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November 20, 2019 Ask the Experts: How to Create the Right Culture at Your Restaurant

restaurant culture

Culture. It’s the latest buzzword in the bar and restaurant world. But what does it really mean? And does it really matter? According to Nick Ugo, the lead consultant and principal of Courtesy Consulting, restaurant culture is hands down one of the most important things you should focus on as an owner or manager.

With 25 years of industry expertise, and having grown up surrounded by family in the hospitality biz, Nick was eager to share his insights. Over those 25 years, Nick became tired of watching owners and operators make the same mistakes time and time again. Many of these mistakes involved how the owners would let the overall environment of their workplaces…the “vibe” of their restaurant…go downhill and become very negative. So, Nick was inspired to form Courtesy Consulting with a focus on helping bars and restaurants cultivate their own unique cultures.

Now, let’s hear what Nick has to say about restaurant culture in our next edition of “Ask the Experts.”

Buzztime) What exactly is restaurant culture? Is it something that just happens or is it intentionally created?

Nick Ugo) Restaurant culture is defined by how a company operates and behaves based on its core values. Restaurant culture is also how management chooses to interact with its employees in a way that is rooted in these beliefs. 

Not only should restaurant culture be intentionally created, it should also be clearly defined and easily understand by employees. A red flag I see often is when a manager has written down this elaborate vision for restaurant culture; but it doesn’t translate into reality. There’s a disconnect.

For example, let’s say a family restaurant wants its culture built around a “kids-first” philosophy. The manager envisions an environment where waitstaff go out of their way to make kids smile, laugh, and feel a part of the experience. In the manager’s vision, waitstaff get down to eye level with kids, tell jokes, and the parents just can’t get enough of this restaurant culture.

Yet, in reality, waitstaff know their manager wants them to be kid-friendly, but they don’t know how. They’ve never been trained in HOW to live out this restaurant culture. True restaurant culture is obvious in the way employees treat guests, each other, and their job in general.

When restaurant culture is intentionally created, communicated to staff, and training is provided to help the team embody the culture, something miraculous happens. Culture becomes ingrained in staff behavior. It becomes part of their nature! New hires pick up on their behavior, customers notice it…the culture is clear.

Buzztime) Why is culture important to the success of a restaurant?

Nick Ugo) Restaurant culture isn’t just crucial to success…it’s essential for survival! Too many restaurants think that culture is only for high-tech companies and cool startups. But that’s just not true. Look at this example of Smashburger, a quirky quick-service chain that grew from a single location to 100 units in 4 years. In fact, Smashburger’s CEO looked to high-tech company culture like that of Google and Netflix to inspire his own culture. 

Currently, restaurant culture is all but non-existent in the industry. Many businesses are unfortunately late to the game. I know of a local place here in Chicago, for example, that had a good product at a good price with good service, but they closed down. When I inquired deeper it was very plainly stated that the owner had trouble keeping employees, had a horrible attitude and was hard to work for. It’s a shame, because if he had stopped to realize he was creating a negative restaurant culture, he could have turned things around.

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Buzztime) Of course culture is unique for each restaurant, but what are some general attributes a restaurant should aim for?

Nick Ugo) Restaurant culture needs to have some uniqueness, no question. However, the most important general attribute to winning culture within a restaurant is the genuine temperament and satisfaction of the employees. When employees are happy, their energy radiates and customers notice. When they are stressed, overworked, micromanaged, ridiculed by their superiors, those emotion also show through to the customers. You want to avoid a restaurant culture where employees feel badly because any attempts at a positive culture will come across as fake.   

Buzztime) Can you give an example of a business that has mastered restaurant culture?

Nick Ugo) In Chicago, there is an Italian restaurant called La Scarola. The host greets you so warmly you’d think you actually knew each other. I’ve even second-guessed myself after being greeted by the host, wondering, “Oh no, how do I know this guy?!” That’s the best example. The host was an employee, not the owner.  The service was great, the food was great, and they made you feel it all. 

Buzztime) How do you know if your current restaurant culture needs a “revamp” or “update”?

Nick Ugo) View the temperament of the employees. Plain and simple…are they happy? Are they satisfied?

Buzztime) Are there ways to measure the success of your culture?

Nick Ugo) Aside from the obvious things, like reviews and your own observations, I personally will ask a server if they like working there. This is a question they typically won’t be used to so for me, it’s easy to tell if they’re being honest or not.

Another great way to assess your restaurant culture is to look at your employee turnover rate. A Columbia University study found that in businesses with a strong culture, turnover is at a mere 13.9%. If there is no culture, or a negative environment, the turnover is a crazy 48.6%!

Buzztime) How can a business owner or manager take a leadership role in creating a positive restaurant culture?

Nick Ugo) Easy, start with themselves. It’s all a trickle-down concept, culture. It always needs to start at the top. And it needs to be genuine. Like I mentioned, you truly cannot fake culture. You must genuinely want to improve the work environment for your employees, and ultimately your customers. If you’re unsure what exactly to do or change, ask your employees. They will know. Watch how fast people’s energy – and the overall restaurant culture – will change when they realize you are taking these steps.  

Buzztime) Thank you for your thoughtful responses, Nick! If a restaurant wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to reach you?

Nick Ugo) They can call me directly at 773-793-4048, contact me via LinkedIn, and follow the Courtesy Consulting Facebook page. Thanks again for inviting me to be featured as the Buzztime Business expert! 

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