When David Bowie sang Changes,(Ch-ch-ch-chchanges, turn and face the strain), he must have done so with the restaurant business in mind. It´s often this time of year when restaurants and food establishments of whatever ilk suffer from monumental staff changes. And, frequently owners can´t understand why the exodus appears to be en masse just before the busy season hits. The answer is simple: Few restaurants hire new help during the winter months and after suffering the darkness and doldrums of financial crisis, managers and staff, under subliminal stress, tend to slack off, shirk responsibilities and eventually jump ship as soon as a call comes from the competition. It´s a fact it´s more difficult to run a food establishment when it´s slow than when it´s busy.
Most restaurant owners make the call almost daily to trim staff, keep hours down and cut payroll. Then, almost as quickly as a barber can take the clippers to the head of the patron asking for a Mohawk, owners suddenly can´t understand why everything isn´t running like a fine tuned Maserati.
I had a conversation with a friend yesterday who just left the restaurant business. He had enough of the stress, and aggravation, and turmoil that everyone faces on a daily basis. He said he thought it would be fun to be in the business but soon found out that the fun wears off as soon as you open. A week ago I saw him as he managed the restaurant he was part of during a relatively busy lunch. Two weeks later he looked younger already.
It isn´t rare for owners to face the difficult decision that they have to accept the turmoil and unsteadiness of staffing as part of a daily occurrence. Restaurants are unlike other business where a team is developed and that team works together for a lengthy period of time. Culinarians have a tendency to be more nomadic than other professionals. And, they also tend to think that they are irreplaceable. This is a never ending problem.
I learned to change my expectations- that eventually everything would run smoothly -after a manager taught me a lesson in 1994. At the time I owned three restaurants in Minnesota. One, a small 50 seat Bistro was the jewel of the chain. Considerably smaller than the 350 seat lakeside property we ran, the Bistro was the star of the group. It just had a great feel to it. One day when I went to the restaurant to have a meeting with the manager I noticed that the six silver creamer and sugar sets used for coffee service were a bit tarnished. I told the manager that they needed to be polished before diner service began.
I remember the answer he gave me verbatim.
"John," he said, "There are five items on my priority list. The first is to make sure the restaurant opens on time in perfect order. The second is to make sure the customers get great service. The third is to make sure the food is consistent and that everyone enjoys their meal. The fourth is to make sure the company makes a profit. And, the fifth is to polish those pieces of silver. If you want me to move number five up to number one, I can do that. But one through four are going to move down the list."
I told him he was doing a fine job and left the restaurant. I never went into the restaurant again for seven months until I went there to eat the night I sold it to him. I changed my priorities that day. And, although I was never able to run the restaurants I owned as smoothly as a fine tuned Masseratti, I learned to live with the staff fluctuations and accepted the continual replacing of staff as part of the beast so many people get into because they think it might be fun.