The Ego Antidote: How To Tame Ego Roadblocks in Your Restaurant

In my previous article, Is Ego Sabotaging Your Restaurant, I explored the genesis of ego-related issues within the restaurant industry and the impact that these big blind spots can have on your restaurant’s bottom line. But diagnosing the source of these problems is only the first step. Ego-related problems are always emotionally charged and bringing them to light can challenge the core beliefs of your key people. Business owners need strategies and techniques to combat, harness and redirect the source of these hurdles in a way that contributes to the success of the business.

Below are three easy-to-use ‘antidotes’ to the most challenging ego-issues that restaurants often encounter. Simple things you can do to get past the internal resistance from your team and put your organization back on the path to success.

1. Back to Basics:  Any discussion about egos in the restaurant industry should probably start with the topic of the “Celebrity Chef.” Over the past 20 years, reality TV has turned its hunger for content to the restaurant business and seized upon Chefs as fodder for their ratings. Iron Chef, Top Chef, Chopped, Hell’s Kitchen – the endless array of shows, seasons and ‘contestants’ flowing through these shows has churned out a gigantic crop of people with superstar dreams and unrealistic expectations. Don’t get me wrong, reality TV has shined a spotlight on some amazing culinary talents, has increased the sophistication of diners, and has been a real boon to the restaurant industry. It also has created some gigantic egos.

The problem is that the traits that make good TV are, in my opinion, the exact opposite of those required to be a truly great chef.  Fiery outbursts, frenzied menu creation and flashy repartee don’t work on the line during a busy Saturday night. Your cooks don’t care that you won season 6 of (Insert Show Here), they want you to expedite the next order correctly so they don’t have to cook the fish three times.

I know I share this opinion with a great many industry professionals, but I believe that a truly great chef is much more akin to a master woodworker or a great mechanic than a spoiled rock star. They are craftsmen focused on quality in everything they produce. Consistent, expert and highly skilled. I love this quote from Jacques Pepin: “When you become a good cook, you become a good craftsman first. You repeat and repeat and repeat until your hands know how to move without thinking about it.”

But reality TV is, well, a reality and your staff may heed the siren’s call and head off to LA for their twelve weeks in the sun. So how do you deal with the monster that returns?

I have found that focusing on the essential details of the business – the craft of the job – can be a great counterbalance to the sugar high of a great review or a stint on TV.  Is the glassware spotless, are we seasoning the proteins, have the phones been answered in less than three rings, have we touched every table? There isn’t a restaurant on earth that can’t be improved, so put a maniacal focus on the little things until everyone has their feet firmly back on the ground.


2. Build a Scoreboard: Another great antidote to ego-related issues is what I call the ‘Success Scoreboard.’ Just like in basketball or hockey, this Scoreboard is a very clear set of goals, agreed to by the team, that defines success. Done right, it focuses the team on the key business challenges, leaves no room for interpretation and creates accountability for everyone involved. I recently worked with a restaurant that had a great dinner crowd, but was struggling to build its lunch business.  It was clear to me, for a variety of reasons, that the egos of the chef and GM were the primary obstacles to achieving the owners goal. They had more than a hint of programming about them and thought the lunch business was a ”distraction.”  So, I sat with the owner and asked one simple question: What does a successful lunch business look like for you? After a few minutes, we came up with the following scoreboard that she presented to the team:

Goal: To develop a busy and profitable lunch crowd

  • Average 125 covers per day
  • Deliver an Average Turn Time of 45 Minutes
  • Maintain a 29% Food Cost
  • Achieve an Average Check of Between $29-$32 per person

That’s it. When we presented this to the team, there was, of course, hemming and hawing about the ‘integrity of the menu’ and ‘rushing the guests out the door’ and ‘cheapening the concept’ – all the usual BS. But she stuck to her guns and it became clear to the team that failing to achieve these goals meant failing at their jobs. End result: they got to work and pulled together a plan to deliver a busy and profitable meal period. Six months later, she had achieved a 35% increase in lunch traffic and was well on her way to $1M in sales annually.

Regardless of your team’s ego, baggage or pre-conceived notions, the Success Scoreboard defines the specific criteria to which they will be held accountable and gives them a clear, quantifiable outline of your goals. This seemingly simple exercise can do wonders for aligning your team and coalescing their efforts around common goals. The key is to review your goals regularly and hold your team accountable for achieving them.

3. Embrace Feedback: Feedback, in its many shapes and forms, is like kryptonite for ego-related blind spots in your restaurant. If you ask, your guests will tell you exactly how they feel about every aspect of your business: from menu, to price point, to hours of operation, to whether there’s too much salt in the soup.  And nothing breaks through ego-driven stubbornness better than the phrase: “The guests don’t like it!”

While many restaurants use comment cards or on-line surveys, the best way to really understand what is going on is to actually talk to your guests.  (I know, it doesn’t involve a smart phone – but stick with me.) If you really want to know what your guests think about your business, they have to feel that you are truly interested and care about their opinion.  Spend some time with them, ask the uncomfortable questions, probe for things your team could be doing better. I guarantee you’ll get the truth.

Another obvious treasure trove of information is social media. The reviews and customer comments in Yelp, OpenTable, Eater and many other on-line platforms are a fantastic resource for spotting issues with your business and breaking through any ego-related resistance from your team. There’s no filter here and not everything you read will make you happy, but clear trends will emerge. I remember working with a very successful restaurant group on the launch of a new location and encountering enormous customer resistance to an innovative ‘sharing’ concept that they had developed.  It had been a big hit for the group in several of their other locations, but for some reason, it didn’t work for this new location. So rather than arguing about the issue, we scoured social media for mentions of the sharing concept and pulled together dozens of negative comments about the format. We presented these comments to the chef.  The next week the format was changed.

Another thing to keep in mind is that feedback doesn’t always come in verbal or written form. Teach your team to read the non-verbal cues from your guests. This includes spotting half-eaten portions, reading the guests’ body language during their meal, half-hearted responses to check-backs, or consistent requests for menu-modifications. More often than not, the signs are there – you just have to be open to receiving them.

The ultimate form of feedback, however, is your monthly P&L. Numbers don’t lie and no amount of hubris or ego can make up for an empty dining room or empty bank account. About 10 years ago, I worked with a restaurant in London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood, right down the block from the American Embassy. This classic French Bistro sat empty most of the day – running about 15 covers a night for dinner in a great location. It was obvious that the restaurant had missed the mark with the market, but the team there was so devoted to their ‘pet concept’ that they ran at a loss for two full years before addressing the situation. When they were no longer able to defend the monthly losses, we were able to flip the concept to a classic American-Style Steak House and increase revenues by about 400% year over year. This was a perfect example of a business ignoring their market and running on ego.

Passionate people and big egos are par for the course in the restaurant business, but letting these egos go unchecked can have a disastrous effect on your bottom line. The key is being able to successfully redirect your team onto a healthier path – without breaking a lot of China! If handled correctly, your team will be stronger and you bottom line will be much healthier.


Jay Coldren is president of Coldren Hospitality: a restaurant consulting company based in Washington, DC.



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