Restaurant general manager Matthew Ling had big ideas for how he would grow business for three restaurants he was running, but often found himself mired in the day-to-day grind of restaurant management. Matt decided to be deliberate, start small, and demonstrate wins from specific strategic goals in order to move the needle for the business. His first step was to define thoughtful, relevant, and achievable goals for the restaurant. He achieved this by aligning with ownership; talking to customers, staff, and fellow management; observing restaurant operations analytically; and reading reviews.
When Matthew Ling, whose work with creative promotions using Clover POS we previously profiled, agreed to run three full-service restaurants earlier this year, he approached the job with big ideas for how he might level up all three businesses.
Matt had already managed high-volume bars and restaurants, but with three locations to run, each with distinct concepts, and all three just steps from a Top 10 U.S. sports and entertainment arena, he saw a rich opportunity to enact some of the employee training, customer growth and menu optimization ideas he had been harboring. “I was pumped,” Matt said. “With three restaurants instead of one, there were a lot of potential ways to add value.”
But Matt found himself mired in minutiae almost from the beginning. “You start your day with one big goal in mind, then you hit the door and are instantly pulled in ten directions. Your staff needs you. There are customers to check on. Something breaks. And of course, all of those things need addressing,” he said. “But so does the work that builds business. And it can be frustrating to figure out how to do it all.”
A few months into the job, Matt realized that in order to carve out time to do the type of work that would drive the business forward, he would need to be deliberate, start small, and demonstrate wins from strategic work in order to gain the confidence of ownership. His biggest revelation: he needed to establish just the right goals to make sure that his work on and off the floor added up to something greater. “I think a lot about this industry, so I had some ideas for things we could do when I started,” he said. “Those actually shifted a lot once I got into the restaurant and started managing in the weeds.” Matt walked us through exactly how he went about defining the right set of goals for growing all three restaurant businesses.
As Matt stated it to us: “Their goals are your goals.” Make sure you understand from ownership what their priorities are. Assumptions can hurt, even when they’re made with the best intentions. That’s because not all growth is created equally in the minds of restaurant owners. Not only is it their prerogative as the owner to set the objectives, but there’s a great likelihood they have insight into the business landscape and their future plans that you’re not privy to.
“Don’t kill yourself getting more bodies in the door for happy hour when they want you to focus on growing corporate relationships for lunch catering,” Matt advised. While more happy hour customers might be a nice-to-have, you’ll want to put your strategic energy into figuring out the marketing, staffing and processes required to grow lunch catering relationships and revenue if that’s what the owner wants.
But what if the owner doesn’t have any strategic goals to speak of? “If you get something general like ‘grow revenue,’ now is your opportunity to put some ideas in front of them,” Matt said. Priorities could include adding more party bookings, growing unique customer volume, increasing repeat visitors or ramping up spend per visit. If the owner is still noncommittal, then offer your suggestion and make sure they affirm you will be working on that objective over the next months and quarters.
The restaurant group Matt works for established a separate back-of-house manager. Matt knew that he would need to get on the same page as his back-of-house counterpart in order to succeed. The first reason was because both sides of the house need to be tightly synched to deliver great performance. The other reason: “There can be so many great ideas that stay locked up in the kitchen,” Matt told us. Consistent communication with back-of-house leadership and employees is essential to extract those insights and make sure they’re represented in your overall goals.
Matt said he already communicated regularly with the back-of-house manager during the normal course of operations at his restaurants, but thought it was important to establish a separate conversation to discuss the future of the restaurant, the owners’ objectives, and the back-of-house manager’s sense of missed opportunities. The pair had a dinner meeting off premises to chat about ideas. “He told me a small buffet station at lunch could be a great ‘express’ option and a way to test new menu ideas,” Matt said. “I knew from my conversation with ownership that it could also be a way to grow lunch volume in our location at the same time we grew our catering business. It was a great idea that checked a lot of boxes” and that was uniquely in the back-of-house manager’s field of vision for potential opportunities.
Matt knows his employees are on the front lines of restaurant operations. “If a customer is muttering under their breath about something they don’t like, if they’re raving about how our pizza is better than what they had in Italy–the servers hear it all,” he said. Matt checks in regularly with counter workers, bartenders, and servers to learn how customers are reacting. An additional benefit of this, he said, is that it helps these employees understand they aren’t merely a vector for food and drinks. “I’m telling them they’re important advisors to me” on how to run the business better. Asking the question also makes his staff better listeners and problem solvers, said Matt, because they connect each customer interaction to the overall well being of the business that employs them.
Talking to employees is also critical for figuring out objectives around process. “When something is broken, they feel it first,” either through direct experience or by bearing the brunt of complaints from customers if something goes awry.
Turns out that diving into the weeds of operations pays off after all. Matt told us that as he began to work on business objectives for the restaurants, he reframed the time he spent resolving staff issues, greeting customers, backfilling staff, hauling merchandize, approving discounts, and managing complaints as more than important “must do” tasks unto themselves. “I love data, and all this stuff is data,” he said. Now he approaches this work as an important method for ingesting information about how to improve operations at the restaurant, and to understand risks and opportunities that could become goals.
Matt told us he thought it was important to let his Clover reports do the talking. “Those reports tell an important story,” he said. But the key to working with restaurant reporting is to imagine you’re interviewing the data. “If you don’t know what you want to learn from the data, you will get lost,” he said. Matt advises creating a checklist of daily data points you’ll want to check–overall revenue and visits, for example–and that you understand what questions you are looking to answer before doing a deeper dive.
Once exception: explore your reporting system to see what types of data is available, which can help you define questions you may not have thought to ask. Matt told us he spent time digging into Clover reports to see what data and filters were available.
For candid insights into the best and worst of restaurant operations, Matt also turned to their Yelp reviews. “I had to hold my breath” when taking a deep dive into reviews the first time, he said, but he realized almost immediately that they were a treasure trove. Good reviews were useful as positive validation of what was going well. As for the bad reviews? “One thing I think about all the time is that if it wasn’t for Yelp, customers would have a bad experience, leave, never come back, and we’d never know why.” He sees reviews as a way to understand issues that might go unnoticed and unprioritized–and a channel to reach out to dissatisfied customers and invite them back in once issues have been resolved.
Matt said that he received great guidance from ownership on where they wanted him to move the needle. He translated these into goals to make sure he could create a plan to achieve them, measure his progress, understand their impact on the business, and report those results back up to ownership.
Talk to executive management or ownership about their goals for your restaurant. If you are the owner, take some time to define them.
Set a time period when you will ingest feedback from other sources to inform your goals. Matt decided he would do this work over the course of one week.
Now get feedback: talk to your management counterparts, employees and customers. Be mindful when walking the floor. Read reviews. Define questions you need answered about the business and pull reports to answer them. Use all these inputs to refine your larger goals and set secondary ones.
After getting the insight, Matt took an additional few days to process the information, develop goals and validate them once more with ownership.
Remember, good goals are SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable (and agreed upon), realistic, and time-based. If your goals are general at first (“Increase lunchtime catering business”) clarify or suggest a SMART goal you can work towards (“Increase lunchtime catering contracts among offices in a five-block radius from two to seven within the next six months.”)
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