Conference and convention season is in full swing. Caterers, restaurateurs, event planners, and party rental companies are among the many industries with their own conventions. There's even one exclusively for pizza makers! (Don’t tell my nutritionist, but I dream of one day attending the pizza convention.)
Each of these many conferences and conventions gives attendees the chance to eat and drink too much, shop, see Wayne Newton, and have loads of fun. But as exciting as it is to get out of our kitchens and offices, fun should not be our primary goal. The primary goal is to further our education, develop new resources, build our personal business networks, and promote the success of our companies.
In order to make the most of your time and investment, you need a solid game plan. Here are some helpful hints:
- Determine in advance what you wish to learn and which sessions will provide the most benefit. Plan ahead so you don’t accidentally miss a session that was made for you.
- Attend sessions that challenge you. Look for topics that fall outside the range of what you already know.
- Identify speakers and attendees you would like to meet. Send them an email of introduction a week before the conference requesting to connect.
- Set a quota of how many new people you wish to meet and to exchange business cards with. A daily goal will keep you on track during the length of the convention.
- Write on the back of their card something about that person that you can later reference. This is always a good practice and will help you personalize your follow-up (see #10).
- Wake up early, dress smartly, and don't skip sessions. I know that the hotel pool or the never-ending buffet may be calling your name, but remember your business objectives!
- Separate from others with your company so you can collectively cover more ground. Schedule a nightly “debriefing” to share notes while they’re fresh in your mind.
- Certainly have some fun but remember to be on your best professional behavior throughout. It’s good to develop a reputation in your industry but not as the guy who got in an argument with the pit boss.
- After the conference, prepare a brief written overview of what you learned. Present it to your teammates who didn’t attend. Consider which ideas to implement in your company.
- Connect with every single person from the conference you spent time with. (This will be easy because you already did #4 and #5, right?)
Attending conferences and conventions can be expensive and time-consuming. Make sure your attendance is a good investment by focusing on your primary business goals. You’ll still find some time to party but remember...it’s always Prime Time!
Are there any strategies you use to maximize your convention attendance? Share them in the comments!
Join Jon Wool at TSE2015 on Tuesday, January 6. He'll be speaking in the Grand Ballroom Salon A/B at 2:30pm. Here's a SNEAK PEEK at his topic!
Having a positive attitude rooted in customer service and problem-solving is key to excellence in hospitality. In a crowded marketplace where clients have countless options, it is not enough for a catering company or dining spot simply to do a good job. A successful company must distinguish itself by offering a level of care that all those other options do not reach.
Every member of your team must share a desire to provide excellent service to each guest. Chefs should thrive on the challenge of developing new menus. Every time a sales person or reservationist answers the phone, it must be with the enthusiasm of someone eager to hurdle any obstacle before them. This positive attitude is the characteristic which will help elevate your company above your competitors.
Let’s be honest though. After a busy series of events or toward the end of a difficult party, you may forget to keep that positive attitude. We've all reached a point where our feet are aching and our beds are calling. More often than not, it is in those moments that disaster strikes. When we're tired or disengaged, it's easy to accidentally send out a plate that's missing its protein. Or to forget to order napkins for a BBQ. Or to snap impatiently at the tenth guest to ask where the bathroom is located. These are mistakes that can ruin an otherwise great event and tarnish the reputation of an otherwise good company. Luckily, these mistakes can be averted by remembering to Flip the Switch.
Flip the Switch is a concept I learned when I was a young actor. I was cast in a silly, fast-paced comedy. The theatre was located in a Midwestern farm town which boasted a Dairy Queen, a karate academy, and a few tennis courts by the high school. We performed the show 6 nights a week plus matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays. One Wednesday, I woke up early, took a long run through the corn fields, played 3 or 4 sets of tennis, showered, hit the Dairy Queen for a healthy lunch of fried food and a root beer float, arrived at the theatre for makeup and warm ups, and bolted on stage for 2 hours of melee without missing a beat. The audience loved it, showering us with laughter and applause.
After the show, I hastily changed out of costume, drove to class at the karate academy where I paid for the privilege of having a hefty farm kid pummel me senseless. Once my poor Bruce Lee imitation was over, I drove back to the DQ to wolf down another fried meal and another root beer float. I returned to the theatre just in time to slap on some makeup and stumble onstage for the evening performance. The show seemed to stretch out and drag on endlessly. I was exhausted. I longed to lie down and go to sleep. The audience, I am sure, also longed to lie down and go to sleep.
In the dressing room following the show, I moaned “I was so tired out there.”
The older male lead looked me dead in the eye and replied coldly “You looked it.”
