25 things restaurant owners should never do

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Feb/10
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Awhile back, I wrote about Bruce Buschel’s New York Times article on the 100 things restaurant staff should never do and the sometimes vitriolic debate surrounding the piece. Quite rightly, a lot of folks felt the list was pretentious and Buschel’s lack of experience certainly didn’t help matters.

He was roundly mocked by many people in the industry (and quite a few patrons) but just as many clueless freaks chimed in with support proving to me that a large segment of the population clearly has no idea how challenging it can sometimes be to a good server.

While I’m no hater (hell, at least a third of Buschel’s advice was solid) everything else he said left me with flashbacks to the motley assortment of owners and managers that I’ve had the misfortune of working with. Like many things in life, the service industry has far more bad eggs than good ones and it gets stinkier the higher you look.

Leaving aside the bickering between staff and guests (some things never change) and a certain segment of the workforce that will never amount to anything (I like to call them “the doomed”) the blame for staff performing poorly can almost entirely be laid at the feet of the owners and those power-hungry assholes they hire to manage their venue for them.

Training is clearly lacking here and while I’d like nothing better than to put together a helpful, concise training manual nobody who matters is going to pay attention and it’s way more to fun to right a shit-list of no-nos anyway…

And so, I present the twenty-five things restaurant owners should never do (I initially considered adding seventy-five more but there’s something to be said for brevity). A lot of this applies to managers as well and quite frankly, I see no harm in lumping ‘em all in together. To my mind, if the manager sucks, the owner’s either not much better or wilfully ignorant.

1. Don’t charge your staff for food while eating whatever you want. Sure you might have paid for it but they’re hungry too and if they’re working a long shift, they should get something at some point. This doesn’t mean you have to give ‘em the steak but leftovers are fair game. Pasta’s cheap. If they want to order something off of the menu, give ‘em a discount.

2. Also, get your staff a drink when they’re done. This doesn’t mean the night-cleaners are going to find you guys sprawled out in a booth in the middle of a high-stakes poker game (but that can be fun every once in awhile). Offered food and drink will cut down on casual theft and they will feel appreciated.

At this point, a cheap owner will exclaim that they can’t afford to do this every night to which I call bullshit. Man up. Show your staff that you’re with ‘em in good times and bad.

3. Everyone has things that get on their nerves but there’s no need to rub it in. Regarding procedures it’s all important but obsessing about clean glassware, table-placement or elbows on the bar will annoy your staff and they’ll cut corners elsewhere. Think big picture but remain detail-oriented.

4. Leave the tables alone! Any decent server will be closely monitoring their section and when you come in and ask their guests how they’re doing for the third time, you’re interrupting the flow of their night and our steps-of-service!

5. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with getting involved if you know the table or if something’s gone horribly wrong but even if the server’s fucking up, go to them first. I can’t think of anything that will make it more apparent to your guests that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

6. For that matter, don’t take orders unless the server asks you for help and if you do, don’t forget to tell them. Even better, go pick up that drink if the server is busy with another table, they’ll love you for it and your guests will appreciate the hands-on touch.

7. No special, eight-course tasting menus at the last minute for that table of VIPs without covering it at the beginning of the shift! Nobody likes surprises and both sides of the house will hate you if you spring this kind of shit on ‘em.

8. Too much white puts you in the red. Coke and booze can be fun but when you take a break during the dinner rush for a line in your office, you’re sending the wrong message to your staff. Wait till after close and share.

9. Don’t give away too much free shit to your guests. They won’t appreciate it and when you run out of money, they’ll do nothing more than shake their head and reminisce about the good days.

10. On a related note, if you do invite your friends to dinner to show off your restaurant and you’re going to promo their meal, make sure they know that they’re supposed to tip. They’ll be gone by the end of the night but you’ll still look bad.

11. Don’t piss off your regulars! They’re your bread-and-butter and when you mess with what they like about your place, you’re saying you don’t care whether they come or not (and guess what, they won’t).

