10 ways to create a culture of excellence in your kitchen

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

Are you a chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant, a AAA-four-diamond operation, a family style neighborhood café, a decades-old hamburger diner on a major U.S. highway or a busy breakfast restaurant serving those hungry blue collar tradespeople en route to a hard days work? It makes no difference whatsoever as long as you are committed to excellence. Each one of these operations is an important representative of what the American restaurant is all about, how we are perceived as an industry, and how respected our craft.

Excellence has little to do with the size of the guest check, or, should I say, it need not be connected. Those four-diamond operations live by a set of standards that calls for no mistakes, but if they occur it is critical that the operation recover beyond the guests’ expectations. Why would this be any different in that breakfast operation or hamburger joint? The overused adage “you get what you pay for” no longer carries any weight in an economy where competition is fierce. Restaurants, more often than not, fail based on their lack of commitment to excellence. This connection is more important than location, more important than the money spent on décor, more important than their efforts with marketing, and far more important than the size of the guest check.

Excellence and value are inextricably connected. When excellence is pervasive through the operation then guests see value in what is offered. “Is it worth it” is the most important song that a restaurant guest sings.

So how can a restaurant strive for excellence regardless of price tag? Here are ten simple ideas to implement in any operation with an eye on excellence:

We should never forget that we are in the hospitality business. Our primary job is to be consistently welcoming. This means that every employee is a host who has the opportunity to bring a ray of sunshine to a guest’s day. This hospitality must be evident in how employees treat each other as well as the guest. Make people feel like they are important and they will return time and again. This is the first step in creating an aura of excellence.

“Excellence is not a skill, it’s an attitude.” – Ralph Marston

Excellence never works if it is isolated to a portion of the restaurant experience — it must be evident in all of the details. The attention to landscaping, parking lot cleanliness, lighting, signage, spotless windows, quality menus, the greeting at the door, the friendly approach by a server, the flavor and presentation of the food, the attentiveness of the server throughout the meal and the warm “thank you” at the end of the encounter are essential elements of an excellent experience. It’s all about sweating the details.

Real service is not synonymous with proper technical service. Technical service is only a part of the experience — to be real, service must be sincere. Teaching your staff to relish the opportunity to serve and understand how important their role is in bringing customers back is a good start, but to be pervasive the service attitude must be part of everyone’s make-up from the cook to the dishwasher.

There is no room for varying from the standard of excellence that you establish. If your focus is the good old American hamburger, then make sure that the bun is always fresh and properly toasted; the lettuce is fresh, crisp, and free of rust; the tomato is mature, evenly sliced and flavorful; the hamburger comprised of the right mix of meat and appropriate meat to fat ratio; the patty is properly grilled; the condiments of the best quality and the pickle the best that you can buy (or make in-house); the side order just as detailed, and the plate warm and spotless. The guest should be able to hear the crunch as they bite through that toasted bun and feel the snap of the crisp lettuce as they bite into a moist, hot, and full-flavored burger. When the juice from the hamburger drips slightly down the guests chin then you know that excellence is at work. It’s is not hard — it’s what is known as pride and commitment in what you do! This same method applies to a plate of eggs over easy, or a Wagyu steak — excellence has no price tag.

A restaurant that is committed to excellence knows that the cardinal sin is not being consistent with this way of doing business. When excellence is a habit then the guest can trust that their experience will always be of the highest caliber.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant

Excellence and cleanliness go hand in hand. A clean operation is one that breathes life into the experience. From the kitchen floor to the restrooms, legs of dining tables, windows, counter tops, salt shakers, china and flatware — when the restaurant is truly clean, the quality of the guest experience is heightened.

It always comes down to the people who wear your uniform, tie on an apron, or stand at the door as a welcoming host. The job of the owner, manager or chef is to instill in their employees a serious desire to serve, to be excellent and to never accept mediocrity as a standard. Hire right, train properly and set the example of excellence — this is how a culture is created.

Treat your employees well and they will treat your guests well. This rings true in any business, but especially in those focused on hospitality. When employees are happy, proud, and well-trained, they will wear the attitude of professionalism. When management and employees treat each other with respect, just as all professionals do, a sense of unified purpose will be felt throughout the operation. This, as every other point in this article, is not related to the prices on your menu. It can exist in any type of restaurant operation.

Finally, in excellent operations it is the leadership that sets the example for others to follow. In excellent operations the guest pays attention to the cumulative examples of excellence that begin at the top. When the example is set, then the team will understand what is expected of them.

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” – Steve Jobs