Why it’s OK to sweat some of the small stuff

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

There was a best-selling book authored in 1996 by Richard Carlson titled Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Now I know, because I read the book, that it was all about the zen of living a balanced life and freeing yourself and others of the self-imposed burdens of stress that may not matter in the long run, but the title always made me feel unnerved. The reality, in business — especially business that involves face-to-face interaction with customers — is that all of the details are important and are cumulative. The experience of a guest is defined through a series of “small stuff” components that when viewed collectively define how the guest will feel and act.

Restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses become insignificant in a guest’s mind when they stop paying attention to the details — the small stuff. Great chefs and hospitality leaders have the eyes and the ears of a detail fanatic.


“Ask yourself the question, “Will this matter a year from now?”

-Richard Carlson

The answer to this question, at least as it pertains to our industry, is “Yes, it will matter a year from now.” The detail that is missed today will become the dozen or so details that escape a critical eye and this cumulative effect can be devastating to a restaurant in the long term.


I will always remember a cook who was working in a renowned three-Michelin-star restaurant in France and was complaining that for the first week on the job all she did was brush and peel mushrooms.

This cook wanted desperately to work on the line at this restaurant that drew guests from all over the world. I asked how she approached peeling the mushrooms and her response was: “I hate doing it. I get through the day but feel as though my skills are being wasted.” I told her that she should never expect to work on the line at this extraordinary restaurant and handle the preparation of world-class dishes for the chef if she failed to first respect and the relish the opportunity to do a world-class job with those mushrooms. Sweat the small stuff!


The “Experience” is a culmination of everything that a customer senses. In other words — every great restaurant experience approaches the connection to the five human senses. How does the experience look, feel, smell, sound and taste?

The chef’s menu is only one part of this experience — it must include the quality of parking, the signage for the restaurant, dining room lighting, the comfort of chairs, the tabletop details, the wordsmithing on the menu, the smile of the host, the approach of the server, the cleanliness of the bathrooms, the background or foreground music, the breadth of the wine and beer list, the timing of service and, of course, the aroma, texture, flavor and appearance of every dish that leaves the kitchen. Sweat the details!


As a consultant I have the privilege of working with chefs and restaurateurs who have a keen desire to be successful. I am fortunate to not work on a daily basis in these restaurants because without the cloud of familiarity I am able to see details that many who are too close to the operation have learned to ignore.

“Restaurant Eyes” refers to the ability to walk through the operation each day as if it were your first and to do so with the critical eye of a paying guest. Everyone who works in a restaurant must learn to forget what they have become accustomed to and see the operation with a fresh set of eyes (ears and nose) every day.


Jan Carlzon wrote a very important book in 1989 titled Moments of Truth. The book reflected on the transformation that took place at SAS Airlines under his leadership. The failing airline was at a juncture that could have led them either to a successful future or complete collapse.

During this transition he referred to a lecture called “Cattle Calls and Coffee Stains” that was presented to all of the employees of SAS. He talked about the frustration that passengers felt over the way they were herded onto and off of planes and not being treated in any way shape or form like a guest, as well as the importance of “Small Stuff Impressions.”

Carlzon pointed to the value of cleanliness on the planes and demonstrated that if a passenger opens the beverage tray in front of them and finds a coffee stain they don’t simply point to that lack of detail, they wonder, “If they can’t clean the coffee stain how can I feel confident that they will do a great job of flying the plane?”

Everything in the restaurant is a detail that provides the chef and restaurateur with an opportunity to prove that they know how to “fly the plane.” Sweat the details!


How can a chef and a restaurateur help to create a memorable and breakthrough experience for every guest? What are the details that might be missing and how do leaders in an operation help every employee to help manage the details?

Some will struggle with trying to be very good at these things through management and direction, but the best are able to train, teach, and inspire so that management of the details becomes second nature to everyone.

From the cleanliness of windows to dining room tables that are sturdy and don’t rock; from glasses free of water spots to staying on top of replacing silverware between courses and from ensuring that proper degrees of doneness are managed well to staying on top of clean rims on plates and perfect placement of herbs and garnishes — it’s all “important.” It all requires that everyone in the operation become a willing advocate for sweating the small stuff. When it is done correctly the result will be return guests — and guests who willingly become ambassadors for the restaurant.