He explained to me, not unkindly, that I had pulled the entire show down for both my fellow cast members and the paying audience. Everyone deserved better! My job as a professional, he explained, is to be ready to perform. Regardless of the events of the day, at that moment under the spotlight, I need to be “on.” I must Flip the Switch.
He explained Flip the Switch to mean: high energy, full volume, an electric charge flowing through the limbs, and desire to create a one-of-a-kind experience for all. He ended with: “That’s the job!” It’s a lesson I hadn’t learned in theatre school but one I remember to this day.
In the hospitality industry, Flip the Switch is a reminder to adjust our attitude and remember that our professional work requires us to be “onstage.” Each catered event is similar to a theatrical opening night. Each blends art, design, color, and texture. We have an audience, and in order to deliver an excellent performance, we must keep our energy level high. Flip the Switch means to stand up straighter, smile more sincerely, and pay closer attention.
Each of us has important concerns outside of work. For example, hourly servers frequently come to an event site after already working their day job or attending school. They are often tired, sometimes hungry, and almost always preoccupied by thoughts of other things in their lives. However, when in front of the client and guests (our audience) those challenges must be left “offstage.” Staff must Flip the Switch to turn “off” their distractions and turn “on” their good service attitude.
The phrase is also a good reminder for those moments of laziness that arrive 3/4 of the way through an event: the party is winding down, the initial hustle and bustle has passed, and guests might be starting to leave. Every moment of a special event must capture our full attention. This means total focus on the tasks at hand, high energy, and the willingness to engage until the last guest has left and clean-up is complete. When you notice posture starting to droop and smiles starting to fade, remind each other to Flip the Switch and turn your positive attitude back on.
The importance of a positive attitude does not only apply to servers at events; it is just as important for the person delivering a box lunch order or the office receptionist fielding a client’s call. Everyone in the company needs to adopt an attentive, caring, service attitude:
- Instead of dragging your feet as you go to your weekly production meeting, Flip the Switch! You may be surprised by how much more receptive your colleagues are when you approach them with a good attitude.
- Tired of answering the phone for the umpteenth time today? Flip the Switch! Although you may be bored with talking to clients, the person on the other end of that line may be contacting your company for the very first time. Greeting them with friendly excitement immediately signals that you and your company care about them and are ready to help them create an unforgettable event.
Flipping the Switch is the first step toward great hospitality and service. This emphasis on a positive, customer-friendly, problem-solving attitude is the foundation of success. It is as important to achieving excellence in hospitality as it was to performing a crowd-pleasing farce in the middle of a corn field.
For more details on teaching your team to Flip the Switch, join Jon in Anaheim at TSE 2015!
A series for clients and colleagues who are seeking support, asking for advice, and hoping to reignite their passion for hospitality.
We get so many requests for donations. How can I balance my charitable instincts with the realities of running my business? - L.S., Chicago
I commend your instinct for generosity. Sharing the wealth produced by your company is one of the proudest moments a business owner can experience, and helping support vital charities is a noble and necessary activity. Sadly, the needs are so great that many in the hospitality industry receive dozens if not hundreds of donation requests per year. Even the wealthiest and most generous caterers could not afford to accommodate every request. Click here to read my full response including specific suggestions for handling donation requests.
Do you have a question for Jon? Ask in the comments or send us an email.
We may answer your letter next!
A series for clients and colleagues who are seeking support, asking for advice, and hoping to reignite their passion for hospitality.
What can I do about the constant fighting between my Chef and the front of the house staff? -K.C., Boston
This can be a tricky problem because you may be tempted to “take sides” in the arguments between your staff. Remember to address interpersonal problems as business challenges. This distinction will help you focus on your professional objectives.
Infighting can be hugely detrimental to a restaurant or catering company. While your Chef and FOH staff are bickering and placing blame, who’s taking care of the customers?! As a hospitality company, everyone’s goal should be to satisfy your clients and guests. You can make sure your team is on the same page by clarifying your company expectations. Take time at every training session, production meeting, and pre-shift dinner to remind all staff that their attention needs to be focused on the guests.
Because we all come from different backgrounds and had different training, your Chef and FOH staff probably have different levels of experience and communication styles. Some hands-on training will give each member of your team a greater understanding of what their colleagues do. Assign your Chef to join a salesperson on a day of challenging sales calls, tight deadlines surrounding their load of admin work, and conversations with demanding and unyielding clients. In turn, instruct the salesperson to work alongside the Chef during a particularly long and grueling day to experience a hot kitchen, scalding pots and pans, loading and unloading trucks, and last minute changes to menus and guest counts. Your Chef and salesperson may not end up best buddies, but at the very least they’ll have a new appreciation for the challenges their colleagues face.
Good luck and let us know how things turn out!
