Hospitality Mindset: Restaurant Edition
by Jennifer Radkey
Have you ever wondered why you just can’t seem to get ahead regardless of what you do, or why you appear to be developing a negative team culture?
Maybe you wake up with a sense of dread or anxiety about what lies ahead of you each day, or maybe no matter how hard you try and how much money you pour into your restaurant it never seems to be enough to get you where you want to be.
The cause of these problems may stem from your—and your team’s—mindset.
But what is mindset exactly?
Simply stated, mindset is an individual’s usual attitude or mental state. It reflects someone’s way of thinking and motivates their actions. So, why is it important to be aware of your mindset?
Well, if your mindset dictates how you show up in your life each and every day, then it will influence all parts of your life. Your thoughts about yourself, others, your business, your opportunities, and your challenges are all influenced by your mindset.
Your mindset can either hinder or promote your overall well-being and success in life.
The good news about mindset is that you can change it – if you want to. It can also be contagious—in a positive way.
These facts led me to question if the different sectors of the hospitality industry face unique mindset challenges and what can be done to overcome them.
To find answers and gain further insight I decided to turn to our team at KRG Hospitality for their thoughts. In turn, I’ve written a series of hospitality mindset articles, including one for bar operators and one for hotel operators.
In this article I’ll explore the restaurant industry, with thoughts from chef consultant Nathen Dubé.
Let’s dive in!
The Restaurant Industry
The restaurant industry is massive, employing 12.5 million in the US and 1.2 million in Canada.
Ranging from quick service to fine dining and offering every type of cuisine imaginable, the industry is a staple in any community. And while many enjoy being guests at these establishments, the same can’t always be said for working in them.
The restaurant industry faces constant challenges, ranging from mental health issues to labor shortages and rising costs.
So, what makes a restaurant succeed despite these challenges? While there are many ingredients involved in running a successful restaurant, arguably one of the most important is a strong operator.
Operating a successful restaurant takes a certain mindset. You need to be organized, open-minded to growth strategies, resilient, and responsive to the needs of your team.
Interested in what makes a restaurant operator stand out, I asked Nathen what contributes to operator success:
“The key strength for a restaurant owner, first and foremost, is resiliency. You need to stay even keeled during the good and bad times. Things will fluctuate between busy and slow. You will experience great staff, not-so-great staff, shortages, bad reviews, good reviews, equipment breaking, orders delivered late, plumbing issues, electrical issues… The list goes on and on.
“But at the end of the day, when you say you’re open at noon or 5:00 PM or whichever, you better be ready on time, every time. That can give the strongest characters stress and anxiety over the long term. I think being resilient and able to do what is in your control and let go of the rest will help an owner maintain one’s sanity.
“The second strength needed is empathy. Without empathy for your staff, your customers, the many other people in the food and alcohol chain, the risk of becoming a tyrant no one wants to work for or associate with is real, and I’ve seen it happen. Your staff are people too, who have doctor’s appointments, family gatherings, and trouble at home. Some may suffer from addiction and mental illness, and some live in borderline poverty, which is a truly sad reality for many hospitality workers.
“The third characteristic is good business sense. As much as restaurants and bars are about hospitality, engaging customers, and providing great service, if you can’t run a business properly, that is all for naught. Money management, accounting, marketing, the whole lot is important to your success and longevity.”
Operators need a positive, strategic, growth mindset to be successful in the restaurant industry. Maintaining this kind of mindset takes self-awareness and consistent cultivating. There will be challenges every day that will test you and if you aren’t checking in with your thought patterns, it can be easy to fall into a negative mindset.
When asked what specific challenges hotel operators face that may affect their mindset, Nathen shared some insights.
Opening and operating a restaurant comes with inherent financial risks. Sometimes it may feel as if more money is going out than coming in.
“When dealing with perishable food items in a time-sensitive environment, there will be plenty of challenges,” says Nathen. “Some are temporary, some are constant, and some are one-offs, but they all need careful attention. There is obvious financial risk and stress that comes with that. Labor costs, food, and alcohol are the main culprits of financial strain for the back of house. The kitchen setup costs (equipment, construction, etc.) are also in this category. Money can be a great source of stress for anyone, and more so for those who are risk averse.”
