When watching Kitchen Nightmares, from an outside perspective, it’s easy to see why restaurants go wrong. However, when your in the thick of it, it can be difficult to examine your own faults. While there are many unique situations that lead to a restaurant under-performing, after watching several seasons of Kitchen Nightmares (purely for research purposes, of course), I’ve made a short list of what every restaurant owner can learn from the show.
1. Go Simple
After the initial launch of a restaurant, the menu is often tweaked – more menu items are added, and often few are taken away. After a few years, you have a menu as long as your arm with writing on both sides. Although this gives the customer plenty of choice, it can also overwhelm them. On the show Kitchen Nightmares, when restaurants have menus the size of religious texts, one of the first things Gordon Ramsay does is ask them to prepare every dish. As a restaurant owner, if that thought makes your toes curl, it may be time to cut down your menu.
Gordon Ramsay isn’t the only one who can drive this point home. One of the greatest restaurant success stories in recent years is Chipotle. Their signature is a simple menu with few ingredients that can be combined multiple ways; it offers variety to the customers without keeping too much in stock. In fact, they don’t have any freezers on the premises. While not every restaurant can do that, it may be worth taking a page from their playbook and simplifying your menu.
2. Go Local
A big trend these days is locally produced fruit, vegetables, and meat. This isn’t what we’re talking about, necessarily. One of the quickest ways to drive out customers is to ignore their tastes. Yes, if you are a Chinese restaurant in a Midwest town, by all means serve Chinese food. But if you are putting cultural oddities like cow’s lung on the menu and taking off General Tso’s, don’t be surprised if you alienate the majority of your customers. If in doubt, ask customer’s opinions about how comfortable they are with your menu. Which brings us to the next point…
3. Listen To Customer’s Criticism
Gordon Ramsay often says that he doesn’t listen to his customer’s praise, only their criticism. It can be easy to dismiss a few complaints if you’re getting plenty of praise, but the truth is that most customer’s are too polite to tell you if something’s gone awry. Patrons can be talking badly about the cuisine or service, yet when the waiter or maitre d asks how the food is, they’ll smile and say “Fine.” Not many people enjoy confrontation.
That’s why you must pay attention to all observations. For every negative comment, you can bet that five or six other people have thought about it. Use the critique to improve your business, and make sure your customers know you heard them. Don’t turn away from the negative Nancys; they may just be the only ones telling you the truth.
4. Eat What You Make
It’s simple: if you wouldn’t eat it, chances are your customers won’t, either. Don’t let anything leave the kitchen without checking to see that it’s the best it can be. Also, as a restaurant owner, if you have items on the menu that you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole – no matter how good they were made – either take them off your menu or get someone you trust, like your head chef, to try them out from time to time.
It’s easy to let things slide over time. To help keep your quality up to snuff, take a photo of each dish when it’s excellently prepared, and display them in the kitchen. Make it each cook’s goal to produce top notch products, and with a photo of each dish on the menu, you can make sure they are living up to your ideals. Then, it must be said again, don’t let anything leave the kitchen that you wouldn’t eat.
5. Gauge Your Competition
Restaurants don’t operate in a vacuum. Sadly, some patrons will choose some other restaurant over yours tonight. Tonight, some customers will think about going to your venue, and then decide to go to another based on an individual litmus test. To reduce the number of times this occurs, gauge your competition. You may think your restaurant is unique, and it probably is, but that doesn’t mean that customer’s don’t have options.
When visiting another restaurant, pay attention to the prices, the staff, and the quality of the food. You aren’t there to note all the ways your restaurant is better; be honest with yourself. What are they doing better than you? Once you know that, you can improve your own restaurant and keep more of your customers.
6. A Restaurant Is A Business
One of the premier issues Gordon Ramsay has with restaurant owners on Kitchen Nightmares is that they are using their restaurant as a hangout, or a badge of honor, or as their personal kitchen. Yes, you are the master of your own domain, but if your restaurant isn’t making money, it’s not going to be your domain much longer. Even if you have a family-run operation, separate personal and professional life. Make sure the staff (even if you are related by blood) knows that you are the boss.
The first thing you should examine if you are running in the red is yourself. What can YOU do to improve the business? Often it can mean making the hard decisions – firing employees, scrapping the menu, changing the decor. While a restaurant can be an extension of your own personality, if it’s not making any money, all you have is a prohibitively expensive hobby. Do what you need to do to become profitable, then inject your personality into the business.
7. Fresh, Fresh, Fresh
It can be tempting to use precooked food or keep food right up to it’s expiration date. Think about it carefully before ordering that next shipment of chicken tenders – what do you want when you go to another restaurant? Do you want a piece of Purdue that has been seasoned and fried weeks before you stepped through the door? This kind of goes along with “Eat What You Make.”
Fresh just tastes better, and although it can be a little more work, it’s also usually cheaper. The payoff comes in the smiles your diners have after tasting something that’s uniquely yours. Do yourself a favor, set yourself as far as possible away from a frozen T.V. dinner, and use fresh produce and protein. Set yourself up for a positive long-term reputation and don’t skimp on the ingredients.
8. Use Secret Diners
What goes on in your restaurant when your not there? Wouldn’t it be nice to know? Invest in secret diners – there’s plenty of companies that can set you up with one. If you can’t do that, invite some extended family or acquaintances for some free food. Let them be a little unruly, sending stuff back to the kitchen or asking for special favors, but not too hostile that the staff gets suspicious. If you can swing it, let them keep an audio or video recorder on them to get the action on tape – this may come in handy later.
You may be surprised at the results. Some hostesses may get snotty when you’re not around; some waiters can get a short temper. If you find that their actions when your secret diners came in were beyond reprimand, you now have them on tape in case they attempt to sue you for wrongful termination. After the first run, let the staff know that secret diners will be coming in periodically. As long as they think you could be looking over their shoulder at any time, they will be on their best behavior – even when you are in Bermuda on vacation.
9. Get Your Name Out
Even successful companies market themselves. Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Pepsi – you may have heard of them – spend millions every year on ads. They know that successful marketing means a successful business. While you need to carefully examine your budget before shelling out radio or television ads, you can easily market yourself on the cheap these days. Facebook and Twitter allow you free platforms to get your name out there, and it’s very handy for restaurants with an already loyal following.
Don’t be afraid of using old-school methods, either. On Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsay will often take samples out to the streets to give to potential diners. People love free food regardless, and if yours is especially good, you know they’ll be back for more. Just make sure they don’t forget your name – hand out business cards and wear t-shirts with your restaurant’s name on them when you hand out food. You don’t want people wondering “What was the name of that restaurant with the awesome samples, again?”
10. Take Pride In Your Work
We’ve saved the best for last. If you care about your restaurant, it will be successful. If you don’t care, there’s no way it can. Be proud of your restaurant. On Kitchen Nightmares, if Gordon Ramsay doesn’t think a restaurant owner is passionate, he’ll suggest they find another career. In all seriousness, if you don’t like food or people, there’s little chance your restaurant will succeed. You have to be in it for both.
The upside is if you are passionate about people, food, and money, no one can stop you. You must be a little passionate if you’ve made it this far in the article – congratulations! Go out there, use these tips, and rule the culinary world!