Woman ChefI have always had a lot of affection for restaurants. There’s something special on a fundamental human level about the experience of serving food to others, and although I haven’t worked in a restaurant myself, other people in my family have (my brother works at Alinea in Chicago, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world, and my grandparents used to run a restaurant in the small town of Maquoketa, Iowa, years ago before they retired).

I’m a passionate home cook, I love watching shows like “Restaurant Impossible” and Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” and one of my favorite clients is a restaurant consultant named Aaron Allen, with whom I’ve worked on copywriting and marketing strategy projects for restaurants all over the world. I think that every small business owner, no matter what industry you’re in, can learn a lot from the restaurant industry.

If boxing is “the sport to which all others aspire,” as George Foreman said, then the restaurant industry is the industry to which all other small businesses aspire. Restaurants exemplify, in its purest form, everything that is awesome and heart-wrenching and stressful and glorious and terrible and wonderful about running a small business.

Restaurants operate in a high-pressure crucible of competition: 60% of restaurants go out of business within three years of opening. The typical profit margin for a restaurant is only 5% – meaning that on a check of $100 for a table of four, the restaurant earns $5 after paying for staff, rent, food costs, equipment, utilities and everything else. (And that’s before taxes.) It’s a high-overhead, low-margin business: not for the faint of heart. As Anthony Bourdain wrote in “Kitchen Confidential,” the restaurant industry is the only business where you can do everything right, and still fail.

Even if you’re not going to open a restaurant anytime soon, every small business owner can learn from some of the concepts involved with building a successful restaurant. Here are a few:

  • It’s all about passion. Running a restaurant is a labor of love. The hours are long, the risks are big, and the stress can be overwhelming if things aren’t going well (or even if things are going well). Successful restaurateurs are fueled by passion – for the food they serve, for the people they meet, for the unique little communities they create in every dining room. Similarly, small business owners need to have this same internal passion for what they do. You need to “eat your own cooking” and believe in the value of the products and services that you provide. Otherwise, you’re going to find yourself going through the motions, burning out, and wondering if you should go back to your old day job.
  • Keep serving something “fresh” and different. Every restaurant creates its own unique dining experience. The most successful restaurants have a unique concept that cannot be replicated anywhere else, whether it’s the craftsmanship of the food itself, the relentlessly upbeat, assured service, the “you-have-to-be-there” energy of a full house on a Friday night, or the inventive, ever-changing menu. Even if you’re not in the food service business, what kind of “dining experience” are you creating for your customers? What kind of “ambiance” and atmosphere do customers get when they patronize your business?
  • Hire the right people. Restaurants rise and fall based on the caliber of people working there. This is the same for any small business, but the results are often especially apparent in the restaurant world: if a server is rude to customers, or a chef fails to properly cook a cut of meat, the consequences for the business can be immediate and highly visible. Is your “front of house” staff (customer service/sales) upholding the standards you have set for them? Every time one of your employees helps a customer, there are many opportunities to either “get it right” and win the ongoing loyalty of the customer, or “get it wrong” and leave the customer with a bad experience. Customers are more likely to talk about their bad experiences than to share their good ones – so hire, train and coach your employees to represent your company, at every moment, with the professionalism and poise that you would expect from yourself.
  • Trim the menu. One recurring lesson I’ve seen on “Restaurant Impossible” is that struggling restaurants tend to have too many items on the menu. For example, a restaurant that offers everything from hamburgers to lasagna to lobster is going to struggle to prepare all of those items equally well. It’s better to have a limited menu of signature dishes that the restaurant does better than anyone else, rather than serving a wide array of mediocre meals. In the same way, small businesses need to focus. It’s better to be able to delight your customers with a “small menu” of products/services than it is to try to be all things to all people.

Even if you don’t know the difference between a garlic press and a grease vat, every entrepreneur can learn something from the restaurant industry. Try to emulate the example of the best restaurants by creating a unique customer experience, hiring and training the right employees, focusing your offerings to deliver only the best, and keep rejuvenating your internal passion and motivation for your business.

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