Leader of the pack

Finding a great chef is, in some ways, much easier than recognising a great manager.

Finding a great chef is, in some ways, much easier than recognising a great manager.

Finding managerial talent from within is the best way to go, but it’s never easy

Finding a star to run your restaurant is right up there with finding a good doctor or lawyer when you really need one. It’s that critical—and chances are you’ll have to sort through some hopefuls. The best case scenario is to bring people up from within. That way a lot of the training will already be in place. But training only goes so far. It turns out that great managers have a quality that can’t quite be named, but it helps if you know what to look for.

There is no shortage of consultants who will tell you what that might be. Jim Lund, who started Hospitality Coaching five years ago after owning and running a number of restaurants in Sydney, says restaurateurs should “write down in system form what standards you want” in a manager. “Learning to recognise leadership qualities in other staff members is vital. You may be surprised sometimes—with a little nurturing and the right training, some staff members respond well and give you the qualities you require for management.”

Lund says he’s been around the block a few times and is targeting his training toward helping struggling restaurants. “There are many business owners out there who are working ridiculous hours, investing their life savings and feeling real pain from lack of profits. Others have a high profile and achieve healthy profits, but for every one of these, there are 10 which are suffering in a big way.”

Lund’s training techniques are steeped in life experiences. “I was brought up in a Yorkshire town where my father owned butchers’ shops in a marketplace with 30 other butchers, so it was a very competitive environment. I spent my early life learning how to exist in this hotbed of competition.”

A popular posting that appeared on the US-based industry-focused website Food and Beverage Underground—which gets its content from people who own and work in restaurants—says potential managers should be tested on how well they can deal with such issues.

Restaurateurs looking for managerial talent should “set up scenarios to measure the ability to react in real time” and be sure candidates can problem solve “in real life situations”. For example, if confronted with a hypothetical situation during the interview process in which a restaurant’s business has suffered a downfall due to new competition in the neighbourhood, finding staff for lunch shifts has become difficult, and theft and waste is shrinking the profit margin, a promising candidate might suggest starting a guerrilla marketing campaign, trimming the lunch menu to reduce prep time, and setting up a bank and inventory system that’s in effect before and after every shift.

Many management training regimens focus on applying workable solutions to sticky problems, but one long-time restaurateur says you should also look for something less tangible—a kind of food-and-hospitality x-factor.

“With a little nurturing and the right training, some staff members respond well and give you the qualities you require for management.” Jim Lund, Hospitality Coaching, Sydney

Bill Drakopoulos has to make sure things are running smoothly at five venues (Aqua Dining, overlooking the landmark North Sydney pool, as well as Ripples restaurants at Sydney’s Milsons Point, Sydney Wharf, Chowder Bay and Whale Beach). His eye is always open for who has the chutzpah to run the show.

Good managers can emerge from any area of the business, Drakopoulos says, but he’s quick to point out that “they’re not so easy to find”.

“We’re constantly training our staff, and we aim to teach them as much as they want to know. Hopefully we can help them grow. If someone wants to step up to a management position, they shouldn’t be too hard to spot. They’ll knock down your door. The question then is whether they really have what it takes. You’re not doing anyone any favours by letting them step into a role that they’re not right for, no matter how good they are in other areas. I know a lot of waiters who are perfectly happy to stay where they are, and some of them make more money than the manager.”

Drakopoulos is not committed to any fixed methodology and has employed managers from outside Ripples as well as brought them up from within. But managers that end up working out tend to have the same traits.

“They have to have integrity, they have to be honest, they have to be reliable. They have to be good with people and be good people themselves—good with staff, good with customers, good with suppliers. All that’s a given. Aside from that it’s really a question of how much they love the restaurant experience. We’re not just in the food business; we’re in the entertainment and comfort business. It might be high stress behind the scenes, but a good manager instinctively knows how to maintain the right atmosphere because they love being in the business. Not everyone has that quality. An experienced owner learns how to spot it.”

When it comes to keeping the right kind of talent on board, however, the challenge is more practical. Drakopoulos says the “low attrition rate” among Ripples Group managers has to do with knowing how they tick. “First of all, you pay them more than what the market pays. And you give them a sense of ownership and free rein. You’ve got to let them run it or they’ll be stifled and won’t want to stay.”

George Mifsud, who runs the Human Resources department at a large food services and catering operation, Restaurant Associates, is not unfamiliar with the challenges of finding standout talent. It’s an ongoing quest, and lately it’s gotten harder. “The key to your business is always getting good management on the front lines. But when you’ve got an unemployment rate of around five per cent, it’s hard to get good staff at any level,” he says.

Restaurant Associates’ parent company, Compass Group, runs a management school that Mifsud says provides aspiring managers with many of the skills they’ll need. But he agrees with Drakopoulos’s point that some things can’t be taught. “We identify what we believe are the competency requirements, and our suite of programs develop competencies into key skills. We focus our training. But some of the most important considerations have to do with a candidate’s demeanour and approach. We can’t train the behavioural-based stuff.”

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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