5 Restaurant Leadership Lessons from the Industry's Best

Here are the top five ways to become the leader of a dedicated, engaged team, from restaurateurs with leadership experience. 

6 min read

The 2020 Main Street Strong Restaurant Conference brought together leaders from across the restaurant industry, including many well-known owner/operators and restaurateurs, to discuss navigating today's landscape. Leadership — and how to be a good leader — came up again and again. Here's what we learned. 

In the Keynote Session, Chef Stephanie Izard, the owner of Girl & the Goat and other restaurants, had a rallying cry for her fellow restaurateurs:

Stephanie Izard

We need to become better, stronger leaders with more empathy.

Stephanie Izard, Chef / Owner, Girl & the Goat

The data agrees. One of the largest problems facing restaurants is high turnover, and according to the Gallup organization, an engaged team reduces turnover by 24% in high-turnover industries. Here are the top five ways to become the leader of a dedicated, engaged team, from restaurateurs with leadership experience. 

5 Leadership Lessons

1. Give your team the tools they need to succeed.

An important part of restaurant leadership is setting your employees up for success — but what does that actually mean? 

  • Provide useful training. Set aside time to teach new employees the ropes and provide existing employees with training for their own roles as well as others. Jill Gray, co-owner of Chicago's Tortello, suggests "trying to build an efficient, Swiss Army knife of a team" by training more people across more types of roles. This means when someone is sick or has to leave unexpectedly, another team member can easily fill in. 

  • Set goals. Encourage your employees to set goals for themselves and find time to check in with them every so often about those goals. Having a tangible goal to work towards — and a mentor providing advice — gives people direction and drive. 

  • Don't forget to delegate. Sometimes it feels easier to just do things yourself, but delegating tasks to your team (and providing them with the background or training they need to complete these tasks) will mean less stress for you and more confidence for them in the long run. 

2. Be transparent and prioritize communication. 

No part of running a restaurant is easy. A work environment with good communication and transparency helps everyone (including you) feel more supported and invested. 

Basu Ratman, founder of NYC's Inday cafes, emphasized the importance of communication in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Basu Ratnam

Having clear communication with staff helped us foresee issues. We designed our layout to minimize touchpoints with customers, and got direct feedback from our employees to make sure we were doing the best we could to support them.

Basu Ratnam, Founder, INDAY

Stephanie Izard told conference attendees that showing your team that you're human isn't a bad thing. "It's okay for them to see you cry!" 

3. Make your employees a priority. 

From their physical safety to their mental health, making your employees a priority is essential. 

Chen-Chen Huo, CEO of A La Couch and MAC'D, makes a point to ask himself an important question on a regular basis: "What can we do to support this group of people that is so vital to operations?" 

Basu Ratman had a similar take. "We're in hospitality. Make your staff feel comfortable and safe." His strategy for executing this is two-fold: (1) take time to reflect on how to better take care of staff and (2) ask staff what they need.

In the same panel discussion, Marilou Halvorsen, President and CEO of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association shared that a "wise restaurateur" had once told her: "I take care of my staff, and my staff takes care of my guests." 

4. Create a diverse, inclusive culture. 

An important part of leadership is taking different viewpoints into consideration. When hiring new team members, make an effort to include people who may be underrepresented on your team or in your community. In addition to creating a more open and welcoming space for customers, a diverse and representative staff means you'll also have diversity in thinking, perspectives, and creative ideas. 

5. Lead by example (and with empathy) 

Make sure you're not just talking the talk — the best way to create a dedicated, hardworking team is to be a dedicated, hardworking leader. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty (metaphorically, of course!) and assist employees at all levels. This is a great way to gain credibility and respect and to keep a finger on the pulse of how your team is doing. You'll also get insight into what operational changes may need to be made.

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Jen Brown
Jen Brown


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