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How to ensure a smooth restaurant opening

How to ensure a smooth restaurant opening

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Once you have the majority of your materials ready and your management team is set to go, advertise job openings via your preferred platform. But be ready. Are enough applications printed and available? Will you take applications through an on-line template? Are you doing open calls? Will you accept resumes via email? You will need the majority of your managers on hand to prescreen applicants.

For openings I prefer open calls. I want to see applicants face-to-face. Getting bombarded with emailed resumes that need to be screened is less efficient. It requires a manager to e-mail or call the applicant back, then schedule them to come in for an interview. I also like a simple questionnaire for each position, which I issue to the applicant when they apply. This helps eliminate the less qualified applicants, shake out some of the not-so-true points in resumes and makes screening a lot faster. After handing some candidates a questionnaire and observing the expression on their faces, I already know they are not going to be on my “A” list. Involve your all your managers and assign specific roles during the process.

I also create a list of specific information that needs to be reviewed with the applicant by the interviewing manager. This might include the time commitment required for training, including dates and times. Details about grooming standards, uniform requirements and minimum scheduling needs should also be addressed. You may want to detail tip policies and hourly rates for employees. I always ask if they have any upcoming scheduling conflicts including family obligations, travel, school etc. You spend a lot of time, money and energy hiring someone. You don’t want to be surprised to find out he or she can’t be around for half of the preopening training or has serious scheduling conflicts.

Communicating with line staff

Once you hire your team, group e-mails are the best communication tool. This can be done through a scheduling application, POS system or normal e-mail group list. I like to double up using emails and good, old-fashioned bulletin boards. I locate these in the BOH area on site. I usually have several bulletin boards, including one for important notices. I set up one for the current and next week’s schedule, and another for media, press and interesting industry articles. This draws the team to the area with all the bulletin boards. Don’t forget that the BOH staff is also part of this process. Remember requirements for posting of city, state and federal labor law notices that might need to be up at hiring. Check with your local labor attorney and restaurant association to ensure you are in compliance.

Throughout all this, you want to avoid information overload. This may seem contradictory to what I have said so far. But it is not. Look at everything you generate and ask yourself if it can be more concise and compact. Bullet- pointed checklists can allow information to be more easily absorbed. This includes training materials, station checklists (mise en place and health department) and side-work guides.

How to structure training

I emphasize to all the managers I work with that they need to prepare before the staff arrives. This means being really familiar with all the necessary materials, items needed for the specific training and demonstration sessions. Organize your staff into smaller training groups. Don’t wait until everyone shows up to do all this. It makes you look disorganized.

Set up not only a demonstration table but also several tables for role-playing. Start by reviewing specific materials and standards designated for that day. Don’t just talk about it. Demonstrate it! Use team members in your demonstrations and keep the staff moving. Once you cover specific topics, break up your team into groups (usually four employees). Ensure one manager is with each group. Get team members seated around a table and rotate each team member through each specific task. Let the other team member acts as guests so they can experience service from a customer perspective and critique each other.

Newer training platforms

Training certainly does not have to be issued in written form on paper. Part of the process can be automated. Schoox and Hotschedules are great examples of this. You can create all your training materials, including uploading photos, videos and written standards, in Schoox. Employees can log onto the system with their own distinctive I.D. number. Managers can track employees’ progress to see if they have completed the required training assignment. Tests at the end of each training section can be automatically issued and scored online. The employee cannot move onto the next training section until they have reviewed the materials and successfully passed the current test, all monitored by management. While I do not advocate replacing hands-on training, especially for an opening, systems like this can make editing and updating vastly easier. They cut down on paper, printing and distributing, and are especially helpful during an opening, when systems can rapidly change.

Online systems like this are also perfect for menu descriptions, especially when dishes are tweaked based on a chef’s whim or customer feedback after the opening. Again, pictures of each dish can be uploaded and menu testing can be done online. And by the way, successfully completing the online materials (including passing tests) can be linked to getting on a schedule, since the two applications interface. An employee who does not read the material and pass the tests cannot be scheduled until cleared by a manager.