Do you have a question for Jon? Ask in the comments or send us an email. We may answer your letter next!
When restaurant and catering company owners and managers hire JHW Hospitality to consult with their companies, they often ask how to structure their day to maximize productivity. One of the techniques I encourage is taking a little time each evening to create a schedule for the next day. By 5pm, outline what tomorrow will include and remember to note your 3 most-important tasks for the day.
It is also very important for business leaders to designate a start time and an end time. Running a restaurant or catering company is not like baking a cake. When you bake, you have a clear set of instructions and an obvious finished product. Once the cake cools and the frosting and decorations are set, the cake is done. The baker leaves his kitchen knowing he checked a task off his To Do List and the workday is over. But an owner or manager’s projects are ongoing and there is always something more to do. Without an obvious end product (beautiful and delicious cake), a leader may find herself working late into the night. Each task leads to another project, inboxes are never empty, and the workday can seem endless.
To stop yourself from checking emails all night, designate an end time and adopt the habit of shutting down for the night. Obviously the entrepreneurial mind never fully stops running and I encourage you to make note of the brilliant ideas that strike while you’re enjoying dinner with friends or tucking your kids into bed. But resist the temptation to begin strategizing around those ideas until morning. You may even find that, by giving your mind a little breathing room, you have more and stronger ideas than if you had continued to work long after the staff went home.
“Closing shop” at the end of the day can be a challenge for restaurant and catering leaders, but, ultimately, a specific end time will feel liberating. Setting a clear end time will allow you to focus on your family, your friends, your hobbies, and yourself.
Paul Virant is the award winning chef and owner of Vie in Western Springs, IL and Perennial Virant in Chicago. It was just announced that, by the end of this summer, he plans to expand his culinary empire with the opening of Vistro, a family-friendly restaurant in Hinsdale, IL.
While we salivate in anticipation, enjoy this interview Jon did with Chef Paul. He talks about growing up around food in the Midwest, the challenges of educating customers about foods they may find unfamiliar, and the many demands on a chef/owner's time:
"As a chef and restaurateur, you get to a point where you have to decide 'What's next?' or 'How do I manage my time?' That has been a challenge but I have an incredible crew that allows me to work on a new project and develop [new initiatives]. But at the end of the day, I think the satisfaction of cooking and creating something that is well-received - that's still the ultimate for me so that's something that I just need to incorporate into my time management."
Listen below (minute 2:03 through 27:20) for the whole interview!
As hospitality professionals, we talk a lot about “vision.” Our clients are often sharing their vision for an event, and chefs have a vision of their new spring menu. We spend a lot of time making those visions reality for our guests and customers.
As business people, vision is just as important. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great (a book JHW Hospitality heartily recommends), said “without vision, organizations have no chance of creating their future; they can only react to it.” Having a vision for your company is crucial to your success and it’s the thing that separates each of us from our competitors. What vision do you have for the services you provide? How to you envision yourself and your company next season? How about in 5 years? 10 years?
Taking the time to answer these questions and visualize those goals can set you on the road to success. Instead of reacting to the future, I encourage you to start creating it:
- Surround yourself with an environment that will inspire you to reach your goals.
- Assault your senses with color, food, music, and anything that gets your creativity flowing.
- Challenge yourself with new ideas and develop new skills.
Have a vision of where you want to go and then get out there and make that vision a reality!
Back by popular demand! In honor of our nation's pastime, we're revisiting this fan-favorite series!
In my series on the parallels between Major League Baseball and the catering game, I've examined the roles and responsibilities of the owners, the managers, and the players. With the playoffs underway and the World Series quickly approaching, it’s time to look at the fans, the paying customers, and see where they fit into this equation.
Simply put, the fan is king!
The only obligation the fan has is to enjoy the game on their own terms (providing they’re not celebrating by tipping cars and throwing bottles). And, as we see every year during the World Series, it is perfectly acceptable for fair weather fans to cheer right alongside the diehards. An organization would be foolish to discourage the enthusiasm of any fans. I am always perplexed that along with the standard promotionals such as “Bobble Head Day” or “Ice Cream ‘Sunday,’” ballparks include the self satisfied announcement of “Fan Appreciation Day.” What, one whole day to appreciate the fans? Imagine how badly a hospitality company would fare if it only appreciated its guests on special days. It would ruin us.
Caterers must realize that, just as in baseball, clients may change allegiances at any time based on whim, whimsy, fickle, or folly. The client may determine that their caterer is not worthy because of a small PR mistake or because of repeated poor performance. Sometimes, the client is influenced by the preferences of others in the community. Or they lose faith, maybe rightly so, when their team trades all its core players as the Red Sox have been known to do. Clients lose confidence when their caterer seems to have a revolving door of Chefs, account executives, and key staff. Really, anything can cause a client’s loyalty to waver. That is their prerogative. It is up to the caterer to find innovative ways to keep hitting home runs and keep fans engaged.
