Success is in the Details

I once knew two men who opened a very upscale chophouse-style restaurant. One was a chef and the other owned a construction company. Each was very successful in his field. Together, they built a gorgeous stand-alone restaurant at a cost of more than $5 million. The construction company owner made sure the building was outfitted with state-of-the-art, climate controlled banquet facilities, a magnificent wine cellar and a rambling back-of-the-house as big as many restaurants. The chef filled the two kitchens with gleaming new equipment, a massive humidity-controlled meat locker and an experienced kitchen staff all wearing freshly pressed chef gear and hats. And then they opened their doors.

They were busy during the first month, and busy again the second. And then nobody came. A long summer and fall passed with tumbleweeds rolling through the dining room. The construction company owner and the chef looked at each other and looked out to the dining room. Eventually, it occurred to one of them that they failed to address one key portion of their dining room—the front of the house. Each assumed excellence in his field would translate into success, and he wasn’t far off. But success requires more than the application of knowledge and strong desire. It requires details, details, and more details.

Maybe it sounds more like a life lesson than a restaurant lesson. But there might not be a business in which details are more telling than the restaurant business. Imagine you own a crabcake shop and you want to charge more for your crabcakes without changing the recipe. How do you do that? Improve everything around the crabcakes. Imagine you’re going on a first date and you want to be better looking. How do you do that? Improve your hair, clothes and car. Change the details around you.

Success in this business is all about nailing the details. That means the seam on the linen at every table is face-down, or the wine glass is at the point of every steak knife or every plate is polished and examined for presentation before leaving the kitchen. It means each station is properly set in the kitchen, back-ups are prepped and ready to go and every special order is prepared for. Details encompass everything from the front door to the back. It requires you, the operator/manager, to see the building from 30,000 feet in the air while seeing every salt and pepper shaker, all at the same time. Bathrooms, carpet, light bulbs, wedges under the table legs. Walk-in, low boy, salamander, dish pit. The successful operator finds a way to see it all, and to get all of the details right as often as possible.

For the seasoned restaurant manager visiting a restaurant for the first time, the details are obvious. If you’ve worked in this business long enough, it’s impossible not to notice the low number of hand towels by the bathroom sink, the finger smudges on the glass door or the CD player that plays the same song every twenty minutes. For most guests, failing details manifest themselves more subtly. They turn a good experience into an okay one and an average one into a so-so meal. A guest might say their meal was just alright without being able to articulate why. On the other hand, details that are on point at every turn make the food taste better, the staff seem friendlier and the wine get you drunker.

Of course, there’s no way for a manager to see every detail in your restaurant every day. A well-trained staff that takes ownership of their workspace represents the core of proper attention to detail. A management team that sets the tone and a well-trained staff that cares about getting the details right when no one looking is essential in this business. The lack of it can undermine the most gleaming new kitchen equipment and the most finely pressed chef jackets. It can take the all the glamour out of your state-of-the-art, climate controlled banquet room and make that wine cellar look pretty mundane.

So, what happened to our construction company owner and our chef? Three years after opening their doors, they run a successful chophouse with regular clientele and a steadily growing margin. It never would have happened if they had failed to recognize the details.