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10 things that won’t change for restaurants in 2018

Know the ever-present issues that challenge your business in order to overcome them

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

“There’s no science to foodservice; it’s an art.
–Lon Ledwith, executive vice president of operations, BJ’s Restaurants Inc.

Writers and pundits have a penchant for prognostication, which helps explain why the majority of year-end columns, blogs and vlogs focus on predictions for the coming year. But predicting the future is a tricky and nebulous proposition, which is why you never see a headline that says, “Psychic Wins Lotto.”

And besides, how do you realistically prepare your business and teams to offset a list of a columnist’s guesswork? I think it’s much more beneficial to pose a different question: What isn’t likely change in 2018? What are the ever-present issues that we know with certainty will continue to befuddle, bedevil and bewilder our industry over the next 12 months? And, more importantly, how do we minimize the impact of those issues on our people, performance and profits?

Here are 10 challenges we need to address:

1. Employee retention and turnover. There is no labor crisis; it’s a turnover crisis. Job No. 1 in 2018 is finding, developing and retaining better team members. I’m a huge fan of promoting from within, but I also put stock in the words of Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, who said: “No matter how smart the people are within your organization, always remember that there are a lot smarter people outside your organization.” And if you’re stymied in your efforts to find good people from the outside, then double down on your efforts to develop the ones you have. Teach, train and develop teams to overcome job-related challenges and succeed at the daily hurdles they face. Winning is great, but helping others win is even greater.

2. Customer service training. The more you spend on customer service training, the less you spend on marketing. Ray Kroc got the customer service formula right nearly 60 years ago at McDonald’s: QSC+V (Quality, Service, Cleanliness plus Value), and it has just as much credence in 2018. In quick-service operations the Value proposition involves speed, accuracy and smiles. In full-service restaurants, Value includes helping servers and bartenders master a critical skill that is often overlooked: how and when to initiate and engage guests in conversations, the two-way exchanges that generate more insight, interest, connection and feedback from your diners. Key learning for 2018: Customers don't want to be treated like customers; they want to be treated like people. With apologies to the chefs who’ve claimed eminent domain over a restaurant’s overall reputation, the fact remains that good service can save an average (or bad) meal. A good meal cannot save bad service. Good service makes a meal taste better. When diners rate you three stars out of five for service, they tend to drop a star in food quality, too. Until tablets, kiosks or software can effectively recognize who I am, identify my previous purchases, customize the menu to my preferences and make me feel welcome by name every time I visit, then we are dependent on people. See next point.

3. Team member learning and development. The majority of foodservice training is front-loaded into the orientation phase, wherein we firehose tons of information at the trainee. Worse, the majority of that training is directing- and telling-based, when this time is better spent connecting the new team member with the brand’s culture and concept. Starting now, audit your training program to gauge its effectiveness and focus. Orientation should be a time of high engagement/low task, not high task/low engagement. Our GenNext team members are drowning in information and starving for knowledge.  

4. Sexual harassment awareness. The Washington Post recently cited the restaurant and clothing industries as two sectors with the highest incidence of sexual harassment. This issue will not and cannot abate without concerted and consistent efforts to both educate and regulate the behavior of our team members and managers. This issue must be a primary focus of any and all training in 2018 and beyond.

5. Knowing what to say no to. Everything you do matters, but everything you don’t do matters just as much. Everything you say yes to means you’re saying no to something else, which will steer your business in a different direction. Here’s your decision-making matrix: If what you say yes to doesn’t measurably improve your business, improve your people, make the customer happier and make the company money in 2018, then don’t do it.

6. Pull the weeds. Move weak performers out quickly. Those who don’t row the boat shouldn’t be pulled along by those who are. Require 100-percent participation.

7. Get to How, then Why. It’s been said that in every company, there are six levels of employees, in order of ascendance: 1) The Snoozers, who reside at the bottom of any org chart; 2) The Doers, who can do what needs to be done; 3) The Teachers, who can both do it and teach it to others; and 4) The Leaders, who can do, teach and take responsibility to show others the way. In the fifth and penultimate position — above and apart from the Leaders — there are those who are able to do it, teach it and lead it, but most importantly know How the principles and process works. And there’s another level still, way above How, and it’s the most important level of all: 6) Those who know Why it’s done. In 2018, help your teams learn What, How and Why.

8. Master the Fundamentals. Get brilliant at, not bored with, the basics in 2018.

9. Operational complexity. When the easy things become hard to do, it’s time to clean up the process. Complexity and sloppiness are due to a lack of standardized and simplified processes and accountability. What’s working in 2018? How do we make it more efficient and scalable?

10. Focus on outcomes. Assess and list all the factors that most impacted your brand’s success in the past, and honestly determine if you need to change any of those approaches to remain successful in the future. Here’s how: Imagine that it's June 2018 or December 2018, and nothing has changed in your company from today. What are the implications for your people, your profits and your business? What changes can you make early in 2018 that will make the biggest difference in the succeeding four quarters? Think of it as Situational Awareness.

There are only two things that can be said with certainty about 2018: 1) When the winds of change blow, some build walls and some build windmills. 2) There was a time when “The Fundamentals” really mattered. That time is now.

Jim Sullivan is a popular speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide. The third edition of his bestselling book “Fundamentals” has just been published. Get it at or You can follow him on LinkedIn, YouTube or Twitter @Sullivision.

TAGS: Workforce
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