This guide examines the industry from multiple perspectives, including those of owner, regional vice-president, franchiser, franchisee, district manager, manager trainer, and corporate manager. It provides specific techniques for obtaining and maintaining quality service and covers such critical topics as employee scheduling, dining room operations, cost controls, greeting the public, and training employees.
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About the Author
Michael M. Lefever, Ph.D., is currently the Associate Dean of the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston. Dr. Lefever has more than 20 years of food service experience: as District Manager for a national fast-food chain, Regional Vice-President of a full-service chain, owner-operator of three successful restaurants, and as the creator of industry seminars and workshops. Dr. Lefever has a degree in psychology, and works as a volunteer psychotherapist for the State of Texas.
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Restaurant Reality: A Manager's Guide
Michael M. Lefever
How I Got into the Restaurant Business
Several months before I was born, my grandfather built a small restaurant for my parents from the remains of an old pony express station. Obviously I do not remember too much about that early venture, except through guarded comments from my parents and other family observers.
My parents decided within a matter of weeks that the restaurant business was not the way to treat a new marriage. You see, my parents did not have much restaurant experience. But my grandfather quickly dismissed their objections by saying, "It's just as easy as cooking for a big family at home." In a sense, he was right.
As my pregnant mother became increasingly large with me, she also became increasingly unable to work at the restaurant. That left the operation up to my father, grandmother, and various other visiting relatives. I am certain my father did not know why, or even how, he managed to get himself into the situation.
I might mention that everything seemed perfectly normal to my grandfather, who regularly appeared at the restaurant for a cup of coffee. I remember being told of his lecturing my father on how the apple pies should look-with towering domes filled with at least four varieties of culls, or apples so ripe and rotten they had fallen off the trees. My father's pies never quite met Grandfather's expectations.
Before my first birthday, my father got a job that required frequent travel and my mother took on motherhood full time, which eventually forced my grandfather to sell our family restaurant. But it still operates today, between a new freeway and the old remains of my grandfather's apple orchard. The new owners stayed thirty years, enjoyed the business, and were tremendously successful.
You see, the restaurant business forces you to make quick but basic decisions about yourself. You either buckle down and get to work or you get out-and fast. The restaurant business does not tolerate indecision.
My wife, Renee, whom I met while she was a restaurant manager for a large resort hotel, also had a grandfather who was interested in restaurants. He made a bundle buying bankrupt restaurants, pumping them up, and selling them for a quick profit. "I'll always remember my grandfather standing over the grill with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, dropping ashes into someone's pancakes or hash browns," she says. As small girls, Renee and her two younger sisters were frequently taken to "the restaurant" to visit Grandpa and Grandma; in those days most owners lived behind their restaurant. "We always had steak or shrimp, but no one seemed to mind our expensive tastes," she recalls.
I will never forget when her grandmother told us about the time she heard a loud disturbance in the back of their restaurant. She left her post at the cash register and hurried to the kitchen. There she saw her son, Renee's dad, holding his father by the throat at arm's length. "He's going to whip me if I let him go, Mama," he said, his eyes bulging. Her grandmother explained that these frequent bouts almost always ended in a good laugh, and she preferred watching the cooks take their frustrations out on each other rather than on the customers.
Not long ago we visited Renee's grandmother again. She told us how she was always responsible for the cash. "I'd take the money home at night and put it in a shoebox until we had a couple of thousand dollars. Then we'd take the whole mess to the bank," she said. Things really have not changed much since those days.
From my own beginnings, I found myself pursuing a long career in restaurants. When I was fourteen, I started working as a dishwasher in a large, full-service Italian restaurant. I became the kitchen supervisor when I was sixteen. For thirteen years I worked weekends and summer vacations in the same restaurant. I have many fond memories, especially when Joe, the owner, would yell, "Hey. Mikey boy." I worked my way through high school and much of college in that restaurant. I did not know it at the time, but I was getting hooked on the industry while thinking I was simply financing a college education.
My next experience was with a fast-food chain. For the first six months I watched hamburger patties evaporate on the grill and jammed limp french fries into tiny envelopes. I became a manager and later trained other managers. Then I wrote training manuals, which described the process of tricking the customer's sense of smell and taste into enjoying a strange combination of elements.
