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October 9, 2019 The Binge: Aaron Silverman’s Expert Tips for Starting a Restaurant

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What does it take to be successful when starting a restaurant? According to Aaron Silverman, the chef and founder of the wildly successful restaurant, Rose’s Luxury in DC, the secret ingredient isn’t food or decor or even the service. It’s your people.

Meet the Expert in Starting a Restaurant

In a recent TEDx Talk, Aaron shared his insights on starting a restaurant that not only survives, but thrives in a notoriously cutthroat industry. From day one of starting a restaurant, Aaron knew he had something special. And the success he experienced following its opening only proved it.

“In our first year, both Bon Appetit and GQ Magazine named us the best new restaurant in America. And to this day, people still line up outside of the restaurant before we open, hoping to get a seat,” he says. “So how did we get here? And how did we do so in such a short period of time?”

The answer, he found, was his team. “I can honestly say that it is 100% due to our employees. Our talented, ambitious, caring, passionate, and well-dressed employees.”

Here, we break down his tips for starting a restaurant with a stellar team that will set you up for success from opening day.

Change Your Mindset

When it comes to starting a restaurant, most owners and operators focus on the obvious: The food, the decor, and the service. But according to Aaron, the key to success when starting a restaurant is shifting your mindset to what really matters.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four years, it’s that we’re not in the restaurant business. We’re in the people business,” says Aaron. “I mean, our end goal was not to serve good food or provide good service. Our end goal was to make guest feel good.”

You and your team should be on the same page when starting a restaurant. Because everyone working towards the same goal will help operations run more smoothly and achieve the results you’re looking for. And ultimately, no matter your theme, menu, or atmosphere, every restaurant wants the same thing: To make guests happy.

How to Change Your Mindset

Focus on your guest experience.

When starting a restaurant, look at the big picture from the point of view of your guests. What do you want their visit to be like? What do you want them to encounter from the moment they walk through your door until they leave?

Find ways that you can elevate their experience with weekly promotions that bring people through the door. Offer entertainment options that can make wait times feel shorter, like trivia or tableside arcade games. Showcase new menu items with weekly specials.

With a little creativity and perspective, you can entice new guests to return for a second, third or fourth visit after starting a restaurant.

Wow your guests with little details.

Little touches make a big difference for your guests. Remembering personal information such as their favorite drink or preferred table will make them feel special, like you’ve really gone the extra mile just for them. That type of treatment is what establishes loyalty and repeat visitors for life, which is important when you’re starting a restaurant.

To make things easy for your staff, implement a CRM program that allows them to record notes and details about each of your guests. It can also help give you a leg up on your marketing strategy.

Record important dates for your regulars, like anniversaries and birthdays. Then, send out an email or card inviting them to celebrate at your restaurant with a free appetizer, dessert, or bottle of wine. They’ll feel like a VIP on their special day.

Streamline services (so your staff can focus on what’s important).

When starting a restaurant, your staff wants to put your guests first as badly as you do. But with all the different side processes in place for regular restaurant operations, there are multiple distractions that can pull their attention away from your guests. Fortunately, there’s plenty of technology that can help services go more smoothly when starting a restaurant.

From inventory to scheduling to customer ordering, there are apps and POS systems available that will take out the minutiae of everyday operations. And as an added bonus, they can also help reduce mistakes. Which is important when trying to save money as you’re starting a restaurant.

Put Your People First

 “Think about it. What makes a business great? Very simply, it’s the quality or the service the business provides,” says Aaron. “But who creates those products and services? It’s the people who work there…those people make a business great.”

And as Aaron points out, starting a restaurant takes a village. “A restaurant needs good chefs to conceptualize, create, and execute its dishes. It needs good bartenders to create delicious cocktails. It needs gracious host to welcome the desks. And it needs friendly servers to take care of them throughout the night.”

So, when starting a restaurant, set your team up for success…here’s how.

How To Focus on Your Staff, First

Prioritize training for new staff.

Most new business owners are so busy when starting a restaurant that training often falls to the wayside. In most cases, new employees are thrown into the fire while owners and managers hope for the best. But that sink or swim mentality does nothing to help you when you’re starting a restaurant.

Instead, set up a turnkey training process that all employees go through when they are hired. And don’t just focus on the basics of their role. Give them a well-rounded training experience with meaningful steps, like:

  • Sharing your core business values: Put an emphasis on the values and vision of your business when starting a restaurant.
  • Meeting the team: Schedule formal introductions and shadowing sessions with the managers and staff they’ll directly work with.
  • Overseeing their progress: Most importantly, set up regular check ins with your new staff members.

When starting a restaurant, showing new employees that you are personally invested in their growth and success will help establish loyalty and make them feel valued.

Have your employees work every position.

From bussing to line cooking, give every staff member – including your managers – a chance to learn all the ins and outs of your business. Working each role will allow them to see the value of all positions when starting a restaurant.

Give your staff the tools they need to succeed.

Sure, you may have invested in a fancy POS system to help streamline operations. But your staff also needs basic tools to execute service the way you’ve envisioned when starting a restaurant.

Make sure they have everyday materials at their disposal and be sure to restock when necessary. This includes the right bar glasses for cocktails, fresh ingredients for your menu, and uniforms (if you’re using them) for your servers. Yes, you’ll be busy when starting a restaurant. But try to hold regular meetings with your staff and be sure to include a few minutes to go over any tools they may need for each service.

Hire for Greatness

Once Aaron determined the importance of a great team when starting a restaurant, the next step was finding the people for it. And, more importantly, keeping them. But the million-dollar question remained: How?