Baseball and Hospitality are both games of business. However, we – the owners, managers, coaches, players, and staff - must never forget that the game is, in the end, about ensuring entertainment and celebration for our fans and clients. Without that fun, the money never flows.
By the way, my favorite team was knocked out of playoff contention weeks ago but I’m one of those eternal hopefuls chanting the phrase “Wait ‘til next year.” A similar determination drives me in catering. Every new event, every new inquiry, every newly-met prospective client is a chance to be the hero who clinches the Series with a grand slam, thereby winning a fan for life.
I was recently asked to be the key note speaker at a conference for caterers and event planners. After entertaining the audience with humorous and self deprecating stories about my own history as a caterer, I began to address real issues. My speech was about the “Big Picture” issues key to navigating through business terrain: best practices, sales systems, cash flow management, etc .
During the Q&A session, however, I was thrown by the types of questions these event professionals asked. They included:
- “How do I handle my sales person who randomly promises discounts to win parties?”
- “What should I do about the constant fighting between my Chef and the front of the house staff?”
- A woman in the front row timidly raised her hand to ask how she and her husband, co-owners of their company, “could find time for one another outside of work.”
So much for the profundities of running a business!
I stepped back for a moment to realize that I, too, have spent the better part of my working life wrapped up in the moment-to-moment frustrations surrounding people, personalities, office politics, and real and imagined contentions. And that doesn’t even include the time spent on the difficulties of balancing work with family. I acknowledged that the universal question is: “How do you keep your eye on the big prize when the stresses of the moment are trying to distract you?”
I’m not Dr. Phil so, instead of offering unqualified personal advice during the Q&A, I opened the conversation to the group at large. What followed was a wonderful and energetic exchange that was supportive and informative. The group and I came away with the idea that these interpersonal issues stem from legitimate style or tactical differences by people who genuinely want to pursue the company’s agenda. That salesperson wants to make as many sales as possible but feels shackled by the pricing structure. Reviewing her margins will give her the freedom to secure the best pieces of business. The Chef and FOH staff have different levels of experience. Clarifying company expectations will put everyone on the same page when it comes to satisfying clients and guests. Addressing these interpersonal problems as business challenges reinforces your company mission and helps shift focus to your professional objectives.
As for the couple who simply wants to be together outside of work? I believe that in five years, you’re unlikely to remember which van was late for a delivery or who packed two salmon fillets for 40 guests rather than the two sides of salmon. But in five years, you will remember the times you and your spouse see a movie, have a nice dinner, or play a little tennis. I also believe that with discipline and prioritization, busy hospitality professionals can learn to handle the day-to-day trials and use them as a springboard for handling and framing the “Big Picture.”
Back by popular demand! In honor of our nation's pastime, we're revisiting this fan-favorite series!
At the start of the MLB season, we looked at the parallels between the roles and responsibilities of baseball team owners and those of catering company owners. We are well into the season now and, for some teams, careful preparation has paved the way for exceeded expectations. On the other hand, some of the teams who had high hopes during the preseason are struggling just to play .500 ball. Is it because of unseasonable weather? Injuries? Poor recruitment decisions? Bad coaching? The classic case of unexplained slumps by otherwise dependable stars? There could be any number of factors contributing to a team’s poor performance, but now is the time for managers and coaches to assess their team’s status and, if necessary, make significant changes.
Department managers of catering companies are similar in many ways to baseball managers and coaches. Both baseball managers and catering company managers must:
- Evaluate and hire the best players. The talent pool is wide and deep; it is up to managers to recruit those who will make the best team.
- Manage an eclectic group with varying competencies and experience. A locker room, like a sales office, kitchen, or staffing office, holds a lot of different personalities and skill sets. Good managers know how to set a tone that fosters teamwork and encourages big wins.
- Drill players continuously on the sport's fundamentals. Just because we've reached the big leagues, it doesn't mean we can skip batting practice. Catering managers must make sure salespeople are strengthening their negotiating techniques, cooks are fine-tuning their knife skills, and servers are refining their hospitality skills.
- Eliminate those who don't produce or who cannot blend with the program. Sometimes, regardless of how well-liked or seemingly talented a player is, they just don't blend with the team. It falls to manager and coaches to cut these people so they can take their talents somewhere they can be successful.
- Be ruthless when examining systems. Be willing to throw out the old and bring in the new. "That's the way we've always done it" is one of the worst things a manager or coach can say. Instead, do what needs to be done to win, even if it's new or unfamiliar.