Years later I ran into one of my former trainees, and we reminisced about the good old days. "Do you remember when we had two cash registers at the front counter with one cashier stealing and the other shortchanging customers?" she asked. But somehow we always seemed to balance.
I moved up to district-level management several years later, responsible for a number of restaurants in different states. The thing I remember most is the amount of time I spent waiting in airports and traveling between restaurants.
It was a tremendous learning experience because my background was in operations or the daily routine of managing restaurants. District-level management involves basic political skills and great sensitivity to other people's territories. I quickly discovered that good social skills could not always be substituted for good political skills. Corporate politics was a new and different ball game.
I experienced the next level of foodservice management in much the same way. As a regional vice-president, I did not seem to fit in as well as some of the more seasoned players. Again there was a whole new set of political rules, which might be summed up this way: The higher you go in management, the more important it is to be able to convince someone that you know something, rather than just plain know it.
I consider my experience in corporate foodservice management extremely valuable. It was like learning how to swim with my hands tied behind my back: those of us who were lucky never learned to swim: we just didn't drown.
In the years between my corporate positions of training manager and district manager, Renee and I bought a coffee shop at a busy corner in a tourist town. It was tremendously profitable and it greatly strengthened our addiction to the spirit of free enterprise. The coffee shop was the first of three successful restaurants we eventually bought and sold. After selling each one, we would say to each other, "Let's never do that again." But we always found ourselves looking for just one more golden opportunity.
Now I share my restaurant experiences with students at a major university. I watch their eyes light up when I say, "This is how it works in the real world." Throughout my career, employees have been my most valuable resources. They were all so very special in their own way. Today I feel the same compassion for my students.
As a young boy, I visited my grandfather in the summers and asked him endless questions about the restaurant he had built for my parents. Every day we would walk the worn and deep trail through the orchard to the restaurant, where we sat on high counter stools, ate apple pie, and talked with the owners. I would hurry through the crust so I could go outside and borrow a bucket and brush to scrub the brass Pony Express plaque mounted on a huge boulder outside the front entrance. Often a customer would ask what I was doing. I was always ready with my reply: "I'm going to own this restaurant someday, and I'm just taking good care of it now."
I never had to own the old family restaurant to feel its calling. At college, many of my fellow students would say, "I'm here so I never have to work in another restaurant," In later years I saw many of those same students. They were still complaining even though they had respectable, well-paying careers.
On the other hand, I find no greater joy than working in a kitchen or socializing with customers Let's face it, you are too busy to be sulky in a restaurant. There is also something satisfying about managing a restaurant. It seduces you with a warm but demanding personality. In return for dedication and plain hard work, it will give you a feeling of purpose and totality. What I notice most is how time speeds up and seems to disappear.
Table of ContentsHow I Got into the Restaurant Business.
Why People Buy Restaurants: Grandma's Favorite Recipe.
Buying and Selling Restaurants: Only a Handshake Away.
Franchising: What Disclosures Don't Tell You.
Your Landlord: What You Should Know about Leases and Leashes.
Systems Management: How to Make a Faster Tuna Sandwich.
The First Day: It's Too Late to Back Out Now.
Competition: The Art of Counting Cars.
Training and Motivating Your Employees: What You Can Learn from the Lion Tamer.
What Your Employees Will Do to You: How to Fight Back.
The Menu: How to Please and Surprise Your Customers.
Customers Are Always Right: The Great Myth.
Suppliers: What They Deliver Is What You Serve.
Equipment Breakdown: The Dreadful Obsession.
Cleanliness: What to Do When the Health Inspector Walks In.
Cash, Food, and Labor Control: Why Restaurateurs Never Sleep.
Advertising and Marketing: The Sandwich Board Approach.
Catering the Easy Way: Stuffing Snow Peas Will Make You Crazy.
The Bar Business: Once Is Enough.
Industry Benefits and Opportunities: Why the Bank Manager Keeps a Dog Dish Under His Desk.
Getting Hired: How to Survive the Interview and Pass the Driving Test.