Thinking Both Inside and Outside the Bento Box

 
 Culinary Accountants president Matt Hetrick at his Annapolis restaurant, Preserve, with co-owner and head chef Jeremy Hoffman

Culinary Accountants president Matt Hetrick at his Annapolis restaurant, Preserve, with co-owner and head chef Jeremy Hoffman

 

For at least fifty years, we’ve been told by everyone from management consultants to school teachers to ‘think outside the box.’ A reference to the solution to the classic nine-dots puzzle, this edict permeates our thinking about how we’re supposed to face challenges. By taking a step back and seeing the big picture from a different perspective, we are told, we can find solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Need to solve societal inequality? Think outside the box. Need to achieve world peace? Think outside the box. Need to find the most effective delivery mechanism for your packages? Think outside the box.

This way of thinking is so ubiquitous, that I don’t think I’ve ever met a single person who ‘thinks inside the box.’ With the right prompt, every potential new hire will wax on about how he or she is an ‘outside the box’ thinker who can bring a new vision to your company. In the restaurant world, they can bring new energy to your restaurant, they’ll say, in order to take it to the next level. It all sounds too good to be true.

 Matt’s New Market restaurant, Vintage

Matt’s New Market restaurant, Vintage

Here’s the catch: very few of us actually do think outside of the box with any regularity. And even if we do manage to think outside of the box, it’s not enough by itself. For a restaurant to be successful, we must master the duality of being able to think both in and out of the box to solve a host of problems.

The big picture design and operational functions of the company require us to think outside of the box. We need to be able to identify which of the default judgements and decisions that we all adopt don’t match our restaurants’ realities, then challenge those defaults by gaining new perspective.

Management staffing is a great example. Let’s suppose your restaurant is a seven day lunch and dinner operation with 14 shifts that must be staffed in some capacity. The ‘inside of the box’ default for this is to assume that the restaurant must hire three managers - usually a GM, AGM, and junior manager.

Why?

The justification is usually that a manager is required at all times to ensure proper customer service. Which is another way of saying that we have so little faith in our systems, brand, and staff, that we expect to fail regularly on Monday through Thursday lunches and need to pay a salaried employee to be there to apologize to guests for us.

In my mind, that’s ridiculous. We live in a world where fast casual has stolen the lunch crowd for most restaurants and it isn’t a profit center if we staff it with expensive management positions. Why not staff these shifts with some of our best servers and charge them with more responsibility and leadership. Give them the ability to comp at lunch. Give them a higher pay for lunch shifts, if necessary. Pay them a shift supervisor bonus. Whatever challenges you can think of, you can come up with solutions.

 Preserve’s popular Chicken Caesar Dog lunch dish

Preserve’s popular Chicken Caesar Dog lunch dish

Simultaneously, however, the restaurant leader needs to be able to think inside the box. Once you recognize that there is a problem – too many managers for your restaurant to afford – and find a solution – use lead servers at lunch – you have to be able to construct a well-designed, reliable box for your staff to operate within. The ability to think within the box – to ask and answer all of the picayune questions that arise from the perspective of your hourly staff – is crucial for ensuring that the implementation of your outside of the box solution is successful. If you put servers into leadership roles, for example, you have to give them SOPs for how to get the restaurant setup properly to avoid generating complaints, how to deal with potential guest complaints, when comping is appropriate, and how to setup the restaurant for success in the afternoon and evening. You have to define their pay. You have to ensure that that pay is attractive. You have to identify what thresholds would make you want to go back to the old paradigm.

As a restaurateur, your biggest challenge is to successfully think both inside and outside of the box simultaneously, and you should have help to make sure you can do this. When you build your team, you should look for partners that have the widest breadth of experience possible. A partner like Culinary Accountants, who understands your challenges, but who can bring you the perspective of having seen your challenges before, from different angles. Together with the partnership of an industry financial leader like Culinary Accountants, you can think outside of the box and challenge your status quo – and then successfully build new boxes that set up your team for long term success.

The Restaurant Rule of Thirty Percent

“It’s not a lie, it’s an adjustment.  It’s the rule of three….if a guy tells you how many girls he’s hooked up with, it’s not even close to that.  You take that number and divide by three, then you get the real total.  So if Kevin’s saying it’s been three girls, it’s more like one.  Or none!....The Rule of three, it’s an exact science.  Consistent as gravity.” – American Pie