“The restaurant business is simple: You buy it, then you sell it,” said Stephanie Schneider, owner of Huckleberry Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y., who has spent decades in the restaurant and bar business, buying ingredients and selling prepared food and drinks.
But it’s also complicated — a business of expensive and perishable products, strong personalities and tiny details that have to be done the same way every time. Having procedures for everything from slicing lemons to taking inventory to setting tables helps ensure that everyone knows what to do and how to do it.
”It’s impossible to do your job without strong systems,” Schneider said.
“Consistency in the restaurant business is all anybody cares about,” she added. “It shows the restaurant knows what they’re doing and they’ve made conscious decisions.”
Defining every task that your employees perform may seem like you don’t trust their common sense, but in reality those definitions make everyone’s lives easier, according to Chris Elford, bartender at Rob Roy, one of Seattle’s top craft cocktail destinations.
“Good systems give you more freedom,” Elford said. “It may feel like you're putting a lot of rules in place, but you’ll be making more money, your employees will know what's expected and your offerings will be consistent.”
By training each employee to make drinks or count inventory in exactly the same way, you can ensure your whole team is operating at their optimal level. Those systems also help measure what’s working and what’s not.
“If you’re not able to track what's coming in, or what’s going out, you don't even know the basics and you’re missing out on profits immediately,” said Schneider, who uses software that tallies information from her POS system.
“You can instantly look at servers’ check averages, their tip percentages and learn their patterns over time,” she said. “Are they upselling? Are they selling multiple drinks? Are their tips low? If so, are they engaging the guests properly? This gives us info that we can’t always see during service.”
But low-tech systems can be powerful, too.
“We use a simple pull sheet in the liquor room,” Elford said. “Any bottle that leaves the room needs to be written down. Not writing a bottle on the pull sheet is the same as theft. So that basic pull sheet becomes hugely important.”
With multiunit organizations, systems can be put in place to ensure that all products are being used to their fullest potential at all locations, which immediately benefit the bottom line.
“At one of the bars I worked at, we didn’t use fruit juice, but we still made citrus twists, so the leftover fruit went to other bars in the restaurant group,” Elford said. “Lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits are expensive, so it can really hurt your margins if you’re not paying attention to how they’re utilized.”
By systematizing the way menus are created and looping in all employees who need to be involved, it becomes a standardized process. Understanding what’s being used at different restaurants throughout the company can have a great cost-saving effect.
With those systems in place, Elford would regularly meet with the chef about his menu and see if he could cross-utilize products.
“It forced me to think deeper, and I made better drinks because of it,” he said. “For instance, the chef poached sweet potato waffles in spiced milk, which was then thrown out. I tasted it and it was delicious. So we put a sweet potato milk punch on the menu and guests loved it. It not only helped the bottom line, but also my creativity.”
Once systems are in place, they need to be monitored. In the back of the house, that requires a chef who is well organized, good at communicating and who is always watching his team with a keen eye.
“Trying to get busy cooks to look at emails isn’t ideal,” said George Kaden, former chef de cuisine at Hearth Restaurant in New York City. “You need to be there, showing them what needs to be done, then checking their work, and always tasting their food. That’s 90 percent of your job. The whole idea is that the place runs without you. Then I'm there as a resource, a quality check. I should not look at my day as a long list of tasks; all that should be delegated. Someone’s got to have the big-picture view.”
Good systems are a way to turn real-life experience into corporate culture. Being able to take institutional knowledge and flip it into a set system that becomes part of every employee’s routine is the way skilled operators enhance their business year after year.
For example, every restaurant and bar operator struggles with staffing.
“You watch your labor cost shoot through the roof when someone quits or goes on vacation,” Kaden said. Based on that experience, he implemented a system that helped him weather the storm during moments of understaffing: “I created an extra position that really had no immediate responsibilities, so when someone quit, this guy could jump in. That extra position let me fill a gap without relying on overtime pay or asking management to work even more hours. By overstaffing, I actually saved money in the long run, and my people were happier.”
Learn from experience and then act on that learning by creating strong systems.