Test, review and test

Testing is the only real way managers can determine whether training has been effective. Of course one might argue that customer satisfaction is the best test. But can you afford to experiment on guests when the operation has just opened and first impressions are critical?

The staff needs to understand service standards and the product they are selling. I do use written tests and verbal role play. I also like to mix up the format: sometimes I use multiple-choice questions; other times tests require someone to fill in the blanks; occasionally I design tests that require matching items in two columns. Some descriptive sections have team members write out a menu item as they would describe it. Other areas to focus on include allergy flags, flatware requirements (does this dish get a steak knife?) and selling points.

In addition to written tests, practical exams are also important. Managers should watch team members perform tasks with each other, then grade them based on how well they hit service points. Some team members are great at writing out answers but get nervous when in front of guests.

I prefer to issue smaller, more focused tests frequently rather than occasional mammoth tests. As far as grading tests are concerned, posting scores can be intimidating and competitive. If you have the time to meet with staff one on one, spending more time with those members who have potential but are having difficulties. You will keep motivation at a higher level. But as I said previously, when the chips are down, they need to perform. From our earliest age we are graded and evaluated, so don’t be too worried about bruising egos.

Put the staff to work even before opening day. Allow time each day to begin breaking out equipment, setting up bus stations, organizing flatware drawers, setting up the host station. Get the staff involved by giving them some input in how the FOH gets organized. Help to form a proprietary bond with the operation and management.

Other components to an opening

Crucial components that need to be part of your preopening training include menu tastings, coordinated with the chef, and beverage tastings, including wine, beer, spirits and specialty cocktail training.

Food tastings can be coordinated as part of lunch. But keep in mind that if you or the chef are briefing staff about the food, this might not constitute a nonworking break and may raise legal issues depending on the scheduled length of the training day.

For beverage training, I like to divide each day to include a beverage component every day, and often at the end of the day—it’s a great way to wrap things up. Keep in mind that all team members might not be of legal drinking age or may not consume alcohol; so be sensitive about their concerns.

Open slowly. Friends and family events should be done under controlled conditions, slowly building covers over a period of nights. Don’t schedule service to run late. You want to wrap things up early enough to have a postservice review with team members. Be sure to include the kitchen team in these reviews. Too often they become totally disconnected from the FOH. They need to know how their performance impacts the FOH and overall guest experience.

During the friends-and-family period I also use some type of guest evaluation card. They should be designed so they can be collated after each meal. Multiple-choice questions and 1-10 scoring work well. Also leave space for guests to write in comments. Remember, during friends-and-family soft openings, guests usually eat for free with discounted alcohol. So don’t be afraid to ask them to do a little work. You want candid feedback, not just compliments! In many cases, the host restaurant asks the diners to leave a gratuity, which should be divided in accordance with future house policies and in compliance with local, state and federal laws.

During the opening, managers need to take copious notes about what did and didn’t work. They also need downtime to discuss, adapt and adjust before meeting with team members. And they should NEVER disagree with each other in front of line staff. Always present a united approach. This includes not only service issues but also side-work, opening and closing the operation, POS programming and station set up. When meeting with team members, listen to their feedback; but don’t debate or get into confrontations about how something should or shouldn’t be done. If the answer or solution is not immediately clear, let them know you will get back to them with a solution. And start that log book. A year from now you will reread it and have a good laugh!

Lastly, don’t forget to manage your managers. Before, during and after service, assign your managers to specific tasks or areas. Give them plenty of direction and feedback about how they are performing. Stay focused, organized and be ready to adapt to changing conditions. Sooner than you think a rhythm will begin to develop, followed by contented, happy guests and motivated team members.

Stephen Loffredo, president of Seasoned Hospitality Consulting & Management, is a 35-year food & beverage veteran in the independent restaurant and luxury hotel sectors.

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