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Restaurant operators reveal New Year’s resolutions

Labor, the wage gap and communication with staff are priorities for 2017, operators say

David Flaherty has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains

As 2016 draws to a close, restaurant owners and operators are taking a hard, yet optimistic, look at the state of their businesses.

While December tends to bring in the most revenue all year (thank you, corporate events), January often hits with a sense of levity and coming up for air. You survived another year!

But the resetting of the calendar gives an excuse to honestly assess strengths and weaknesses. Whether it's a fresh look at the layout of your space, a critical assessment of costs or a new approach to tasks you always seem to avoid, take the chance to refresh the decks. 

In Astoria, N.Y., Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim opened The Queens Kickshaw in 2011, and were awash in glowing reviews and welcoming embraces from the neighborhood. As the years have passed, and as new spots have popped up all around them, they are taking the opportunity to make improvements that will ensure they stay relevant and continue to reap the benefits of their hard work and vision.

“In the past year, we’ve done a number of things to add new revenue streams,” Sandler said. “We resolve to attempt to fully capitalize on those in the new year, while also focusing on areas we need to improve on, such as communication with our managers.” 

Ensuring that your management team has detailed weekly labor and cost of goods reports, as well as up-to-date profit-and-loss statements, is a challenge for any operator. But Sandler and Lim know that their managers can respond quickly with purchasing or staffing adjustments if they get those reports in real time. 

“When things are running fiscally smart, they also feel the pride that goes along with meeting target numbers,” Sandler said. “We have to streamline, get more focused and organized, while at the same time staying true to our core values of running an operation that is supportive of our staff, welcoming to the community, and gives us breathing room to continue to evolve and be creative. 

Across the country, in Seattle, Chris Elford and Anu Apte recently navigated a challenging real estate market to open No Anchor, a beer bar and restaurant serving Pacific Northwest cuisine. They are currently benefiting from the attention that comes from their newcomer status, but they know they have to continue the momentum.

“We have to build a solid base of regulars,” Elford said. “Our method has been to seek out each person that walks in our door — remember their names and what they’re all about, engage them in conversation, simple stuff like that — but moving into 2017, we will be doing some more interactive stuff with our regulars, including starting a running club, putting on special beer dinners and classes, and just being more and more a part of the community here in our neighborhood of Belltown.”

Many operators are coming into 2017 facing a shortage of skilled labor to work in their kitchens, and are looking for solutions.

“The most challenging aspect of 2016 was most definitely staffing in the kitchen,” said Tommy Pappas, general manager at Brunswick & Hunt in Seattle. “Two years ago, when I would put an ad up for a cook's position, I would get 30 to 40 résumés. Now I get three to four.” 

Pappas’ No. 1 priority for 2017 is addressing the pay disparity between front-of-house employees and those who work in the kitchen. He said front-of-house employees can earn up to twice that of a kitchen employee, in half the hours and with less experience.

“We must balance the scales,” he said.

Pappas is considering implementing a service charge to achieve balance. 

“There's new legislation that blocks the business from utilizing the tip-pool method, meaning the business can't choose how to split up tips. A service charge, however, can be controlled by the house and split up however management decides,” he said.

Regulations on sharing service charge revenue vary by jurisdiction.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., St John’s Restaurant is one of the oldest fine-dining restaurants in town, and is entering its 16th year.

While management has noticed a shift away from white-tablecloth dining in the region, they’re not changing a thing. In fact, Michelle Richards, general manager and certified sommelier, is encouraging her staff to embrace the restaurant’s niche and continue to hone their pioneering approach to ingredients, a diverse beverage program and warm hospitality.

For the upcoming year, Richards has rallied her staff to drive toward finally bringing home a James Beard Award after previous nominations. By giving them a “North Star” to aim for this year, she said, they will approach each day with a clear mission that fuels their work.

Back in Astoria, N.Y., Dan Bronson, general manager at SingleCut Beersmiths, a brewery and event space, vows to shift his perspective in the New Year.

“My biggest resolution for 2017 is to focus less on ‘dime’ questions, and more on the ‘dollar’ questions,” Bronson said. “In day-to-day operations, I find it so easy to fall into the hole of questioning glassware brands and light bulbs, while getting complacent with much more important issues like payroll, our place in the market and the big vendors we use. We're running around all year long putting out small fires, but I vow that 2017 will be a year for the big questions.”

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