Ok, maybe you won’t learn everything you need to know. You’re not going to pick up HTML and CSS in a kitchen, and they don’t care much about naming your PS layers behind the bar, but hear me out. If you’re part of a team, and especially if you’re responsible for managing any part of the that team, there’s a lot to learn from high-functioning restaurants.
What’s Your Job?
Think about it before you answer. At the restaurant, I was (mostly) a server. I relayed specials, took orders, filled drinks, and dropped checks. But that wasn’t my job any more than dicing vegetables or par cooking protein was the job of garde manger or the sous chef. Those were our roles. We all had the same job, and that was to execute and deliver a flawless dining experience for our guests. We each approached it differently, and we were each responsible for our own areas, but we had a common mission.
In the decidedly less stressful world of office life, the same is true. Regardless of your role, whether it’s engineering, sales, design, project management, QA, or anything else, try to take the long view. Your job is the same as everyone else on the team: ship. Ship on time, ship at or above expectations, ship at or under budget. Ship something that delights. We all contribute differently, but it helps to keep your eye on the big picture.
Dealing with people, whether as a server or bartender or a salesperson or account rep, will make you jaded. After enough time in the weeds, it’s easy to slip into seeing people as numbers, seeing every interaction as a transaction. Resist this urge.
After a few years in the business, most of the restaurants I worked at were pretty upscale, which meant that other than a handful of regulars, many guests who were joining us were doing so for a special occasion. For me, it would be just another Tuesday, but for them, it might be their only night in the city without the kids, or a landmark anniversary, or a celebration of a big new promotion. Even if it wasn’t, they were about to spent $100+ on dinner, so why do anything other than try to make the experience as special as possible?
When people are interacting with your project or product, what state of mind are they in? Where are they coming from? Are they harried or calm? Is it an emergency or a casual encounter? Are they experts or first timers? How can or should you adapt? Putting yourself in the mind of your customer will help make sure you’re always at least trying to make the experience as enjoyable as possible.
There are few things as impressive to me as a restaurant firing on all cylinders in the middle of the dinner rush. On any given weekend night a restaurant with 60ish seats might serve 180–240 covers, or guests. Each of those guests, if the servers and bartenders are doing their jobs, might have two to three courses each, all ordered at different times and perhaps with modifications based on preference or dietary restrictions. It’s a madhouse.
When everything is going right, those courses are perfectly timed, with each new plate hitting the table moments after your previous course has been cleared and your silverware replaced. Your drinks are never empty, and somehow the bread basket is always full.
This level of execution is immensely difficult, and requires that the entire team has an understanding of the flow of the dining room, the fire times (cooking time required) for individual dishes, and the individual needs of each guest. Working well on a project team is no different, and when great teams get into a state of flow it’s a sight to behold.
Intuition & Delight
Even when things are going swimmingly, there are bound to be problems. A hair makes it onto a plate and out of the kitchen. A glass gets dropped. When was the last time you did something 300+ times in a day without a single mistake? The best folks on both side of the line will recognize small issues before they get too big, or see opportunities to go above and beyond before they present themselves naturally. A talented expo — the folks who run the line between the kitchen and the front of the house and make sure hot food is hot, cold food is cold, and everything gets to the right place — will see the orders coming in and know that the kitchen is about to get backed up and ticket times are going to run long, so she’ll alert the servers. A great bartender will notice the the couple at the bar are on a first date and send out a little something extra. A great host or manager will know that there’s a bunch of special events going on and its going to be a long night, so she’ll bring in something for the team. If I got a read that a table might be first timers or having a big night out, I’d make the big sell by asking them to leave their menus closed, ask them a few questions, and then order their entire meal for them, from apps to entrees, wine to dessert. It worked, usually.
People love to be delighted, but by its very nature delight is almost always a surprise. The only way you can delight people is with strong intuition, and the only way you gain that is through experience. Still, all of the best experiences, whether physical or digital, delight. How are you delighting your users and customers?
Testing & Iteration
That special you had last time you were at your favorite local spot? It was most likely one of two things, either “burn out” food — stuff that’s going to go bad soonish and needs to get sold — or it’s a new item that’s being considered for addition to the menu. Let’s focus on the second option.
If you were to go back to the same restaurant the next night, you might see the same special on the board, just with a different sauce or a slightly different preparation. The chef is testing, iterating. Is that protein better with root vegetables or cruciferous? A demi-glace or something more rich? Restaurants knew a long time ago what the tech world only came around to in the last decade or so — ship, then iterate, iterate, iterate until you get it right. The people will tell you what they want.
Restaurants are these little microcosms. They’re fast moving, often thankless environments, and they’re a great way to get a look at all kinds of client interaction. Any time I’m interviewing for junior roles, I always love to see hospitality experience, no matter what side of the house they were on. Time served in a restaurant tells me this person has been through the ringer, and they probably have at least some idea of what to expect out here. Order up.
Looking for a deeper dive into how a hospitality mindset can change your outlook on business? Danny Meyer has you covered.
Hospitality not your thing? See how product teams are like raids in Destiny.