The Human Element: Guests
As a restaurant operator you rely on guests. Your efforts are almost always focused on how you can get more guests through the door and how you can get them to return.
Besides the stress of keeping them happy, sharing, and returning, guests can create another level of stress.
“Dealing with customer feedback can affect well-being,” Nathen says. “Not everyone who comes into your establishment will love everything. There will be complaints, there will be disagreements, poor online reviews, and there will be outright rude guests. This causes stress to staff, as well as the owner’s state of mind. Keeping staff motivated, calm, and on the same page when dealing with these guests and reviews is a lot of emotional work. It takes a strong-willed individual to let it roll off their back while still learning from it.”
The Human Element: Staff
Without your team there would be no restaurant. Your team is key to your success and can also be a cause of stress to your overall well-being.
“Issues can and will arise in dealing with the human element of labor,” explains Nathen. “Concern and care for staff is a full-time job in itself, and that’s in a best-case scenario. In a worst-case scenario you can experience shortages, theft, drama, and the like that will need to be dealt with or it can drag down a good establishment and create an exodus of good staff. Not to create a bleak picture, but management can take a toll.”
Your team experiences their own unique set of challenges that can affect their well-being and mindset as well. Being aware of these challenges is important if you are hoping to create a culture of respect, collaboration, and trust.
When asked what specific challenges restaurant staff face, Nathen had some insights:
“It’s well documented that working in a professional kitchen is difficult work when things go perfectly well. Long hours standing, hot kitchens, short time constraints, and difficult customers can be draining on a person. Mix in stress, poor health habits, and skipped meals, you get the perfect recipe for very hard work. Managing stress and employee wellness within the kitchen team is important to an overall successful business. Not paying attention or implementing ways to help will lead to a difficulty hiring and retaining staff.”
A Living Wage and Safe Environment
The restaurant industry has faced criticism for low pay, unsafe working environments, and an unsupportive culture.
While this is not the case in all establishments, it occurs enough in the industry to make potential employees wary.
“Pay in the industry is notoriously low for entry level positions,” Nathen says. “There is typically limited room to grow on the pay grade, and a lack of insurance, health, and dental care can compound the issues.
“Workplace standards including safety and culture are another common pain point for restaurants. Dirty, unsafe conditions create a dangerous work environment. It will also make it difficult to pass health inspections. Allowing a toxic culture to develop creates an environment that no good staff wants to work at. All of these issues can drain the pride from a good, well run, happy environment that employees want to stay and thrive at.”
Harmful Beliefs in the Restaurant Industry
Your belief system directly impacts your mindset. If you have negative beliefs regarding your team, your guests, or your community, it’s time to sit down and recognize where those beliefs are coming from and how to change them.
The restaurant industry has a few specific common, harmful beliefs that are prevalent in many establishments. Being aware and knowing how to acknowledge and combat these beliefs is crucial to creating a more positive work environment.
When I asked Nathen what one of the most prevalent harmful beliefs operators have about their team, he discussed the stigma restaurant employees often face:
“Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around restaurant staff being uneducated, working in this industry only because they can’t do anything else in society. Often, they are seen as doing this job until something better comes along. Why should they invest in their staff’s well-being if they will vanish in a moment’s notice?
“The next stigma is that all workers are just lazy drunks, addicts, and thieves out for a paycheque to drink away at the bar. While there is a prevalent issue of substance abuse in the industry, it can be a tough challenge to address, and unfair if everyone is painted with the same brush.”
Operators are not the only people in the industry who harbor negative or false beliefs.
Staff can do so as well. One primary negative belief is that management and/or ownership doesn’t care about them.
“In terms of ownership, kitchen staff can feel ripped off, or that they are doing all the work while the owner gets rich,” explains Nathen. “Staff will make accusations behind closed doors that they do all the work while the owner does nothing.”
To overcome negative beliefs, says Nathen, “[a]n engaged owner can eliminate the walls between staff, customers, community, and themselves. Talking to those in your business circle and including everyone squashes resentment, misunderstandings, and most complaints will be solved immediately, eliminating potentially bad situations.”
The last thing that any hospitality business needs is a toxic culture. A toxic workplace culture encourages and breeds negative mindsets on all levels.
