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Chef John Foster: Cruel time for the restaurant business, but embrace change to find success

Change, which seems to happen overnight in my industry, is still one of the least anticipated concepts that we deal with every day. Whenever there is an opportunity to even explore change there must also be a corresponding action to review why the change is needed in the first place. Companies spend millions of dollars developing systems of operation to function at highly efficient rates, only to see the environment change and the emphasis shift. These shifts not only affect the image of a company but the ripple effect may completely change the inner workings of every kitchen in a corporation or every action that an independent restaurant takes.

The overall impact can be staggering, both on a large-scale operation, or the smallest Mom and Pop.

Money is re-allocated, manpower may be reduced, and the message, whatever it may be gets muffled, distorted, or at times lost altogether. The analogy I often use with students is that of a freight train barreling down the tracks, intent on reaching the next station with a minimum of delay, hardship or even stoppage which may impede business. Once we throw a wrench into the works, all bets are off, as the train has to slow, the direction has to change, and then the speed has to pick back up again, and for some restaurants that speed has to double in order to reach the next stop, somewhere around Valentine’s Day.

These are the cruelest months, for big and small alike. While most people would welcome a slowing of the pace, to catch one’s breath, the restaurant owner, in January, feels dread.  The business on a game night may yield to empty tables the next.

We look for reasons to celebrate; Its National Pizza day, it’s take a friend to lunch day, etc. Social media amps up, as if to remind all home bound customers that we’re still here, happy to serve. Of course, it’s an uphill battle, what with Christmas bills coming due, cold weather forcing people back inside, or just a general lack of interest while we all re-adjust to a new year.

This is where and when changes are often made, when we have time to assess and re-assess our systems. It may be in response to a good previous year or as a solution to a year that saw the business slow or take a hit.

Changing one’s inner workings may be seasonal, or as an answer to your customer comments that may have built up over the year. Slower times give us pause, and the industrious among our group will use the time wisely. Slowing the train may be a response to new business, and as we know in Lexington that has been a constant thread throughout 2017 and into 2018.

The owner who expects to barrel through the myriad changes in this year’s restaurant landscape may find themselves on the side of the track if they don’t pause and take stock of the situation. Which brings me back to the subject of change, and how important it is to recognize it, accept that some change may be inevitable, and then enact the changes needed either to weather the storm, or expand opportunities.

It is not in our nature to accept any change easily. To do so would make us wishy washy and weak, or so it would seem.

Some restaurateurs view change as to be avoided at all cost. They confuse lack of consistency, a killer in our industry, as connected to change, when in fact it should be used to reinforce and strengthen a consistent approach to the customer. Perhaps a less threatening word would be adaptability, but that just masks the real intent, which is to find success.

When something is not working, when a system, put in place becomes antiquated, most businesses would change or update. Restaurants often resist outward changes and bungle internal ones. The former is rarely done because it might upset the customer base, the latter often staggers along because the buy in by owner and employee alike is incomplete.

The worst-case scenario is the struggling restaurant, which should enact change, doing so all at once with no rhyme or reason. They might change their entire concept in an effort to rebrand themselves, but often they become a “dead man walking” scenario, an eventually a casualty of the business climate.

The best way to accomplish change in my industry starts with the recognition that change is needed. That comes from constant conversations with your customers and your employees. Often the changes are not drastic, or can be phased in slowly so as not to panic anyone. The obstacle to changing or adapting can be your own ego, that needs to be addressed quickly and with precision. It may be your baby, but extra parenting is always welcome.

Expect that the change may be annually, hopefully as your growing business demands it. If not a growing business, then the stabilization of a restaurant in flux may actually strengthen it enough to weather the bad times until a patio opens or a seasonal menu is a success. Then the changes have direction, and hopefully the new systems and concepts reflect that to everyone. If you’re open and honest about the need you should have plenty of support. 

Ultimately, the very life of your business hinges on constant vigilance. I know of no restaurant that runs itself, that doesn’t worry about the shifting landscape. Don’t avoid the concept of change, don’t be fearful of adaptation, they can both be avenues of success.

The McDonalds that straddles the world today was once a single burger joint, that’s a lesson we all should examine as we work to grow our business in a very competitive market


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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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