Top 3 Lessons Learned From “Back of the House”

2013-12-17 14.58.05I recently had the pleasure of reading Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant , by Scott Haas. Haas, food writer and clinical psychologist, spends 18 months following James Beard Award-Winner Tony Maws in his restaurant, Craigie on Main, in Boston. This book was truly a delightful read.

Haas does an outstanding job of peeling back the layers of a restaurant, revealing all aspects of what life in the industry is like. Haas captures both emotional highs and lows that come with owning a restaurant, but most importantly he identifies the characteristics required of an individual to be successful in this demanding industry.

I would like to use this post to share with you the top 3 lessons I took away from finishing this must read book:

  1. Complete Dedication and Passion is Essential.
    If you have always dreamt of getting into the restaurant industry because you think it would be fun, or perhaps you envy the celebrity status so few achieve; you are in for a rude awakening. Success in the restaurant industry doesn’t come without first massively sacrificing and giving complete dedication.“A chef/owner is eager to sacrifice. Sacrifice provides the rush.” You need to become your restaurant to the point where it is an appendage of your body and sole. When doing so, a restaurant becomes more than a job; it becomes your family. Attributes Haas list as essential include: an early passion, solid experience, and an apparent willingness to sacrifice everything to succeed in the business.It is important to acknowledge that it goes beyond personal sacrifice; your family and loved ones must sacrifice as well. Don’t get into the industry unless all are on board.
  2. It Isn’t Just About the Food
    The chariot that brings most restaurateurs into this industry is their passion for food, but its those with the ability to deliver the whole package (cuisine, service, ambiance, lasting memories and business mentality) who ride their chariot up the road to success.Time and time again, Haas points out Craigie on Main’s ability to deliver outstanding customer services.  In one passage Haas describes a hostess; “she seemed at first to be an odd choice for hostess, but then I realized that the favors she granted customers felt to them even more special because when Meredith paid attention to customers, it was like having a star take time out from her day. Acting special rubbed off on them.”Its obvious the Tony Maws has a keen eye for finding people who get it. His staff gets that it is not about having to make people happy; it is about wanting to make people happy. To be successful you need to surround yourself with those who get it. If they don’t get it, and you cannot make them get it, GET THEM OUT.Tony’s open kitchen and attention to VIP’s shows that he gets the importance of ambiance and lasting memories. His business mentality is present too with his ability to use so much of the product; is nose-to-tail mentality allows him to stretch profitability.
  3. You Need to Treat Your People Right.It is no secret that one of the restaurant industries largest struggles is finding and keeping good help. This is why it is imperative that when you do find good people you should do all you can to retain them. The following are some of the lessons I learned in regards to treating your people right and create a team people will want to work for.
  • Have patience when they are new, or struggling.
  • Make employees loyal by creating a sense of purpose; a feeling of being a part of a team; and knowledge that one’s work is essential to the restaurants success.
  • Be empathetic “without empathy, trust is impossible, of course, and without trust we do not live outside ourselves.”
  • Find people with personalities that match your own and your teams

When reading this book I couldn’t help but notice that employee retention was one of Craigie on Main’s largest struggles. It seems like Haas attributes this struggle to Tony Maw’s short temper and constant need for change. I agree.

That said, you can’t overlook Tony’s love for the people in his restaurant. He cares, more than most bosses do. When people do the right thing, he acknowledges it (even though he may acknowledge the wrong things more often). The restaurant is his family and he is the father. When his children are in need he is there to care, listen and help. While his parenting tactic may be harsh, he without a doubt has all the right intentions.

I would recommend Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant to anyone in or looking to get into the restaurant industry. Aside from being a reality check, it is loaded with valuable lessons. I would like to leave you with some final words from the author:

“I thought then of what it really take to be a chef, and what advice I would give someone who aspiresto be one. Running a restaurant starts with knowing how to cook, but the essence of the job, the skill that separates the best chefs from everyone else, is managing people: purveyors, cooks, floor staff, city health inspectors, immigration officers, electricians, plumbers, investors, the media and guests. Once you can cook, it’s like the shrink said at the end of Portnoy’s Complaint: “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?””