Restaurant Advice: How to Overcome the Addiction to Average

By: Donald Burns

7 Minute Read

Dec 22, 2017

Restaurant Advice

restaurant advice

The dream to open a restaurant is alive and well here in America. That sounds amazing to aspiring restaurateurs, but take it with a grain of salt.

Here's the good news:

  • Approximately 5,300 new restaurants have opened between 2012 to 2015.
  • Real estate is booming.
  • If you look around your city, you’ll see new construction sites popping up.
  • In short, if you have the money, you can easily open a restaurant.

The bad news is that it’s estimated that 50% of new restaurants close their doors by year three. Of those that survive, most just limp along, basically breaking even.

Let’s get this clear from the start: you go into business to thrive and make a profit.


"I think I’ll start a restaurant to break even." Said no one ever.

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So how do restaurants get in this trap? What happens between the time they open and the time they have to close their doors? It can be summed up in five words: they become addicted to average.

What is the Addition to Average?

Remember back in school when we were graded on the bell curve? That bell curve was created to provide a “fair” distribution of grades among students.

The restaurant market has changed as more and more restaurants open up, and at times have lowered standards in the industry. Ten years ago, we would not see some of the things that are commonplace today. The bell curve for restaurants has slid to a place where “good enough” has become the norm. The addiction to being average has taken over many restaurants and restaurateurs.

There is still hope for those restaurants that live beyond the cult of average, because natural selection loves to prey upon the weak. Being average is a losing formula. When you are average, you are where the most competition is. Basically you become a commodity, and in a commodity driven market, your selling point is price. The problem is that restaurants try to out price each other in this game until one is driven out of the market. It’s an expensive game to play with your profits (if you even see any at this level).

It's better to just break free.

So how do you detox from this addiction to average in the restaurant industry? Here are two things you must do if you want to get the average monkey off your restaurant’s back.

1. Be Original - With Restaurant Concept, Food, and Most Importantly, Culture.

It’s not as easy as you think to stand out in a crowded market, yet a lot restaurants try each year because they think they can do it better than the restaurant down the street. Another chicken wing restaurant? Another pizza place? You’re going to have to do better than that if you want to stand out.

Wolfgang Puck took the personal pizza to a new level when he introduced gourmet toppings like duck sausage and cilantro on pizzas back in the 1980’s. In 2016, it’s common to see exotic ingredients on pizzas. Just like anything at first, you will be an innovator and soon others will try to copy you. You have to keep pushing and updating you brand to stay fresh and current with consumer needs.

Here is a key secret that many “copycat” restaurants fail to understand: while you might be able to create the same food, you will have a very hard time creating the same culture. Culture is that one invisible element that is hard to replicate.

Can it be done? Yes. Is it easy? No. You can take the same systems and recipes, however without the same culture there is something just not quite the same.

Have you ever been to a restaurant that changed owners or managers and felt it was different? The menu was the same, yet things just felt off. That is the power of culture in your brand. Your brand’s culture is your protection against those copycat restaurants. Culture is a double-edged sword that can build up or tear down a brand.

2. Raise Your Standards First, Then Get Others to Raise Theirs.

If there’s one thing that is sure to help you break free from the average, it’s raising your standards. Now, it’s easy to say you raise your standards and not really do anything about it. Most people do this. It’s called talking a good game. Your words and your actions have to be congruent if you’re going to be taken seriously as a leader. Hypocrisy is a team killer.

It’s easy to go around and bark at your staff to pay more attention to the details, to be on time, to not make mistakes, and to be friendly to the guest. The question is, does your behavior and do your actions reflect the same standards? If they do, congratulations! You are one of the few that hold themselves accountable first.

Raising your own standards is relatively easy in comparison to trying to get others to raise their standards. You have to remember that, in basic motivational psychology, it has been uncovered that people only do things for their own reasons, not yours. So when you get frustrated that the team does not seem to listen or follow directions, it's simply because they have not changed their standard yet.


“Change starts with you. Be the change you want to see in your restaurant.”

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Here’s a classic example of how you can get your team to raise their standards: It’s a busy Friday night, and as you walk by the pass-through from the kitchen, you notice a couple plates that maybe just weren’t 100% perfect. You could easily yell at the cooks about following the plate specs and not caring. Or, you could try something different.

You could pull the cook to the side and say something more along these lines:“When you put that plate in the window, did you for just one second pause and think whether or not you should have served it? If you did, then you know the right thing to do was to fix it. Every plate you put in the window is a reflection of you, not me. You have great skills. Just know that great skills and natural talent can take you to the top. It’s your character that will keep you there. I challenge you to raise your standards. Not for me. Not for the restaurant. I want you to do it for yourself. When I look at you, I seek two cooks. The one you are now, and the one you have the potential to be. Step up and be the cook I know you can be.”

Let's be honest - not everyone you have that talk with will follow through and raise their standards. However, if you can get a few people to buy in and raise their standards to a higher level than what they were before, then you will start creating a culture where average and mediocrity are not tolerated. You’ll attract better quality staff and the low performing ones will quietly go somewhere else where average is the norm.

Changing culture and breaking free from the addiction to average is not easy. However, it is a journey you must take and you must take now if you want to eleveate your restaurant management and escape the quicksand that is mediocrity.

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