There are few phrases I want to hear less than, “I want to speak to the manager!” In this episode, I got to sit down with my long-time friend and colleague James Butler, and talk with him about the challenges he has faced as a manager in the bar and restaurant industry here in San Francisco. James has been in the industry since 2007. He has worked and managed many different bars and restaurants, everything from sweet and small neighborhood haunts to hopping Mission cocktail bars. He currently runs a wine consultancy called Cluster and Cane for wine program development and high-touch wine tourism in Northern California.
Managers face a unique set of challenges on top of the challenges we all face in this industry. Managers not only have to deal with the same customer issues, work life balance, emergency situations and everything else that goes along with day to day bar and restaurant service, they also have to handle relations among staff, putting together a solid team, managing the whole operation of the bar and much, much more. It’s a difficult job, and managers are not always compensated for all the extra work they have to do. James has some great advice on how to face these challenges and thrive as a bar or restaurant manager.
Listen my conversation with James in the player below or wherever podcasts are found, and make sure to subscribe with the links in the player, on this page or in your favorite podcast app to stay up to date with our weekly conversations with bartenders about all sorts of challenging situations. Read on after the break for more on our conversation about management problems.
Common management challenges and what to do about them
“I want to speak to the manager,” has become such a cliche in our industry. It’s a phrase nobody wants to hear, and interactions that begin with that phrase often don’t end well. But James believes that they don’t have to end badly, and they can even be amazing opportunities to create an even more positive experience.
“People like your restaurant they may tell a couple friends, people don’t like your restaurant they’ll tell a bunch of friends,” James said, “people have a weird experience or a bad experience, and you fix it, and they’ll want to tell everybody.”
James shares and example of a time he helped a bad customer experience turn into a positive one by completely resetting the table and basically starting over. James pulled all the food from the table and reset it, opened some wine and started the group off on a completely new course.
“They needed a sea change,” James said, “and that meant seeing the table completely get rebuilt, deal with someone else for the evening… I can’t remember if those people ever did come back to the restaurant, but I really feel everyone in the restaurant did everything possible to really just make sure they had the experience they wanted to have.”
If you immediately write off a situation as bad or hopeless, it’s likely that the outcome will be as expected. But if you see a situation with upset customers as a challenging opportunity for growth, you’ll have the potential to make things better. Psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D calls this the growth mindset. Not every situation will work out, of course, but if you do your best and believe in the potential for change, you can walk away from any situation feeling good about how you handled it.
“I think the first thing you have to do is get ready to go and listen, really listen to someone,” James said “Because at that point their experience is not what they expected it to be and they need to tell someone about it.” You never know where your customers are coming from, it could be a normal fun evening for them or they could have had a terrible day and their incorrect drink order is just an emotional tipping point for them. We’ve all had bad days and felt like the world was against us, we can understand that our customers feel this way sometimes too.
“You really have to be empathetic because there’s so many things that lead up to someone coming to dinner,” James said, “maybe it’s a regular shift for you or I, or maybe it’s someone’s Tuesday night with their wife and they go out every Tuesday night and it’s like not a big deal, or maybe there’s a bunch of stuff going on in their life that led up to this dinner and you don’t have any of that information. People come with an emotionally loaded gun.”
Sometimes these situations are inevitable, but James advises that most can be avoided by staying aware of everything happening in your bar or restaurant and stopping problems before they happen, which is no small task. “If someone says ‘I want to talk to the manager’ you’re already at defcon [one],” James said, “The real thing is cutting those problems off at the pass before they have a chance to snowball.”
Building your bar team
Staffing is one of the biggest challenges that bar and restaurant managers face, and there are many different aspects involved. “Restaurants grow because of the people that are in them, or who run them,” James said, “Really amazing restaurants have amazing management staff and they continuously find the right people to fit into the right position to make the restaurant continue to evolve.” Simply finding the right staff can be challenging, especially in bigger markets where labor is in short supply and new restaurants and bars open seemingly every week. Staffing your bar and restaurant shouldn’t just be a matter of finding people with lots of experience, however.
“Restaurants grow because of the people that are in them, or who run them,”
Because bars and restaurants are such unique and intimate work environments, James stressed the importance of finding balance among your staff. It is important to have experienced people who have been in the industry for a long time, but you need to have people with a different perspective too. “You want that experience,” James said “There’s a lot of very weird, specific things about working at a restaurant all the time and you want to know people are ok with that. But at the same time, you also want to balance that out with some people who are maybe not super restauranty, but maybe they have a love for food or they have a love for art and it somehow translates into the restaurant.”
When your perfect team goes wrong
“I think there’s two things when you say staffing,” James said, “The physical hiring of bodies to be in the restaurant and the managing of the personalities that come with those bodies once they are actually working on the floor.” Managing those personalities is often more challenging than finding them in the first place. James believes the key to success here is maintaining awareness and stopping problems between staff before they have a chance to happen.
“It’s the same thing with the tables,” James said, “I think the emotional awareness that people have to have on a restaurant floor, like really seeing what’s happening, is important. For a manager, in terms of keeping your staff happy, adding new staff to your team, you really have to pay attention to how people are.”
Despite your best efforts, problems with staff inevitably arise and it’s important to handle them quickly and effectively. Sometimes those problems are coming from outside the restaurant and it’s important to be aware of that, within reason, even though that may seem unprofessional.
“I think managers that know what’s up probably will admit to people, ‘Yeah, I’m not supposed to be concerned with what happens outside of this restaurant,” James said, “But because of what we do, because it’s such a personal thing that we do, I have to at least know. I have to have an inkling of what’s going on. I’ve totally sent people home off their shift. ‘You are off your game, this isn’t a punishment, I just have to look out for the restaurant and I have to look out for you.'”
Maintaining your own sanity as a manager
When you’re spending all of your time managing the operation of a bar or restaurant and managing all of the other people who work there, it’s easy to forget to take care of yourself. But this may be more important than any other aspect of the management job. You can’t save a drowning person when you yourself are drowning. James believes having a clear purpose, a personal stake in your bar or restaurant is critical in maintaining your own sanity.
“I think you really have to know why you’re doing it,” James said, “You do it because you love this restaurant, you do it because you love this food, you do it because it’s the right place for you to work right now. I’ve worked at restaurants where I just loved the customers.” Having a clear purpose is like having a compass or a guiding light that you can always turn to when things get tough, but it is equally important to know when to step away from work and set solid boundaries.
“I think keeping your sanity is ultimately about knowing what it is that you’re doing when you’re at work and why you do it,” James said, “and then making sure that when you’re not at work, you’re not at work. I think that people who are really good at being in restaurants are kind of militant about what they do with their time off.” You can accomplish this in any number of ways that work for you personally—hobbies, setting a consistent bedtime, not always going out to other restaurants on your time off. James found that nurturing relationships with friends outside of the industry worked best for him in maintaining good balance.
“Before I was in restaurants I was pretty much on an academic track,” James said, “Meeting with my friends who continued on that academic track and talking with people who didn’t work in restaurants was really great, because it meant I got to see what their life was like and see what we did was kind of similar but also really appreciate that these people live their life in a very different way than I do. It’s good for me to have a little time with them so it rubs off on me.”
That’s all for this week! It was a pleasure talking with James and hearing all he had to say about bar and restaurant management. Thank you so much for tuning in and checking us out!
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