of improvement and set up incentives for them to strive for that improvement, whether it is up-selling dishes or maximizing table management,” she says. “For example, we teach our staff how to read and understand numbers such as prime cost, which is helpful in maximizing labor on shift and realizing where adjustments can be made.”

Morris also encourages her staff to take part in developing more efficient processes. Manager Kate Robinson starts by prioritizing mental to-do lists.

“I begin with most important items, then the things I can do in between tasks, followed by things that can wait,” says Robinson. “I also delegate to my fellow associates and ask for help when I need it, and strive to make the most out of every step and task.”

82 Queen
82 Queen

Elizabeth Bennett, a server at the Squeeze In, uses awareness to stay on point.

“I keep my blinders off and I’m always trying to connect the dots as I go from one side of the restaurant before making my way to the other side and figure out a game plan,” says Bennett. “I gauge how many people I can help on the way and, as important as it is for us to stay in our sections, I try to always be there for my other servers helping with a payment or getting a drink. Communication is huge, and if you show a willingness to help them, then more times than not they will reciprocate.”

In Charleston, South Carolina, efficiency translates into staying power. Nothing better illustrates dining in this southern city like the classic 82 Queen, a longtime favorite in town. Jonathan Kish is the CEO of Queen Street Hospitality, which also owns Lowcountry Bistro and three Swig & Swine locations. For Kish, it’s about managing kitchen workflow and tracking tickets.

“The kitchen has two distinct phases of operation, prep and line, where some people work only prep and some work only line, and all of the items are programmed in with names and where in the kitchen it needs to print,” says Kish. “These items have modifiers, but the server is in control of pacing the meal and the expo is responsible for when food is fired after the ticket comes to the kitchen. For example, well done steak has a 15-minute cook time while shrimp and grits has a three-minute cook time, so the server will call the steak first and wait to call the shrimp and grits.”

Jake Riley, director of operations at Black Rose Hospitality manages The VNYL, The Late Late, and the just-opened The Woodstock. He says efficient practices should include cross utilization of goods to reduce purchasing, extensive staff training to reduce labor hours, and batch/prep work to increase the speed of sale.

Odd Duck
Odd Duck

“While cost related initiatives are the measurable winners in creating a more efficient restaurant, ethos-related ideas really make the major difference,” says Riley. “Big team builders like major staff outings, plus smaller quality of work environment initiatives such as playing music in the kitchen, truly help cultivate the relationship our team has with our brand.”

You can control the conversation and change the way guest communication is handled with proper staff training.

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But Riley says there is another oft overlooked path to a more efficient eatery: educating and involving the guest.

“Very recently we built a self-ordering station at one of our properties and this gives the guest the chance to educate themselves on the menu and order at their own pace, but it also affords the business the opportunity to put more emphasis on quality and less on labor,” says Riley. “This model works for this specific concept. Begin with a quality guest experience and work backwards in finding and fixing inefficiencies.”

Cocktail consultant Jason Littrell trains bartenders through Critical Mass, an events, hospitality and strategy firm. He says efficiency is his obsession.

“While cost related initiatives are the measurable winners in creating a more efficient restaurant, ethos-related ideas really make the major difference.” -Jake Riley



“There is a causal link between restaurant efficiency, profitability, and job satisfaction, and in the case of a bartender unencumbered by needless extra steps and distractions, they can focus on the task at hand and achieve a flow state in service,” which Littrell calls fluid motion. “Often times, when working an efficient bar with great mise en place, you’ll only notice you’ve stopped when it’s time to close.”

When it comes to staffing, there is a delicate balance between too much and too little. Too many people on the floor means servers won’t make as much money and, over time, they will move on. Too little and diners are neglected. In fact, in original data from ZipRecruiter, an analysis of the ratio of restaurant industry job openings to job seekers in the company’s online employment marketplace revealed the jobs openings to job seekers ratio to be 0.84, which translates to nearly one job opening per job seeker. ZipRecruiter experts see this ratio as signs of a labor shortage because it limits room for standard turnover. Translation: Understaffed restaurants lead to inefficiency.

The Woodstock
The Woodstock

At Odd Duck in Austin, Texas, general manager Cory Neel and his team decrease wait times through handheld devices.

“Typically, for a table for two, on a Friday night, wait times were anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours,” says Neel, but with handheld devices, “We found that our turn times, for every category, dropped anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes per table.”

In large restaurants, spacing and establishing systems that decrease travel time between seating areas means a more efficient process. Le Marais French Brasserie owner Jose Meirelles helms a busy Times Square restaurant that includes a kitchen in the basement, two dining floors and a seating area near the bar.

“It is crucial that we divide bigger parties among these three areas and not crowd them due to requests for seating on the second floor to fill up these areas little by little,” says Meirelles. “My wait staff is constantly ascending the stairs with large trays of food so they need to have a system of communication that works.”

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Kelly Merritt has been specializing in freelance culinary travel writing since 1999. Her work has appeared in Southern Living, Forbes Travel, Plate Magazine, OpenTable, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, South Magazine and Florida Weekly. She is the author of "The Everything Family Guide to Budget Travel" (Simon and Schuster) and the novel "FLIGHT" about the adventures of fictitious travel writer Kate Carrington. In her career Kelly has written about many famous faces including Oscar de la Renta, Larry King, Tim Tebow, Kenny Chesney, Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard, design superstar Colin Cowie, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and bestselling authors Heather Graham, Kathy Reichs and Sandra Brown, among numerous others. Kelly curates a partial collection of her articles which number in the thousands at PotluckLife.com along with her author website, KellyMerrittBooks.com.
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