I asked Nathen what creates toxic culture in a restaurant and he shared his thoughts and experiences:
“It starts with ownership. Defining a clear set of core values and standards in the workplace—and adhering to them from the hiring process all the way to daily operations—will dictate the type of people you hire and attract. Toxic environments can be created by just one employee. My experience with toxic kitchens was based on there being no consequences; there wasn’t even a lack of standards enforcement because there were no standards to begin with.
“Things like bullying, harassment, poor attitudes, low morale, lack of leadership, and poor working conditions—whether physical, emotional or both—are the typical causes of toxic culture. To blame is also the negative actions of others, and equally the lack of action from management. Bad eggs are left to rot and quickly poison the whole omelet, so to speak.
“Define a concept clearly, every step of the way, and then find the people to fit that vision. But also deal with problem employees immediately; there is nothing worse than losing good employees to bad ones.”
Understanding the challenges that operators and staff are currently facing, and acknowledging the importance of growth mindset and the need for change, I asked Nathen what positive changes have been occurring in the industry as a whole?
“Restaurant work environments have improved over the last few decades but still have a long way to go. When I started in the mid ‘90s, belittling, yelling, and screaming—general abusive treatment of anyone and everyone—was commonplace. There was no compassion for the environment that staff worked in. The culture, the workload, pay… Literally everything was just ‘take it or leave it.’ ‘If you don’t like it, leave,’ was repeated everywhere to any staff who raised concerns.
“Over time, a stand has been made in response to a mass exodus, tales of burnout, and at the worst end of the spectrum, severe addiction, and even suicide. It was time to look from within at where the actual problems were, and what could be changed. The veil of toughness finally came down, and an honest conversation has led to slow changes.
“One of the more prevalent changes is an overall less-abusive environment. No longer is it tolerated to show anything less than human decency to staff and guests. Genuine care for staff well-being is starting to be seen almost everywhere. It’s leading to a new excitement among hospitality professionals and can hopefully attract new individuals to the field.”
Room for Improvement
Although awareness of the well-being of those working in this industry is increasing, there are still changes that need to happen.
Nathen believes that improvement lies in focusing on balance and respect:
“There is no way around the fact that cooking and serving is hard, long work, regardless of concept. This is unfortunately the entry point for all those who claim to want to change the industry or make it better. In my opinion, this is the wrong approach. Enhancing the whole experience of the employee, leadership team, and guest will make everyone happier and, hopefully, healthier.
“Balancing the workload for everyone, finding creative ways to increase pay, and offering benefits leads to a strong sense of job safety. Rotating schedules, for example: four nine-hour days; or two on, three off; or something away from the traditional 10-, 12-, or 14-hour days and five- to six-day work weeks, reduces burnout, gives employees a chance at a social and family life, and still allows everyone to earn enough income to live. Throw in benefits and some sort of bonus pay, and you will have a brand everyone wants to work for.
“Another big contributor to improving the industry—and we have made big strides already—is the respect for people and creating an environment or culture void of bullying, harassment, intimidation, and general mistreatment of the people who make this the best industry to work in.”
In a highly competitive industry facing consistent challenges and harmful beliefs, it will come down to developing and maintaining the right mindset to truly succeed both professionally and personally. It starts from the top with a positive, resilient, growth mindset.
I’ll leave you with a few last words of wisdom from Nathen:
“Hopefully, there is a sense of urgency in the fight to change the industry for the better. It’s important to recognize and praise positive contributions and not just positive people because everyone needs encouragement. It’s equally important to handle negative contributions quickly and correctly.
“A positive attitude can go a long way toward creating a strong team player who can make the best of stressful times and have a coachable attitude. A positive person can help change the culture of a workplace and pick up other teammates who may need a boost. They share their optimism and passion for the job and can make management’s life easier.
“A negative person will contribute to a toxic environment. Resentment begins to build on both sides as a negative person sees things not being done their way, contributes less to the success of the kitchen, and spreads their toxic beliefs to other employees who may start to feel similarly.
“I recently heard a saying, and I don’t recall by who so I can’t quote it, but it goes, ‘It’s important to get the right people on the bus, but it’s just as important to get them in the right seats.’”
Cheers to personal and professional well-being!
Image: Helmy Zairy on Pexels