How to get your life back while managing a restaurant

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In this photo, you see not a homeless person, but a restaurant manager. It’s me a year ago, trying to get some rest before a new day kicks in.

It’s obvious that I’m posing for the picture. But the cardboard box is not fake. Usually, I would take it to the back of the shop, where it wasn’t visible from the road, and sleep there.

Back then, I was working 14 hours a day for a few months without a break—and sometimes couldn’t afford to go home and have a proper sleep on the couch.

This is the reality of managing your own place

You start your business and do what it takes to keep it running.

You hire and train people. You cover for them when they get sick or don’t show up. You meet guests. You pay the bills. You make meals. You buy food. You deal with the authorities. You fix stuff that breaks. You deliver orders. You do dishes.

Yes, you sweep the floors too.

And it never ends.

I know a few brilliant entrepreneurs who opened their awesome joints years ago and still work with a feeling that they can’t step out of their restaurant even for five minutes without the risk of losing control over the situation.

If you can’t step out, you’re doing it wrong

Being passionate and persistent and always ready to pull your weight and go the extra mile with it is awesome.

But when you have to do it for years, it can become a serious issue. It will drive you crazy. Moreover, it will hinder your ability to grow and make an even bigger impact on your community.

You need time and energy to tweak your meals, come up with fresh ideas, watch out for new trends, and open your second, third, and fourth store, saying nothing about living your life….

I don’t sleep in a box anymore

Our pizzeria opened more than a year ago. Now I don’t show up there every single day.

We have a determined general manager who takes care of our day-to-day operations. Does this mean that SHE sleeps in the box?

Not exactly. Our workflow is far from perfect, but consider this. Recently, the GM left town for a business trip.

Our GM, Jessica Perkins, on a business trip far away from Oxford
Our GM, Jessica Perkins, on a business trip far away from Oxford

She was absent for more than a week. And it hasn’t turned out to be the end of the world for our venture.

The pizzeria is up and running as it was before. And we’re building our second pizza shop while looking for a location for the third.

How have we done it—and how can you do it too?

How have we managed to get from working from dawn to dusk to having an enterprise that can run on its own? Why can’t so many much more talented people do it, even though they dream of it?

I believe the answer is simple: THEY JUST DON’T SET IT AS A GOAL.

Everybody is hell-bent on making a top-notch product and serving their customers—and that’s great. But you should be equally determined to build a business that can achieve perfection on its own—without you micromanaging it every freaking second.

At some point, we realized that we wouldn’t weather another month on such an insane schedule. So we set our long-term goal in terms of building not simply a business, but a business system.

It made all the difference in the world.

Embrace imperfection—your only way to perfection

You may think you’re the only person who can manage this mess. Probably, you’re right. But it doesn’t matter. Your goal is to build a system, remember?

The only course of action here is to let other people step in and do their best and learn from their mistakes. So you need to embrace imperfection—it’s inevitable.

Don’t wait for a perfect employee—give opportunities to those who are with you now.

When you do this, miracles begin to happen. Because after a while, you start to notice that many members of your team learn to do their job at least as well as you did. And some of them will outperform you.

Jessica Perkins joined Dodo Pizza as a driver less than a year ago. She happened to be a much more focused, organized and determined general manager than I was—though I thought I was a damn good GM.

Why finding one good reliable manager isn’t a solution

At this point, you may think: “I just need to find a reliable manager like Jessica. I will teach her everything I know. Someday, she will step in and I’ll be able to finally watch that TV series everybody is talking about or spend a week in Hawaii sleeping on the beach.”

You can’t be more wrong. Your business can’t depend on one person, whether it’s you or your GM. The GM can win a million in the lottery and quit after a two-week notice… And what will you do?

That’s why we introduced the position of general manager’s first assistant at Dodo Pizza Oxford. This is someone who is fully trained to cover for the GM—or step in permanently if the GM needs to leave to open, for example, our next store.

OK, where do I find the first assistant?

