Archive | July 30, 2014

It All Starts at the Top

Welcome back to Soupfly


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It all starts at the top-the culture, the standards, the expectations and the execution or the lack of it.  It all begins with leadership. This is true of any business-Restaurant industry included.  How  engaged an owner is will determine how engaged his management is.  And in turn, that will inform and effect how engaged the staff will be.

Have you ever worked at a job where the owner and managers just didn’t really seem to care?  They’re  hardly ever around.  You always have to track them down when you need something?  How frustrating that can be for an employee.  Eventually, the staff takes on the same “I don’t care” attitude.  Others will either revolt or end up leaving.  How many talented, focused and driven individuals have moved on from a company because the owner/management were not engaging?  They didn’t engage their staff, their employees and they sure did not engage their customers.  How sad a situation that is.

It seems that often that is commonplace in the Restaurant Industry these days.  People think that if they put some money into a restaurant-Voila!  Automatically they are a restaurateur.  They treat the business like an investment-expecting a great return on their money and being completely disengaged from the business.   But a business, any business and especially the restaurant business requires a lot of love and attention and, as we mentioned last week-Passion.

If you turn on the TV and watch any of the restaurant rescue kind of shows-you’ll understand that I’m not just making this up. There’s a plethora of shows that feature owners who really don’t know what the heck they’re doing, they have no knowledge, experience or training in the Service and Hospitality side of the business, or they just plain have no passion for it  and they need HELP.

Restaurant Stakeout

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Shows like Restaurant Stakeout, Mystery Diners and Bar Rescue, to name a few, all portray the above scenario.  Willie Degel on Restaurant Stakeout says “You can’t fix the problem if you don’t know what it is”.  And you can’t know what’s going on when you’re not there unless you have cameras in the restaurant to catch your staff doing all the crazy shenanigans they do.  -Of course, I’m paraphrasing what he actually says.  But that’s the gist of it.  I know that these shows do help the owners very often.  But my question is-Why aren’t the owners involved enough or engaged enough in their business to know what’s actually going on?  What’s with needing all those cameras?

While I do enjoy watching said shows-it seems to me that there must be a better way.  Certainly, if the owners actually had a passion and a desire for this business, if they functioned as true leaders they wouldn’t be in the situation they find themselves in when they call Willie Degel, or Jon Taffer or Charles Stiles.  I mean, if you’ve ever watched any of these shows you’ll know see my point. It’s not uncommon for them to find rotten chicken in the kitchen, dead rats behind sofas in the bars, mold and fungus growing in the bar area or in the walk-in cooler.  These things don’t just happen overnight.  This is when there is no leadership, the owner doesn’t care, so the manager is not going to break their back trying to worry about things.  And ultimately, the staff follows suit.   These things just don’t happen when owners care and they create a culture of caring around them.  And when they establish certain standards of excellence for all their staff to ascribe to.  It all starts with leadership or the lack thereof.

Why does an owner have to have his restaurant outfitted with numerous surveillance cameras if he were actually involved and present in his own business.  If the owner acted like a true leader, setting examples for his staff/ his entire team, they wouldn’t have to call Restaurant Stakeout.  Sorry Willie.  I love the show but I think you get my point.

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I’ve certainly experienced the above.  I worked  at more than one job where the owner was so disengaged, they were completely unaware of what was going on in their business nor did they seem to care or want to know.  That atmosphere does not breed teamwork or pride in one’s work or any feeling of satisfaction.    Patrick Lencioni talks about this very thing in his business fable-THREE SIGNS OF A MISERABLE JOB.  At that point, employees will be coming to work  just for the money and doing only the very bare minimum required.

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I’ve also had the great privilege of working in establishments where the owner is a true servant leader.  He leads not by exerting authority but by influencing, motivating and inspiring his staff/employees.  One place that comes to mind is Vin de Set in Saint Louis, Missouria French Bistro with an American twist.  The Executive Chef/part-owner at the time I worked there was Ivy Magruder.  He personified the spirit of servant leadership.  He not only ran the kitchen.   He would often run the host stand and greet and seat guests.   He would walk the dining room floor asking us servers if we would like him to open a bottle of wine for our table if we were busy, or bring out our appetizers to a table.   He would often be found at the end of the evening assisting the dishwasher get caught up with dishes.  There was absolutely no job that was below him or that he was unwilling to do.  Not only that, but he was/is so completely passionate about the food, the wine and ensuring that each guest has a wonderful dining experience that anyone who worked with him-if they weren’t passionate about the same-they either caught it from him or they left.  Chefs and owners like Ivy show us what true Hospitality is all about.    I only worked with Ivy for a short period of time but I count it as one of my best work experiences and it was so refreshing compared to some other places I’ve worked.  I learned so much about both leadership and service.  They really go hand in hand.  Robert Greenleaf said “Good leaders must first become Good Servants.”