Three months into the baseball season, managers and coaches should re-evaluate what is working on their teams and what needs tweaking. Thankfully for caterers, our season goes long past October and it’s never too late for our department managers to emulate the successful techniques of World Series-winning coaches.
Next at bat: The Players
10. There's not enough time to make the improvements we need.
9. We got beat on price.
8. Let's just get someone - anyone! - to fill the position.
7. That's not how the cooks/servers/salespeople like to do things.
6. Let's just win the business. We can figure out how to make it happen and worry about costs later.
5. I basically know how much everything costs.
4. We don't have any theft; I know most of my crew.
3. I'll make up for the price break somewhere else.
2. Since we own our equipment, we don't have to charge the client for equipment.
And the #1 Thing a Caterer Should Never Say...
1. Let me have one for the road.
Back by popular demand! In honor of baseball's Opening Day, we're revisiting this fan-favorite series!
Even through the aches and pains of middle age, I still dream of being a Major League baseball player. Like every kid who has ever swung a bat, I imagine a play-by-play announcer describing the classic scenario:
"Seventh game of the World Series, bottom of the ninth, two down, bases loaded, and the crowd goes wild as Jon Wool comes to the bat...."
Every baseball fan relishes the start of spring with its promise of good things to come. However, as the legendary Willie Mays once said, “Baseball is a game, yes. It is also a business.”
Under all its romance and nostalgia, baseball offers many lessons that apply to the business world. Over the coming weeks, I’ll note the similarities between the sport’s leadership principals and those of our industry. To build an organization worthy of the Hall of Fame, successful catering teams share the responsibilities of owners, coaches, and players.
First up: Owners
Baseball team owners and catering company owners both have responsibilities to their internal organizations as well as to their customers. Internally, owners must:
- Create a vision and establish a winning culture. Each team has its own philosophy and culture but they all share the desire to field a winning team.
- Be bottom line-driven at all times. Remember Mays' reminder that this is business. If you want to play ball for a hobby, start a sandlot game. Likewise, if you just want to cook for your friends, you can save yourself the hassle of getting a caterer's license.
- Develop numerous avenues for revenue. Baseball owners focus on attendance, merchandising, and fantasy camps while catering company owners may focus on guest experiences, branded product lines, and amateur cooking classes.
- Forecast 3-5 years into the future. Inevitably, players on any team will move on. Owners must identify and develop stars for the future.
- Invest wisely. Owners are responsible for managing finances to grow their assets and protect the organization from unforeseen challenges.
- Create succession plans. Who will take the reins when the Owner retires or sells the organization?
In addition to the internal dynamics of running the organization, baseball team owners and catering company owners also play a role in presenting their group to the public.
- Grow the fan base. Owners need to understand their market and constantly promote their organizations.
- Manage the media. Public perception is wildly important. Owners are key when it comes to managing the organization's image in a way that builds good-will and momentum.
- Attract sponsors. Identify related organizations within the industry and develop partnerships that will prove mutually beneficial.
Most caterers don’t have a bankroll like the Yankees and few owners are as influential as the late George Steinbrenner, but catering company owners can learn a lot from the front office of baseball teams. At some point this spring, I’ll visit the batting cages and I’ll swing helplessly at the blinding fastballs that dart from the pitching machine. I may even connect enough times to keep my Major League dreams alive. Then I’ll limp back to the sales office and remember I can still hit a home run by applying baseball’s lessons to my own romantic trade.
Next at bat: Managers & Coaches
JHW Hospitality Director, Melanie Spratford shares her impressions from this year's Catersource Conference & Tradeshow
We’re back from the Catersource conference and our heads are spinning with all the entertaining ideas, business concepts, and management theories! Here’s a quick recap of some of the suggestions that stood out:
Over and over again, speakers talked about the importance of clear and open communication. It’s crucial for sales associates talking to customers. It’s essential for conversations between chefs and sales managers. And it’s invaluable for family businesses trying to navigate around the generation gap. The whole conference was packed with ideas for facilitating communication at companies both large and small. Perhaps Bill Pannhoff of B&B Catering & Event Planning in Spring Lake, North Carolina said it best when he insisted that one of the responsibilities of a good leader is being a clear, effective communicator. I couldn’t agree more!
Author, speaker, and marketing guru Alan Berg from Kendall Park, New Jersey drew strong reactions from his audience when he offered suggestions for improving business cards and promotional brochures. Caterers are creative people and sometimes we get so caught up in aesthetics that we forget about practical things (I’m looking at you, lady who forgot to put her phone number on her business card!). He had a great tip about proof-reading your collateral materials with a checklist in hand so you don’t accidentally forget any key information.
