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When faced with stormy economic times, think preparation, communication, talent retention

My last column (“Smart operators can make the most of a lean economy…,” March 3) generated a lot of reader response. Most of you agreed with my point of view—that smart operators market their way through tough times while shortsighted ones try to save their way through it.

I suggested that savvy restaurateurs invest their time and resources to become more customer-centric, executing fundamentals with habitual consistency and getting brilliant at the basics while the competition wastes its time worrying about the economy instead of the guest.

Reader reaction ranged from gritty determination (“We’ll get through this like we have before”) to calm perspective (“If it’s a downward cycle we’re in, focus on the ‘cycle’ part instead of ‘downward’”) to the blunt assessment of a pragmatic Nashville, Tenn., restaurateur: “The best thing about 2008 is that it’ll be over in nine more months.”

A few of you felt that I was contributing to an unnecessary “sky-is-falling” paranoia (“We’re in a recession when the government statistics support it, not when a columnist suggests it”), and some readers sounded pleased to be experiencing even flat sales in a marketplace where it appears their competitors’ sales have nose-dived.

Which prompts me to ask: Is “flat” the new “up”?

I certainly don’t have the answer, and no one can predict the future—which is why you never see a headline that says, “Psychic wins lotto.” All I can offer is perspective and some additional advice.

As we consider the gathering clouds on the horizon, I think we might all gain perspective by recalling three well-known mottos: from the Boy Scouts, “Be prepared,” to the first line of the physicians’ creed, “First, do no harm,” to the United States’ “E Pluribus Unum,” or “Out of many, one.” Allow me to elaborate:

Develop your action plan before you get into crisis: Preparation is the key to surviving and thriving in tough times.

“If you don’t have a detailed game plan with your team’s input and buy-in for 2008, clearly stated and shared, you’ll become a prisoner of events,” says Joe Hummel, vice president of operations for Hooters of America in Atlanta.

Map it out or mess it up: If you’re considering changes to your systems, pricing, processes or menu, make certain those changes are well thought out, brand-aligned and smart for the long run.

Share the plan with your team: You owe your managers and crew clarity, courage and conviction in these challenging times. Define what success looks like in 2008 for your concept or brand.

Here are the five things the team needs to hear from you: Where are we now? Where are we going? How are we going to get there? What do you want me to do? What’s in it for me when I do?

Make managers jobs easier, not harder: “First, do no harm.” If part of your 2008 strategy is to do more with less, make certain that includes your managers’ working hours. If you are going to extend their daily hours to more than 12 by adding more duties, what are you losing in your attempt to gain?

“After 12 hours in the restaurant, a GM’s focus, patience and energy is drained,” says Matt Druliner, a Southern California regional director for California Pizza Kitchen. “When supervisors ask managers to add something new to their duties, they almost have an obligation to simultaneously take something away. Because who suffers when the manager is exhausted? Both the team member and guest.”

Perhaps the best investment a company can make in its managers—through good times or bad—is to give them insights into how to better master the art of time management and teach them strategies that will help them organize their priorities. Stress is the father of turnover.

Build a team focused on attracting, developing and retaining talent: Unity of purpose and team-work—“Out of many, one”—is a hallmark of companies that succeed in tough times. Retain good people, and a multitude of problems disappear.

This industry has never had a “turnover problem.” We’re very good at turnover. In fact, we excel at it. What we do have is a retention problem. Find ways this year to attract and retain high performers and then excel at keeping your best and brightest both challenged and engaged.

Different employees require different levels of management. Conform your leadership style to what each person needs, don’t expect them to adapt to you. Put a premium on retention (of the right people). You will find that “return on talent” can be the most profitable line item on your spreadsheet.

Do “flat sales” mean you’re truly “up”? No. Even if you’re standing still, you’re walking backward in a world filled with uncertain customers and rising commodity and gasoline prices. So get up, even if only by 1 percent, by getting focused, being better and executing the fundamentals daily.

I believe that the 2008 global economic downturn may quite likely extend beyond the calendar year and have a profound effect on our industry. A year from now the casual-dining, family-dining and quick-service segments very well may look or feel quite different than they do today. After all, the nature of business changes when the customer changes, and guests have shown quite the proclivity for transformation of late.

While we could and should make adjustments based on what we think is right for our business, we’d also be wise to first ask, “What’s best for the guest?”

Ultimately, in both good times and bad, customers, not the economy, will decide our success or failure. They always have.

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