Skip navigation
Restaurants need to upgrade training with tech knowledge

Restaurants need to upgrade training with tech knowledge

I recently had lunch with Tim Kirkland, author of the best-selling book “The Renegade Server” (2009, Indian Creek Press, $19.95). If you haven’t read the book — a 21st century treatise on how to motivate, 
inspire and direct iPod generation waitstaff to better serve and sell — I highly recommend it. Our conversation centered not on servers, but on the current state of — and frustrating lack of progress in — foodservice training. 

In the last decade, the restaurant business has steadfastly transformed into the business of restaurants. We’ve made vast strides in key operational 
areas such as marketing, design, throughput, menus, back-office systems and even hiring. Our traditionally innovation-phobic industry has even come to 
embrace technology as a performance enabler instead of 
enslaver — how cool is that? Yet despite all this systemwide progress, training programs missed the progress train and seem steadfastly rooted in the past. 

Kirkland has a favorite 
analogy for today’s foodservice training programs that rely 
solely on training manuals: an 1860s stagecoach.

“A stagecoach is primitive in its design and purpose but has functionality, gets passengers from here to there and can be driven by almost anyone,” Kirkland explained. “You’ve got your driver-trainers on top, passenger-trainees below, and while it’s bumpy and slow going most of the way, it’ll eventually get you where you need to go. Much the same could be said for the bulk of most manual-driven foodservice training today.”

He has a good point. The training manual and its companion three-ring binder — the tool and template of choice for foodservice trainers for the last 60 years — may indeed be the stagecoach of the foodservice industry. 

In case you’ve never considered it, here’s a brief 
synopsis of how 99 percent of all 
training manuals are created and developed in restaurants:

Somebody opens an independent restaurant. Shortly before or after they open, a server, bartender or manager who’s “a good writer” is asked by the owners to write a customer service manual. The chef or cooks write down the recipes, individual job descriptions are collected, a customer manifest and mission statement are defined, and eventually the server writes a first draft for cheap. Next, the owners review the draft and add their two cents. Lawyers are summoned, the content is dutifully reviewed and 
revised in great by-the-hour 
detail, and the front-end content gets heavily weighted with cover-your-ass-content and the 
occasional “whereas” and “thereupons” are thrown in for heft. The restaurant logo is affixed to the cover page, the manual is photocopied and gets handed out.

Two years later, a new server at the company with an English degree creates a revised second edition of the manual, at minimum wage. 

Three years later the company grows bigger and begins franchising, and a franchise advisory board makes revisions and additions to the second edition. 

Eventually, an agency — the same one that does your advertising — proposes improving the layout/design/artwork on the third edition, and a staff copywriter experienced in ad 
creation touches up the content.

Naturally, the legal team 
reviews each iteration in detail and adds both more liability 
language and a few more well-placed disclaimers to the 

You eventually hire a director of training who puts the key points of the manual on PowerPoint slides to share with new managers and franchisees.

Your IT director puts that PowerPoint deck on your 
Intranet with audio narration and now declares you’re providing e-learning. 

Every year you update the manual/PowerPoint/job aid with new menu items, policies or 
procedures. And more legal stuff.

And so it goes and goes, and that’s why, in the long run, 99 percent of all training manuals end up being written by a 
committee made up of many 
attorneys and not one Charles Dickens. 

When companies merely 
revise manuals every year with graphics or layout improvements instead of adapting and applying new learner-centric training concepts and technology, Kirkland calls it merely “polishing the stagecoach.” It’s kind of like putting radial tires and a rearview mirror on your stagecoach. It may look nicer, but it’s still a 19th century means of conveyance pulled by horses in a turbo BMW world.

The thing is, training today should be learner-centric, not content-centric. We’re all drowning in information and starving for knowledge. Shouldn’t our training materials be 
created based on how adults 
absorb, retain and use content instead of merely telling them what you think they need to know? You wouldn’t let a dishwasher design your building or an architect design your menu, so why leave training content and design to people who did the job well but have no clue how adult learners actually absorb and retain learning today? The world of tell-show-do-review is linear, and 
linear training is dead. 

Maybe it’s time to invest in bona fide adult-learning 
experts to review and revise your training materials instead of 
relying only on your lawyers and franchisees. And while I’ve got nothing against stagecoaches or manuals, the fact is that neither one gets me where I need to go as a passenger or learner in the second decade of the 21st century. 

To succeed in the next five years, you must out-teach the competition.

Jim Sullivan is a popular speaker at management conferences worldwide. You can get his free leadership e-newsletter and product catalog at

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.