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What You Can Learn from Restaurant: Impossible


Well, it’s Thanksgiving week. With Thanksgiving my mind turns to family, friends, floats (the kind you ride on in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, not the kind made with soda and ice cream- although those are good too, just not what I think of at this time of the year… anyway, back to my list…), football, and food. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the last word there: food. When my mind turns to food, I think of restaurants. When my mind turns to restaurants, I think of my new favorite TV show: Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible with Robert Irvine.

Robert Irvine, host of Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible

For those of you not familiar with the concept:

“Robert attempts to save America’s most desperate restaurants from impending failure in just two days with only $10,000. Over the course of each extreme mission, Robert assesses all of the restaurant’s facets and then overhauls its weakest spots with updates to menus, retraining staff and implementing aesthetic changes with the help of his design team, before hitting the streets to tell the community about the improved restaurant.”

Now, before you start saying, “Jay, I know you like food, but you’re not a food blogger. This is not why I come to your blog, etc. etc.”, bear with me, and I think you’ll see where I’m going with this.

Having watched quite a few episodes now, themes start to emerge. So, let’s focus on what you and your organization can learn from these themes.

Management- These restaurants are family-owned and managed. Many times they went into the restaurant business for what I would call the wrong reasons and with little to no restaurant experience. Other problems arise when management is absent, when they try to do too many of the daily tasks, when they are too permissive or lax with staff, and/or when the lines of responsibility are not clearly defined. Does your management team have a clearly defined vision for the organization? Are they (or you) providing the right kind of support for employees?

Product Quality- Robert always gets feedback from customers on the food before the transformation begins, and he tries it himself. At best the menu items are uninspired and bland and at worst they are unappetizing. Generally, Robert points to the lack of fresh ingredients as the restaurants are using frozen foods or dishes that are mass produced or prepared in advance of when they’re ordered. Did your organization have good ideas in the past that have simply grown stale? Are you trying to do too many things for too many people and not doing them the right way?

Ambiance- Many of these restaurants have an outdated look and/or are incohesive in their feel. It’s amazing to me what can be done on a limited budget with a little creativity and knocking down a wall or two. Often they use some of the same chairs or tables but refurbish them in some way. A fresh coat of paint and a good cleaning can also do wonders. Is it time for your organization to get a new look to your web site, publications, or events? What message are these vehicles sending about the organization?

Staff Morale– Staff morale can be down in these restaurants because they don’t know what’s expected of them or sometimes who to take their cues from. Also, as the restaurant begins to fail, the wait staff loses income. Within the family management team, they’re worn down due to long hours with little to show for it. Does the staff in your organization understand who’s in charge and what needs to be done to meet objectives?

The lessons are plentiful from Restaurant: Impossible and go beyond changing the look of the dining area, adding new items to the menu, or giving the management and staff tips on running the restaurant.

Teachability- The owners of the restaurants have applied to be on the show because they’re failing. Often though they’re resistant to change, insisting that their way, their choices, their entrees will work. Even on the brink of disaster, they still have a hard time admitting failure. Lesson 1: Being teachable and getting new ideas is a great way to get out of a rut and avoid failure.

Time Management- Story after story focuses on an owner who’s worn down from working 80 hours each week. Robert has them make a list of what they do, and sometimes it’s everything from cleaning the restrooms to clearing tables to placing food orders. Robert helps them to understand priorities for an owner/manager, what can be delegated, and which responsibilites lay with the kitchen or wait staff, and then he secures buy-in from the entire staff for this direction. Lesson 2: It’s not about working harder; it’s about working smarter. Utilize teammates for their strengths and expertise. Most will want to contribute more when they realize what it will mean for the success of the organization.

Money- Often these owners are operating with little knowledge of their expenses. Robert helps them to understand what items cost and where they can save money. More than once I’ve seen a restaurant owner on the show who’s operating under the premise that their catering business is keeping them afloat. Robert shows them that it’s actually costing them money to run the catering side the way they were doing it. Another restaurant had an unofficial coffee club. People sitting in the restaurant for hours drinking free refill after free refill was not helping their business. Lesson 3: You have to know the numbers. Avoiding looking at these could be costing you money and effectiveness.

What are the lessons you’ve learned from Restaurant: Impossible? What would an unbiased expert find in your organization? What recommendations would they make?

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  1. November 26, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Excellent post. I would like permission to reprint this in the Connecticut Society of Association Executives newsletter minus the Thanksgiving lead in.

  1. December 26, 2012 at 4:24 pm

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