Expecting the Unexpected

If there’s one surefire way to tell how long someone has been in the restaurant business, it’s how they react to the unexpected. Every manager can be prepared, every employee can be ready to go, and an entire kitchen can be stocked and prepped. All hands can be on deck for service, but a restaurant still will not be ready to tackle a tough day of service if they are not prepared for the unexpected.

Too many things can go wrong during service. Equipment can break, food can go bad, and a key employee can fail to show up. Experienced, prepared management stays calm through the choppy waters of service. In a business where most employees take their cues from managers, it’s critical to think actively and quickly when things go awry.

Expecting the unexpected is much easier said than done. It’s basically a matter of experience and training. These steps are always helpful in an environment built around organized chaos.

Stay Two Steps Ahead

Preparation is perhaps the most important aspect of a busy lunch or dinner, in part because it helps the restaurant stay at least two steps ahead. A good rule of thumb is that it should take multiple missteps for the kitchen and servers to fall into the weeds. This means having the entire line and kitchen stocked and backed up. It means extra employees are on hand to assist servers and line cooks if necessary. It also means that employees know where to turn if they need help.

Employees sense when they are one step away from trouble. They sense escalating pressure. We humans are all sensitive to pressure to some extent, and a service built on a tightrope is no way to succeed in this business. It leaves the entire service vulnerable to a single misstep or unusual request that slows down every table and ticket that follows.

Always staying two steps ahead alleviates this pressure, and the best way to ensure this is to be stocked and staffed up.

The Value of Experience

There is no doubt in most restaurants that the you-know-what is going to hit the fan at some point. Orders are going to get confused, plates will get dropped, and tickets will get lost. Managers will have to sharpen their apologizing skills at some point.

A favorite example of mine is from a pricey upscale steakhouse where a family was celebrating the birthday of a teenaged son. The mother of the son informed management that the boy was highly allergic to dairy and that he simply wanted a great steak. Of course, when dinner arrived his steak had been inadvertently topped with melted blue cheese by the Chef. When the apologetic complimentary fresh berries were delivered to the boy, they were inadvertently topped with whipped cream. And when the mother ordered coffee at the end of the meal, her cream was set down in front of the birthday boy.

No matter how talented and driven a manager is, it takes experience to know how to handle situations like this when everything goes haywire. Experience helps a manager see the big picture and know that everything is going to be okay. Mistakes happen (or three in this case), but experience is the sole tool that helps a manager (and the entire operation) stay calm and focused, even when it seems like everything in the building is spinning out of control.

Remember: This is Fun

It is very easy to forget that this business is fun, especially when the chaos is building in the kitchen and dining room. Seeing the big picture while putting out fires means remembering that this is supposed to be fun. Of course, there are days and moments in this business that are anything but fun.

But the customer’s perspective is almost always about having a good time. The manager, server or hostess who keeps this in mind at all times has a huge advantage. Managers who buy a round of drinks, bring a few desserts at the end of dinner, and even crack a few jokes (depending on the temperature of the table) can win over a table that has suffered from a few unexpected mistakes.

Keeping it light and having fun in the face of some unexpected circumstances can turn most guests around, especially when combined with excellent service and getting out in front of mistakes.