Mike Roman, the founder of Catersource and arguably the best catering educator in the country, was a presence throughout the conference. I had the pleasure of attending his annual Roman Report which he packs with new idea and helpful suggestions. Mike’s lessons are always an excellent reminder to properly value our work.
Lastly, I am always interested in the questions attendees ask after each educational session. These questions are a great window into the topics that interest others. For example, a lively discussion broke out after Dan Joseph of Blue Plate in Chicago spoke about environmental sustainability. Caterers from across the country enthusiastically asked questions and shared ideas about how to push their companies to be more “green.” It’s encouraging to see that our industry is still committed to finding ways to protect the environment while also protecting the bottom line.
There were some great questions after our speaking engagements as well. Over the coming weeks, check back here as we address them in depth!
With apologies to Elvis, we’re actually looking forward to all that conversation!
The annual Catersource Conference and Tradeshow starts this weekend in Las Vegas and JHW Hospitality will be participating in a number of activities.
On Monday, Jon Wool will be presenting “The Pampered Host,” an educational session packed with tips for catering to the luxury client in their private homes. The key here is to think of “luxury” as “freedom from hard work, worry, or embarrassment.” Luxury clients are purchasing peace of mind!
Tuesday morning, Jon will lead “Presentation Effectiveness.” As a trained actor and long-time sales executive, Jon is an expert when it comes to conquering the fear factor, organizing your message, and perfecting your delivery.
On the closing day of the Conference, Jon will discuss “6 Steps for Managing the Sales Pipeline.” Building revenue can be a daunting task but Jon has broken the goal into manageable steps that keep a sales person focused on targeting Good Fit clients, addressing their needs, and winning their business.
Our Director, Melanie Spratford, is getting in on the act too! Every day she’ll be introducing educational program speakers. And as a member of the Catersource Consulting Unit, Jon will be offering coaching services to caterers from around the country all week.
Between all our scheduled activities, we hope to see old friends, make new ones, eat tons of great food, and take in a spectacular show. Maybe we’ll even run into Elvis!
When coaching new clients I first ask how I may help improve their business. Responses are usually along the lines of “My chef hates the sales team” or “We can’t seem to hire and keep good staff” or “We're always getting beat on price.” Such critical issues are common to caterers and restaurateurs. However, addressing those issues will not solve the root problem. When I dig a little deeper, 9 out of 10 clients eventually acknowledge they want to improve profitability, to decrease their stress level, and to create a culture where everyone works in harmony. Understanding these goals is the first step toward eventually fixing the day-to-day problems that are a blight on every company.
It is common for owners to believe that if they keep doing the same things just a little better then everything will improve. Or they think that if they throw more money at a problem, it will simply go away. Sadly, this is never the case. Real solutions come from understanding your objectives and constantly reminding yourself to value the activities that will help you reach them.
Therefore, if your goal is to reduce stress, the last thing you need to do is mediate a personality dispute between departments. Likewise, once you define your company culture, identifying employees who will be the right fit for your company becomes much easier. If your goal is to improve profitability, the next step is to assess your sales procedures and evaluate your cost of doing business. You may even discover a new appreciation for the all the time and energy you spend on cost-saving operations.
There are many strategies for setting up more efficient procedures or strengthening a team’s unity. Unfortunately, on their own, none of these quick fixes will bring lasting change or progress. Owners and managers need to dig deeper to identify their goals and their company’s fundamental mission. Once these have been unearthed, the whole team will find it easier to work together to help the company flourish.
My daughter Alana is an art student entering her senior year of college and she just made the Dean's List. When my wife and I called to tell her how proud we are, Alana humbly replied that we
were making too big a deal over this. She declared that every student makes the Dean's List if they can:
- Arrive promptly and complete projects on time.
- Be prepared.
- Incorporate the professor's instructions as they progress.
- Ask for additional advice when necessary.
I laughed and suggested that these competencies display professionalism at its highest level. No one is expected to be Salvador Dali or Andrew Wyeth at 21. However, character traits such as
attentiveness, punctuality, creativity, and humility are smart business principles that make a powerful foundation for success in any field.
Lollapalooza recently announced Black Sabbath as a headliner at this summer’s music festival. A news program covering the story cut to concert footage of the band playing “Iron Man.” The hard rock and wild electric guitar riffs brought me right back to my early teen years when I tested the patience of my parents and neighbors by turning the speakers of my record player out the windows and blasting Sabbath’s songs. I began to reflect on the longevity of the careers of the band and its founder. Say what you will about the crazed and dazed Ozzy Osbourne but, over 40 years after the inception of Black Sabbath, they are going stronger than ever. In fact they have sold millions of albums and have won just about every music award possible. It stands to reason that such durability is no accident.
