Dear Young Chef,

You’re going to have a night like this.  Trust me, it’s going to happen. Better to spend your effort on deciding how to deal with it rather than fretting over how to prevent it.  Your best laid plans to do so will get squashed, leaving you without a well formed answer.

The standard ebb and flow in the season of our business is that in the winter, Friday is typically our busiest night, and in the summer, Saturday gets the most traffic.  We assume this is due to the fact that folks don’t want to venture back down our way again on Saturday in the cold weather.  This pattern has been consistent since the beginning.

Until this weekend.

We keep our little kitchen open until 10pm on the weekends, but usually the steady flow for dinner ends around 9pm and those coming in later are for drinks and dessert.  But the proverbial tour bus stopped and our dining room filled all at once, taxing our 6 burner stove, and depleting some of our supply.

It’s an awful feeling to watch the service collapse, like a domino effect, knowing you will not be able to satisfy the eager customers, many of who might be visiting for the first time.

So chef, what do you do when that happens?  You feel horrible, ashamed, and fearful this will be the start of your ruin. The conversation in your head ensues, and the dialogue turns into self loathing.  You rush to beat yourself up before anyone else does. Misery loves company, and all those negative voices in your head prove it.

But chef, this is not wise.  Take control of the mental exchange and exercise self leadership.  Here are a few things I suggest:

Be honest about the situation.  There is a veil that that is hung between the front and the back of the house.  That curtain is in place to shield your customers from the heat of the kitchen.  They are in the house to be served and shown a good time.  They don’t need to know your pressure or if you are in the weeds.  It’s your job, chef, to keep that under control and make the customer happy.

But in those times it does slip beyond your control, like running out of food or getting so far behind can’t make a timely delivery, be honest and let your customer know what is going on.  Acknowledge the failure.  Point out the elephant in the room.  It doesn’t change what is crumbling, but at least the truth of the moment is admitted.

Make amends. Offer free drinks.  Bring a free appetizer during the wait.  Comp the whole meal if you have to.  Better to lose a few bucks on the ticket than to add insult to injury and make someone pay for a poor experience.  Your reputation is worth the pricetag.

It’s not the end of the world.  One night won’t tank you, unless you fail to learn from it.  Danny Meyer says that the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.  They will happen.  Spend your energy on crafting a strategy to not repeat the collapse than on beating yourself up.

Reread your commendations.  I keep a file of cards, letters and notes that grateful customers have left for us.  When the low point hits, I review some of that feedback to remind myself that an evening like this is not the norm.  We have done better, we can do better and we will do better.  Stay rooted in what you know to be true.

Open your best bottle.  Will Guidara writes in his 11 Madison Park cookbook about some advice a customer once gave him; “I save my best bottles for my worst days.” The applied meaning is that we all need a little cheering up, in whatever form that may be.  Don’t just wait for the good times.  Find the source of beauty that puts a smile back on your face.

The Importance of Failure
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4 thoughts on “The Importance of Failure

  • February 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm
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    Even on your worst days, friend, yours is STILL our favorite place to go. wish we were closer!

  • February 24, 2012 at 4:40 am
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    My husband and I have been to restaurants where the service was slow. It doesn’t mean that we won’t return to a restaurant that we like.
    Offer us an apology with complimentary drink or dessert. We just want to know that you appreciate our business and that you will do better on our next visit.

    It’s probably not the last time that you’ll make a mistake and service will be slow. It’s what you learn from the experience that will make you great at what you do.

  • February 24, 2012 at 10:16 pm
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    I don’t think there could ever be a bad day at Bread & Cup. Seriously.

  • February 24, 2012 at 10:24 pm
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    Thank you all very much for the kind words.

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