The best way, according to Aaron, was to establish effective hiring practices as you’re starting a restaurant. Which may involve another shift in mindset.

“When we’re hiring, we always keep in mind that we’re looking for people, not positions,” says Aaron. “We’re looking for great people to join our team. Not great people to complete a specific task.”

Aaron points out that it isn’t how well a person can complete a job or how much experience they’ve had in a specific role. What’s important, he says, are people who have a desire to work with them. “Anyone can be taught a skill or task. But not everyone can be inspired to care.”

How to Hire Your A Team

Get creative when looking for talent.

Listing an ad and using word of mouth is a good start for finding employees when starting a restaurant. But finding truly talented people with a desire to grow and learn may take a bit more creativity.

To find people who have a passion for the industry, look at local culinary schools and training programs for students who are craving real life experience with starting a restaurant. And most importantly, actively seek references. According to Aaron, they’re worth way more than resumes.

“We don’t look at resumes,” he says. “We listen to references. A resume can tell you where someone worked and how long they worked there. But what they can’t tell you is what kind of person they are.”

Based on Aaron’s success, it may be worth changing your entire recruiting process to be reference-focused – especially when starting a restaurant:

“To be honest, we haven’t really looked at a resume in almost two years,” says Aaron. “And so far, we haven’t regretted that decision once.”

Ask insightful interview questions.

Starting a restaurant requires dedicated employees: people with a passion and vision that’s similar to yours. Their experience plays a small role, but you can train a person for any position. So, once you get a sit down with a potential new employee, make the most of the interview with meaningful questions that get to the root of who they are.

Pay attention to the chemistry you have with them and make notes about their personality and ability to work with others. Ask questions that test their creativity, hospitality, and ability to think on the spot.

Hire from within.

Some of the best people for the job can come from within your own team. If it’s been a year or so since starting a restaurant, you should have a pretty good idea of your staff members strengths and weaknesses. So, when hiring for a management position, consider looking at the people who currently work for you first.

They already know the ins and outs of the business, saving you time and money on training. And you already know how well they work the team. Not to mention that your employees will appreciate the opportunity for growth in your business. And many will step up to the plate.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 9 in 10 restaurant managers started at entry level. That means your next manager will most likely be someone who worked their way from the ground up. And Aaron confirms that is definitely the way to go when looking for talent as you’re starting a restaurant.

“Some of our most successful staff members had little to no restaurant experience when they started,” he shared.  “For example, one of our front of house managers started as an unpaid intern almost a year ago with no restaurant experience. And today, she’s second in command of the restaurant.”

Build an Environment that Inspires

Once you have the best people to help with starting a restaurant, it’s up to you to keep them. “We all know the expression ‘Good help is hard to find.’” says Aaron. “But it’s just not true. In fact, it’s easy to find. What’s hard to find is a good environment.”

So, you need to make your restaurant a positive place to work…somewhere that people look forward to coming to every day. That means going beyond the occasional ‘Thank you,’ and paying attention to your staff needs.

It may sound like just one more thing to focus on when starting a restaurant. But Aaron confirms that it’s completely worth it:

“I like to think of our business as proof. We no longer have to go out looking for these incredible people anymore. They come looking for us.”

How to Create an Inspiring Environment

Learn how to address and de-escalate issues.

Problems are going to come up. That’s just the reality of starting a restaurant. So you need to be prepared to address them. As starting point, use these three steps:

  1. If there’s an issue, speak with your employee privately and try to get to the root of the problem – whether it’s them coming in late, a problem with another staff member, or a bad attitude.
  2. Work with your employee to come up with a game plan that will help them improve their performance.
  3. Schedule a follow up meeting to check in on their progress.

Provide opportunities for growth.

We talked about how hiring from within your team could benefit your business when starting a restaurant. But more than that, it also builds loyalty and trust with employees.

Let your team know that they have a chance for growth on your team…that no matter what position they were hired for, there’s equal opportunity for everyone to advance to a management role as you’re starting a restaurant.

Offer in-house training sessions that any staff member can attend, no matter their position. Give them a chance to learn more about different aspects of the restaurant, from cooking to serving to bartending.

Select some of your top-performing managers and employees to attend conferences that will help them learn about upcoming trends in the industry. If you have the means, set up a scholarship or grant program to help deserving employees continue their education.

Who knows? The last dishwasher you hired could become your next operations manager, given the right chance.

Reward your staff.

Starting a restaurant is not easy. And no one knows that better than your staff. Show them appreciation with displays of gratitude.

Set up an employee-of-the-month program where staff members and managers vote on an employee who really stepped up to the plate, and offer them a prize for being nominated: A prime parking spot, a chance to pick their next shift, or a free meal.

Host regular teambuilding events outside of work to build camaraderie and thank everyone for their hard work: A staff cookout, a movie night, or bowling tournament.

And as always, say thank you every chance you get. It goes a long way with making employees feel valued and appreciated.

Starting out with the right staff is the key to success when starting a restaurant. Which is something Aaron is often reminded of when speaking with guests.

“Every once in a while…I have a guest up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for an incredible meal.’….I’ll often respond, ‘I don’t know why you’re thanking me,’” he says.

“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t take your order. I didn’t greet you at the door. I didn’t cook your steak. And I didn’t pour your wine. In fact, I had nothing to do with your meal.’ And every time I say that, it reminds me that our business is nothing without these great people we’ve collected. It reminds me that these people are the key to our success.”

With the right hiring practices and training process, your team will be able to support your restaurant for the long haul. After all, as Aaron says, your people will determine your restaurant’s success. 

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