12. If you’re contracting with an outside performer or company, be sure to get back to them with all of the information they might need in a timely fashion, assumptions being related to fuck-ups and all. Contracting will always necessitate extra work but it can be worth it if you’re prepared.

13. Just because your potential staff may be unaware of labor laws doesn’t give you the right to screw with them. Minimum wage is there for a reason. Pace of business notwithstanding, your staff deserve breaks, should get a decent night’s sleep before their next shift and shouldn’t have to perform any tasks they’re not comfortable doing.

14. Trying to get a cut of their tips through devious means such as breakage, walkouts or “house tips” has no place in any establishment. These are called “the costs of doing business” and you’re responsible for ‘em.

15. Don’t pretend that the idea of the servers tipping out the kitchen and bussers has anything to do with your egalitarian notions of sharing the wealth. Those guys deserve a proper wage from you and if the servers want to give ‘em a little extra, that’s their prerogative. It’s no secret that proper wages and longer periods of employment will make everyone richer and happier.

16. Your staff aren’t responsible for promoting your business. There’s a big difference between having them let their guests know about upcoming events and the specials that day and being forced to join a Facebook group where they have to invite all of their friends or risk punishment.

17. Collecting e-mail addresses from guests should be voluntary. Forcing minimum quotas on your staff is demeaning to them and irritating for your regulars.

18. Don’t schedule three staff for a day-shift when you know you only need two and then force the other unlucky bugger to clean and organize inventory all day (unless you’re going to make it up to them by bumping them up to a laborer wage).

19. Daily meetings are not a cattle call for who will get a section that day. Schedule fairly and appropriately. If you treat your staff well, you might even get them coming in on their day off when you’re really in a bind.

20. As an owner/manager, you should never be handling your staff’s cashouts until they’re done with them. They might become suspicious if you lock yourself in the office with all of their money and stay holed up for two hours while they clean downstairs. (Come to think of it, that’s where the coke is too.)

21. While there’s nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with eye candy, that doesn’t give you the right to slap ‘em on the ass or make jokes about CPR training. We know you didn’t have all that much fun when you were younger but that doesn’t mean you can join in our reindeer games. We chose a job that allows us to indulge in as much sex and drugs as we can handle and you chose to run a business. The only thing that connects us is the industry (barely). Suck it up!

22. Verbally abusing your staff, whether it’s in front of guests or not, is always wrong. Why should they respect you when you don’t reciprocate?

23. Fuck double standards. Treat everyone well but reward staff that go the extra mile. And this doesn’t mean you get to reward yourself first.

24. If you’re coming into an established venue, change what clearly doesn’t work and get rid of the dead weight but leave the rest of it the hell alone; no tinkering!! This is not play-time.

25. Every owner/manager should have an understanding of each part of their business. Spend a week as a busser and you’ll be a better man for it.

If you don’t work in the service industry, you might be tempted to think I’m exaggerating. While humor obviously plays a part in this list, there are many restaurants operating right now that have no respect for their staff.  O’Grady’s on Church, owned by Jimmy Georgoulis, is, by my count, guilty of at least half of these. (Full disclosure, I worked there for nearly three months so I know of what I speak.) On the Toronto Restaurant Blacklist, a Facebook group dedicated to complaining about staff exploitation, O’Grady’s is the biggest offender. Where there’s smoke…

While some of my don’ts will probably never change, I can’t help but hold out hope for a future where serving is seen as an honorable profession and they become standard practice. Many of them have been reiterated by colleagues from all sorts of establishments and I’d like to thank Erin, the bartender at Hoops Sports Bar & Grill (my local at Yonge and Carlton, go have a drink on Sunday) for suggesting some particularly good ones.

Like in any business, those who fail to heed the bottom line will pay for it but treating the people who support you well, staff and guests alike, is just as important.

(Image: “The Brains” by Thomas Nast.)