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Hindsight is 20/20: A roadmap for success in foodservice

Jim Sullivan reflects on lessons learned

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. 

“My future is in my past.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Not to freak you out or anything, Jim Sullivan, but I am you from the future. And I’d like to offer you a little advice from the year 2019. I know that you wanted to be a cowboy, an astronaut, and a forest ranger, and all I can say is sorry bout that. What you will become is a lifelong employee of the greatest industry in the world. And … wait, what? No, in the future we don’t have flying cars, personal jetpacks, or pills that taste like Thanksgiving Dinner. But wait’ll you get a load of pizza-delivering drones and Real Housewives of New Jersey. 

The good news is that you landed in foodservice, a perennial growth industry. Turns out, the restaurant business is like oxygen: If you’re alive, you’ll use it. And to mix yet another metaphor: The foodservice industry is like pizza; even when it’s bad, it’s good. It welcomes all immigrants and is perhaps the most racially diverse and equal opportunity employer in the world. It’s a colorful industry full of contradictions: It’s fun and it’s frustrating, there’s almost no barrier to entry, and it’s easy on customers but tough on employees. How tough? You don’t quit this business, it quits you. And since your future career in foodservice — like life itself — is experienced forward but only understood backwards, allow me to share with you — my once former and future self — a few kernels of truth that will help you avoid a few of the speed bumps this business will surely throw your way:

  • Everyone you will meet from this day forward knows something that you don’t. Meet as many people as you can, be interested in them and learn what they can teach you.
  • You can make money or lose money. But time can only be spent or lost. So spend it wisely. You can get more money; you can’t get more time.
  • Seek out mentors who know more than you do.  Aspire higher. The fastest way to change yourself is to hang out with people who are already the way you want to be.
  • Be less stubborn and more curious. Two kinds of people never succeed: One cannot do what they are told; the other cannot do anything unless they are told.
  • Persistence will get you there. Consistency and quality will keep you there. Bosses may forget how fast you did the job, but they will never forget how well you did it.
  • Develop a core competency as a talent developer. And don’t forget that people have a way of becoming what you encourage them to be — not what you nag them to be.
  • Customer service is always job one. Be nice to the people with the money.
  • Employees tend to respond most strongly to two things: what they believe is important and what they are rewarded or acknowledged for doing. Show appreciation every day in every way. Employees are your first market. After all, if she works for you, you work for her.
  • Foodservice leaders are never “energy neutral.” You are either giving people energy or you are draining it from them. Be a blowtorch, not a candle.
  • History doesn't repeat itself. People do. Not starting something when you know it will make your life or business better is a form of giving up.
  • Businesses are ecosystems. Each team member's abilities grow in response to the leaders and crew surrounding them. Put a premium on fit and talent when hiring.
  • In politics, the creation of fear is used to win. In leadership, the removal of fear is used to succeed. Teach your people to be confident in themselves before you teach them to be competent in their skills.
  • The most expensive thing in a restaurant is an empty chair. Always be marketing.
  • Use all the brains you have and all the brains you can borrow. And don’t stop reading and learning. School is never out for the pro.
  • Speed is not everything — direction counts.
  • You’re only as good as the day after greatness.

Some days you’re the bug and some days you’re the windshield. So sally forth and enjoy the ride. When it doesn’t go your way, exhibit what Hemingway called “Grace under pressure.” And when you do succeed, as you often will, try not to look so surprised. You earned it. Godspeed, young me.

Jim Sullivan is a former dishwasher, cook, server, bartender, manager, area director and current CEO. Companies using his services as a speaker or training tools include Walt Disney, Starbucks, Panera Bread, Texas Roadhouse and McDonald’s. He has over 400,000 social media followers on LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. Learn more about his products and services at  

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