It's the kind of durability that we in the catering and hospitality industry crave. Osbourne and mates are shining examples of building around established systems. One of the most important tasks in business is creating internal systems that generate predictable results. Once you have solid systems in place, you can weather any change-over in personnel. Sabbath has had over 20 musicians join, quit, and return over the years. Regardless of this "revolving door" model of employee retention, the band's concept, format, and methods have stayed the same.
If rowdy and outlandish hard rockers can instinctively follow these business principles, why do we struggle to do so in hospitality? Our chefs want to cook “their” food rather than menus requested by the client. Or, a cook wants to riff rather than follow recipes. Sales people hunger for big-name galas at the expense of profitable margins. Or they burden the kitchen with impossible demands like scheduling tastings on the busiest weekends. When pressed for time and under pressure, ops people are tempted to cut a corner or two. Worst of all is when owners are afraid to ruffle employees’ feathers by drawing clear lines. Employers justify their failure to formulate protocol by saying “it is a lot of work” or “there’s never enough time” or “the staff won’t buy into a new process.” These are all excuses that hold companies back from reaching and maintaining excellence over the years.
If we catering and hospitality professionals cannot step back and create reliable systems at every level of our companies, we are not likely to experience the sustained success enjoyed by Black Sabbath. Where will your company be in 40 years?
As a member of The Catersource Consulting Unit, I was part of a team that offered free half-hour client consultations during last month’s 2012 Conference and Trade Show. A dozen owners or managers of both large and small companies sat before me and, one after another, asked my advice about a run of familiar subjects: kitchen management, operations, and sales people shying away from selling. One concern in particular seemed consistent among nearly all of these companies. As one caterer explained, their employees had commandeered the ship and were steering off course. I was reminded of the great line from the Herman Wouk classic, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial:
"...There are four ways of doing things on board my ship: The right way, the wrong way, the Navy way, and my way. Do it my way and we'll all get along..." -Captain Phillip Francis Queeg
Queeg has the right idea and years of hard fought experience to back him up. Trouble begins, though, when he compromises the safety of his own ship and loses the respect of his men. (Note that the first sign of Queeg’s demise comes when learning of a quart of missing strawberries. At least he's on top of his food inventory!). Eventually, those under Queeg's command wrestle away crontol of the ship and subsequently stand trial for insubordination.
Switch this scenario to hospitality and substitute the word ‘Catering’ for ‘Navy’ and we suddenly empathize with Queeg, even if, as caterers, we are immune to any such neurosis or dysfunction. What advice then, did I give to those sitting before me in the Catersource consulting rooms?
Of course, we’ve all experienced discord at some point and largely because of the highly passionate, creative and often competitive personalities that our industry attracts. Our staff may be well meaning, and some may be selfish but most simply have different measures or methods for success.
My advice: first, the business owner must reevaluate and restate the company mission and its pillars of success. He or she may consider involving key personnel in this process to promote unity and a shared vernacular. Next, adapt the approach celebrated by Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth; create clear job descriptions with measurable goals. Also design replicable systems that may be served by the individual rather than systems that serve the individual. Finally, host bi-weekly or monthly manager meetings to evaluate ways that systems, performance, and creativity are serving the mission and pillars. With leader at the helm and crew onboard to help steer, the ship should find its course. Or, as the great motivational coach, Napoleon Hill, once said:
"It is the set of sails, not the direction of the winds that determines which way we will go...."
I came across an article titled “Culinary Mercenaries” that describes chefs as temperamental, egotistical, rootless, and unreliable. Many of you will vehemently argue against the article but some of you may recognize the traits of your chefs in these descriptions (or, worse, maybe you recognize yourself?!). To be fair, for every chef depicted in the article, there is at least one non-culinary boss who may be described as having similar poor management skills. It is no secret that the tensions between employer and employee can sometimes resemble a battlefield more than a workplace, and it’s easy to imagine chefs as soldiers-for-hire, willing to pack up their knives at the slightest provocation.
During a recent consulting assignment, the troubled owner of a popular catering company complained that his company had burned through yet another chef. I reflected on my own HR successes and failures. I also thought about the noted companies that manage to retain employees for upwards of 25 years. Why are these companies successful and others not?
I shared with my client that the success of these companies seems to begin with the leadership style and behavior of the person in charge. In these models, the leaders set an example of stellar and consistent behavior. They work to create a strong culture and a safe, stimulating work environment. They compensate employees fairly and encourage a mutual trust. They also refused to tolerate employees who fail to follow their leadership cues.
My client took time to consider this and ways that he might adjust his mindset and actions, In tandem, we created a program with which to evaluate the competencies, qualities, and skills of each current employee and new hire. Will these efforts pay off? Time will tell but he and I are both optimistic.
