‘Critical Condition’ Soul Food Restaurants at the Crossroads! The Series: Part 3

By Chef Emanuel Washington….
Restaurant operations:
Every day in the restaurant business is a new day; there are no two days alike. Each day is filled with new faces, old problems and yesterday’s ambitions, and all of these present a myriad of new challenges. It is a continual learning process. Some days you will walk around singing love songs and other days will make you want to grab a guitar and sing the low-down blues.

The restaurant industry moves at the speed of sound. Today, it runs neck and neck with the information technology (IT) industry. Just as IT companies are sprinting from Research & Development to launch, toting their latest inventions and updates, chefs all around the world are jockeying for position at the top of the culinary totem pole. Likewise, restaurants are searching for any scientific, technological or business advantage they can find, to get ahead and stay ahead of the competition.

Restaurant operations are a key component to the success of any restaurant business. The most successful restaurants in the industry have the best operations. Even if the food sucks and it usually does, they get repeat business. Customers come back because they are efficient. Most restaurants today operate like well-oiled machines, while many others struggle to find their way from the kitchen to your table.

Customer Service:
A customer service issue is an operational issue. How many times have you sat at your table with ‘rocks in your jaws’ waiting for your meal? Who has time today to just sit around twiddling their thumbs? Even when you have a brief moment of relaxation, who wants to spend it with a gum popping server, who feels she’s doing you a favor by just being there? Personally, I’d much rather fight Mike Tyson on a tricycle than be subjected to rude and discourteous service.

People tend to tolerate crummy food before they will accept bad service. If you ask 10 people, how important is customer service to you? 8 ½ will say it as very important. Today, businesses must be customer service focused. There is too much competition in the marketplace not to do so. Restaurants with poor customer service are sealing their own fate.

Soul Food Restaurants and Customer Service:
A restaurant’s reputation is only as good as your customer’s last dining experience. No one cares how good your ribs were last month. They care about how good they are today. Last month doesn’t count; it’s all about now.

Restaurants are not in the food business, they are in the people business. Every day in this business presents a new and unique opportunity to connect or reconnect with your customers. Bad customer service in the restaurant industry is business suicide. Customers tend to remember bad dining experiences before they remember the good ones. It’s the nature of the business. Restaurants that take good care of their customers will prosper. Those that do not will become business statistics.

That’s just how it is.

Sometimes a few can spoil it for many. There is a saying about Soul Food Restaurants that goes a little something like this: “If you want good food, go to a Soul Food restaurant. If you want bad service, go to a Soul Food restaurant.” Let me make something perfectly clear. First, yes, it is true– there is no better food on earth than Soul Food. Second, today most Soul Food restaurants in America have impeccable customer service.

However, there are some Soul Food restaurants in America that are still wearing ‘Bell Bottoms’. For some, their idea of good customer service is just saying “Hi, grab a seat”. Some don’t even take time to do that. Customers know bad service when they see it. If you get more than your fair share of customer service complaints, then I guess this Bud’s for you. Bad customer service affects the bottom line of any business. The reality is that most customers won’t complain to you; they voice their complaints by taking their business somewhere else.

Wait Staff:
Your wait staff is your primary point of customer contact. All restaurants are judged by the service customers receive from them first. Personal issues and attitudes have no place in business of any kind, particularly in a customer service driven industry. I find it more than annoying to see my waitress leaning against the wall, talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone, while I have been waiting 20 minutes for my Fried Chicken and Collard Greens.

The restaurant business is the people business. The only reason restaurants exist is to serve their customers. If you are no good at that, perhaps you are in the wrong business. If you have no customers to serve, then you have no business. Be careful who you hire. Friends and family are not always the best idea. If you and your family have a good thing going, then I applaud you. Keep up the good work. It can work for some families, but for most it does not. Question: When Friends and Family screw up on the job, what’s their retribution? How can you discipline Keisha when she babysits for you? That won’t turn out quite right now will it? I am of the mindset that business and personal should be detached. Instead, hire the most qualified, the most committed to your business philosophy and those who will support your company’s mission. Sometimes you may find a diamond in the ruff.

Management 101:
If customers are unhappy, the fault lies with management. There are no two ways about it. Wherever you find bad customer service, you will also find bad management. That’s where the buck starts and stops. 1) No customer should ever walk into a restaurant and not be greeted. It tells customers that you don’t value their business. 2) No customer should ever, under any circumstances, be allowed to leave a restaurant after spending their hard earned money with you, without a team member thanking them for their business. It tells them that you could care less whether they come back or not. 3) From the time a customer walks into your restaurant until the time they leave is an opportunity to sell. Hint: What do you have to sell other than food? Smart businesses even sell to their customers after they leave.

Kitchen Issues:
Whenever customers have to routinely wait long periods of time to get their food, it is a sign of kitchen inexperience. Cooking for family at home in a one-quart pot is far different from cooking for 600 in a restaurant environment. It requires industry experience and a restaurant science aptitude. Chefs have a formula that the average cook does not. That is why they are called chefs.

Restaurant Science:
Restaurants today don’t operate the same way they did 40 years ago or even 10 years ago. If you are a Soul Food restaurant that is still operating the same way you did 10, 20, and 30 or 40 years ago, you are at a disadvantage in the industry. Modern restaurants are scientific. How do you handle a lunch hour rush of 300 customers between 11:30am and 1:00pm and make everybody happy? How do you get 50 plates of hot food in front of your customers within 20 minutes? How do you do all of this and ensure that the food is fresh? Restaurant Science. Commercial kitchens today are much better equipped. You simply cannot get the job done in most of the older kitchens. Personally, you couldn’t pay me to serve 300 people in 1½ hours, in an outdated kitchen. That’s just asking for trouble! It is time for the Soul Food restaurants that seem to be lagging far behind the good ones to come on line with the rest of the restaurant industry. Invest in your business!

Cost controls:
Restaurants today have efficient cost control measures. Modern restaurants are adept at menu engineering, systemized ordering, portion control, prep guides, purchasing, theft, inventory controls, food waste management, par levels, food dating, etc.

Questions: Are your restaurant operations tight? Do you know the formulas? Do you have an operations manual? What is your management philosophy? Do you have a plan? To be successful in the restaurant industry today, your overall operations need to be flawless.

Chef Emanuel is a prominent soul food critic. Recently relocated from Chicago, Il, he was formerly the Executive Chef and Food Service Director at The Department of Defense Analysis. He is also the founder and owner of a culinary school in South Florida as well as a Food Historian. He has studied American Food History and the ‘Soul Food’ discipline for decades. For more information about Chef Emanuel, visit his website at http://chefemanuel.com.

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