Currently Ivy is the Executive Chef at Panorama at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

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Recently, when my wife, Michelle and I were traveling  together with her daughter, Melissa, we met  some other owners who exemplified that same type of leadership and passion.



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First, a couple months ago we took a trip to the beautiful, Southern California coastal town of Santa Barbara.  While there were so many wonderful things we experienced on that trip-(and why not, for it’s Santa Barbara?) the dinner we had on our last night there was  absolutely Amazing.  It was a Saturday night, we had no reservation and we weren’t exactly sure where we wanted to eat.  We had a couple of choices in mind in the same vicinity, so we took a taxi and asked  to be dropped  off at Victoria street.


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We had Bouchon on our list, we saw the beautiful patio and decided we would eat there.  No reservation on a busy Saturday night and yet, within minutes the host had us seated.  The decor was beautiful-the patio was actually enclosed, not just a few tables strewn along the sidewalk as some restaurant’s patio seating is.    Bouchon sources fresh local ingredients and “prepares them with care” and with the local Santa Barbara wine accompaniments in mind.  They were doing what is now called “Farm to Table” long before that became a thing.

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As  bottled water was being poured, and bread being brought to our table, I noticed a gentleman in his late 40’s/early 50’s who was bussing tables, pouring wine and greeting tables.  I said to Melissa and my wife, “I bet that gentleman over there is the owner.”   And why did I think that?  Well, because he acted like it.  He acted the way I would if I owned my own restaurant.  He had such an enthusiasm and cheerfulness about him.  He truly seemed to care about every aspect of  every task he was doing and about each guest as he would approach a table.  He wasn’t necessarily engaging every guest-as in asking them how everything is.  In fact when he came to our table to assist in bringing out our first course, I was the one who engaged-asking him, “Are you the owner?”  Sure enough, I was correct.  Mitchell Sjevern has been the owner of Bouchon Santa Barbara for 16 years but he had the same passion and excitement of a brand new restaurateur starting out in this business.  He was operating as the director of an orchestra.   And guess what?  It wasn’t just Mitchell who exuded such passion.  Rather, every staff person who approached our table-whether the runner who brought out our food, or the server who guided us through the menu-(Michelle had the duck which she said was fantastic-she also raved about the blue cheese tart. Melissa loved the lamb and my Seabass was the best I ever had) and the wine list with wonderful suggestions, or the Sommelier, who,  when he wasn’t pouring wine for guests, was seating  and greeting and even clearing tables.

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From the moment the Host greeted us to the last  last drop of wine and everything in between-the Dinner, the Service-Everything was impeccable.  And we all said “Wow! That’s what it’s all about.  That’s how it’s supposed to be and the staff at Bouchon Santa Barbara show how it can be done.

I don’t know if Vin De Set had cameras while I was working there.  Nor do I know if Bouchon Santa Barbara does.  The point is that when you have engaged and involved owners and management they know what’s going on in their establishment.  They set standards, they lead by example and they create a culture where the staff are excited to come to work  and to create and provide exceptional dining experiences for their guests.  These type of Service Professionals are too busy serving their guests to know if what they do is being caught on camera.  And if it is let’s get the tape and show others how it should be done.

“If you are the owner, your job is to be so great at what you do that employees aspire to be just like you.  If you are the employee, your job is to be so great that customers mistake you for the owner!  Regardless of the size of your company, regardless of who you are or what you do, act like an owner!” (AMAZE EVERY CUSTOMER EVERY TIME by Shep Hyken)


As I write this thinking about my wife, Michelle, reading this later-she’ll surely ask me when we are planning to go back there again.  Soon.  Soon, my Love.




I recently had the privilege of interviewing Mitchell Sjevern for my upcoming best seller-GETTING TO WOW! First Class Restaurant Service for his insights on creating exceptional Wow! dining experiences.


To be continued…

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God bless you all,

Go have some soup.

Christoff J. Weihman

Aspire Enterprises

Las Vegas, NV