Now comes the most important part. When the first assistant assumes the responsibilities of the GM, one of the shift supervisors is promoted to fill in her shoes. The choice is based on the results of assessment the GM makes weekly using our shift supervisor assessment form.

The form is a checklist that covers everything we deem important for keeping the quality of our product and service at the highest level.

Do all ingredients have correct labels? Are there enough drinks in the coolers? Are pizzas cut in even slices? Is the open sign on? Are the windows clean? And so on—the form consists of around 50 questions.

Click to see the form

Each question can give the manager up to three points. The better the total result of the assessment, the bigger the bonus the shift supervisor gets and the more likely she will become the first assistant.

Your first most wicked enemy: laziness

Many restaurant owners don’t practice assessment. It looks cold and inhuman. It’s not fun.

The Dodo Pizza Oxford general manager does 16 assessments a month. Each assessment takes about an hour. Lots of work—but every bit of this work is worth it.

  1. The form is a great tool for improving our service. Every mistake we make we put on the form to make sure that it will never happen again.
  2. Giving regular feedback helps people grow.
  3. Everything becomes transparent—we can see who is objectively a better manager and deserves a promotion.

Your second most wicked enemy: penny-pinching

If you want to grow your business and make it less dependent on your talents, you have to fork out. The system won’t work if you don’t pay more to people who do a better job for you.

Being a Scrooge isn’t a good long-term strategy.

If you don’t do the assessment, you can avoid paying bonuses—but how will you encourage great efforts and train new GMs?

You can probably survive without the first assistant—and save yourself a fair amount of cash, since she is the only person besides the GM who gets a salary, not a compensation based on their hourly rate. But that is the very reason why this job can be desirable for your shift supervisors.

How to fix problems once and for all

The last mental shift I experienced and want to share is this: you need to develop procedures for everything that happens or can happen in the restaurant.

Don’t just fix a problem you face—find systematic solutions to it so s%#t won’t happen again, or if it still happens, to happen it will be solved with no fuss.

Once, we noticed that our day’s first pizzas tended to be worse than the rest. So we agreed that every first pizza of the day should be photographed and posted to our closed Facebook group for the general manager to give feedback on how it looks.

Another example. Washing aprons used to be the responsibility of every employee, and we had a hard time pestering everybody not to forget to take them home, wash them, and bring them back. Then we bought a washing machine with a dryer.

Now putting all the aprons into it at the end of the shift is a task on the shift manager’s checklist. If you follow the list, you can’t skip it, especially since stuffing the machine is easy-peasy. The problem’s solved.

Checklists are an effective tool that helps the team do their jobs with as few mistakes as possible. If you don’t want to miss anything, all you have to do is check off every item on your list. We’ve created a checklist for almost every process we have. For example, this is a list for our morning routine.

Why you should be like Neo

Remember Neo in The Matrix? He saw the world as a sequence of green lines of code—letters, digits, symbols—I believe the same way a restaurant manager has to see her business as a set of procedures and processes.

We employed this mindset half a year ago, and since then, we have managed to significantly improve our workflow by always asking ourselves: what procedure can we implement to solve this problem once and for all?

Who has to order new boxes so we never run out of them? What happens if the fridge stops being cold? What should you do if a customer lodges a complaint?

Looking at your beloved restaurant as a set of procedures can be excruciating. But there is no other way if you want your enterprise to run on its own. You can’t deal with every problem as if it has never happened before and will never pop up again. Otherwise, the business will stay highly dependent on one person who is in charge of everything.

You don’t want to sleep in the box, do you? Then wake up, Neo.

Share your best practices with us!

If you have anything valuable to add to the topic, please don’t hesitate to do it in the comments. Who knows, maybe your advice will help some other restaurant owner not to go through the roof one day.

Further reading

If you aren’t convinced that checklists can be a great management tool, read this book that makes a good point that even well-trained and educated people tend to forget things from time to time, and in some cases, even a small error may cost someone their life—for example, when you are a doctor. That’s why checklists are being so actively used at every modern hospital today.