Ultimately, we cannot dictate how employees behave. We can hire smartly, set a fine example, hold employees accountable, and terminate the bad ones. There will always be workers who hop from gig to gig like soldiers-for-hire but, as owners and managers, it is our job to run our companies as businesses and avoid being dragged down into the trenches.
In my last post, I declared that we should say “No” to opportunities that will compromise our company’s vision, integrity, or profitability. This post inspired a big positive response from industry friends, but several asked how to best qualify when to say “Yes.” It’s a great question!
There are many qualitative reasons to say “Yes” to an opportunity, but sound business decisions are always supported by accurate pro formas and Profit & Loss statements. This holds true for everyone, including the creative thinker, the rainmaker (euphemism for the independent, fast-charging, commission-hungry, and client-pleasing sales person), and anyone inclined to impetuously sidestep standard cost accounting. I confess: I was guilty of this approach for the better part of my career.
Such behavior is rarely intentional; it is simply a reflection of the uninformed or undisciplined mind. In managing Finesse Cuisine and working with consulting clients, I have found that one solution is to create a compensation plan that in part rewards everyone for achieving specific financial goals. An even more effective approach, however, is to educate your staff to understand events in financial terms and concepts.
Periodic companywide evaluations of real event P&L’s will help you decide when to say “No” and when to say “Yes.” Even hourly employees should get into the act. You may be surprised by the great suggestions your porter, dishwasher, or driver offer on ways to economize. And they will feel great when they see how they add essential value to the company’s well being. When evaluating event pro formas and P&Ls becomes an everyday exercise, everyone is empowered to justify activities and pricing to clients, managers, and colleagues alike. The added benefit is that your Accounting Department will be better able to forecast cash flow.
Just as professional athletes, artists, and musicians still practice basic fundamentals, you will find it helpful to regularly run through the following topics with your management:
- What is a business?
- What is a Pro forma?
- What is a Profit & Loss Statement?
- How do Expenses impact Contribution Margin?
- What is the difference between Event Contribution Margin and Net Profit?
- How can a P&L shape decision making?
- What are your Company Fixed Costs?
Just like a basketball player practicing free throws or a jazz pianist running through scales, having these conversations reinforces the fundamentals of your company’s business.
It is the job of all managers to control and understand how costs affect them directly and why the P&L is essential. Armed with financial understanding, you can evaluate each opportunity's value and potential risks. Knowing all the right information helps you know when to discard the "Just Say No" rule and when to feel confident offering a wholehearted "Yes!"
Success means learning to say “No.”
This was the topic of a presentation by a noted business leader at a conference I recently attended. Saying “No,” however, is inconceivable to any caterer who is wired to please. In fact, I was trained to say “Yes” to just about anything that wouldn’t cause flood or fire. You may find that adapting to this new philosophy can be a challenge but learning to just say “No” frees you to cater to the clients who are the best fit for your company.
Since the recession, like most companies, Finesse has learned to economize while doing everything possible to increase revenues. To support this effort, we have indeed challenged ourselves to say “No” when we are asked to operate in a manner contrary to our standards or price points. Here’s why: between the austerity measures in the marketplace since 2008 and the advent of the gigantic international catering conglomerates, there is a tendency for the smaller caterer to try to be all things to all people at all prices. It can be argued that this approach keeps cash flowing and employees working. However, it is more likely that your company’s vision, integrity, and profitability will be compromised. When you have to bend and twist to accommodate the requests of a client who is not a good fit, you risk losing focus on the clients who are your Right Fit. Considered this way, it becomes clear that saying “No” is the smart thing to do. Saying “No” to one thing frees you up to saying “Yes” to something more valuable.
Not long ago, I was consulting with the off-premise catering arm of a fine dining restaurant. While this client was quick to embrace certain fundamentals of off-premise operations, they had lost sight of why their restaurant’s style of food and service is so popular. They were saying “Yes” to anything that came their way and they were floundering. Plus, they were working way too hard and far too many hours! It was very difficult for the directors to understand the concept of Right Fit. What finally resonated was a quote by iconic jazz musician, Dizzy Gillespie: “It’s taken me all my life to learn what NOT to play.” The trumpet sounded loudly and clearly to this client. They learned to say “No” to anything outside of their range, refocused on their initial mission, and began to accommodate better fit events.
I have learned that while the customer may always be right, he may not always be the right customer for me. Therefore, I have found myself saying “No” more often and coaching clients to do the same. In turn, I have gained more respect from clients and staff alike. This has been empowering and invigorating, and our bottom line reflects the change.
Will I revert back to my old philosophy any time soon? Hell No!