“The Secret of success is to do the common things uncommonly well.” John D. Rockefeller


I have been in the restaurant business for over 30 years.  In that time I’ve come to value an approach to the hospitality industry that is deceptively simplistic.  As stated by Rockefeller, I’ve come to believe that the little details are perhaps the most important part of my business.  These details include tidy entrances, polished glassware, clean washrooms, clear windows (with no finger prints), shiny brass, floors and carpets free from debris, etc. … It is important to note that each one of these details can be accomplished by a 12 year old child.  It is not rocket science!  Yet these small things are the hallmark of successful restaurants.  I often say, anyone can pour a beer, cook a steak, open a bottle of wine, assemble a salad but not everyone can attend to the little details.  “Regard the small as important; make much of the little”, said Lao Tzu.

Many a restaurateur will give lip service to the importance of the small details yet they so often fail to follow through.  “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do,” wrote Henry Ford.  The high failure rate in the hospitality industry is largely a fault of people missing the small things.  Who, for example, wants to eat in a restaurant that has messy and dirty washrooms?  You can’t help but conclude that their cleanliness and hygiene in the kitchen must also be less than ideal.

I’ve been fortunate to travel widely and dine in many fine restaurants.  Recently, my wife Sue and I dined in Joel Robuchon’s Paris restaurant on the Champs Elysee.  The restaurant was called L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and rated as a 2-star Michelin restaurant; (I’ve never had the pleasure to eat in a 3-star, which is the highest rating by the Michelin Guide).  As expected the food was exemplary.  The presentation and the tastes were mind-boggling.  Yet just as impressive was the condition of the restaurant.  We sat at the kitchen bar overlooking the chefs.  The cooking equipment looked brand new and the staff were impeccably dressed.  The washroom was like a work of art and fastidiously clean.  This scenario is a common feature of all successful businesses in my industry… they consistently do the things a 12-year old could do in regards to the small details.  It’s a bit of a paradox, that only top restaurants can do the simplest things.  So many focus on the major things but neglect the little things.  It’s no wonder that almost 50% of restaurants go bankrupt or change hands within two years.  The failed entrepreneurs may be good managers but they were focused on the wrong things.  “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”, wrote management guru Peter Drucker.

 Part of the reason these small details are so important today is due to the sophistication of the consumer. People eat out more than ever and they become excellent judges of what is a good and what is a bad restaurant. They may not be fully conscious of the little faults they see, like a dirty entrance or a smudged mirror, but I believe these things register in an unconscious way – subliminal. Without knowing why, their experience at the restaurant doesn’t satisfy. They never think of going there the next time they choose a place to dine. End of story. Another failed business.

The Other Ingredient Crucial for Success  

These days, looking after the details is certainly imperative for surviving in the hospitality business, but it is not the “be all and end all.”  There is also another element which is critical. I’d compare this last secret as akin to someone preparing a fine meal of meat, potatoes and fresh vegetables and presenting it to someone.  The meal would be lacking slightly, a bit dry perhaps, unimaginative.  Enter a great chef and voila a superb sauce is added to the plate.  Suddenly all the flavours are brought together, richer and tastier.  In my business that “sauce” is creating ambience and ensuring a pervading pleasant attitude.  After successfully mastering the small details one must also add some atmospheric warmth, and then, friendliness.  First, in designing the restaurant you must decide what you want it to look like.  “A picture is like a game of cards.  You must figure out from the very beginning what you will have at the end; everything must be worked backwards and always be finished before it is begun,” Henri Matisse.  That’s why it’s necessary to have an interior designer to create some drawings and elevations of your restaurant so you can have a true vision of what yo want. Only then can you create the ideal ambience.  Hiring a sound person is also important for ensuring the place is quiet, and music is evenly distributed.  Once all the elements are considered it’s time to work with your construction supervisor and develop a critical path – this entails setting a target opening date and working backwards to the start of your project.  Then, stay involved and obsess over the small construction details like wood finishes, lighting, tiles, etc.

Now you’re open and it’s time to put the finishing touches on your “secret sauce”.  You train your staff and emphasize one rule which can never be violated:  they must always be friendly to guests and one another(this latter part of the rule is imperative because being friendly to each other engenders a positive attitude in the workplace and helps when it’s time for staff to interact with customers).  Creating a lively, welcoming attitude is the last piece of the ambience puzzle.  Friendliness must be ingrained into your business’s

DNA.  “We have one powerful business rule.  It is concentrated on one word:  courtesy,” proclaimed the founder of Wells Fargo Bank (1984), Henry Wells.  To me, this quote speaks to the overriding necessity of a good attitude as a condition for success. In any business that depends on customers regularly frequenting their establishment you better treat each customer like someone special – a VIP. 

Returning to Peter Drucker, I add his statement that, “Business has only two basic functions:  marketing and innovation.”  Creating your menu, and your ambience is all part of your effort to separate yourself from competitors.  It is also expressed as your unique value proposition which is what gets people in the door, and hopefully coming back – this is also known as your “USP”(Unique selling proposition)...that which makes you stand out from the crowd(See  the “Blue Ocean Strategy” article from the Harvard Business Review).  This is the innovation, the creativity, of which Drucker speaks. But in and of itself it is not enough.

The flip side of this innovation task is the marketing function.  Many people believe marketing consists of promotion and advertising.  They are wrong.  Everything you do in business is marketing – it’s answering the phone, it’s greeting a customer, it’s upselling a bottle of wine or a dessert.  It starts with a strategy, then a message like a slogan or special offer, then it’s a plan, and ultimately it’s followed through by staff at your location.  As an example, my very successful pub operation has a tag-line that says “Guelph’s Meeting Place.”  We try to ingrain that phrase in people’s minds.  When someone phones for a reservation they are asked if their visit is something special. My staff are instructed to ask a single customer, upon entering the lobby of the pub, “Are you meeting someone?”. On our radio ads we always finish with the tag-line, “Guelph’s Meeting Place.”.  And the final part of the marketing function at the pub is to ensure people felt this is a place where they are happy to bring family, friends, and/or business associates, because they were treated with great courtesy and welcoming, friendly attitudes. The end result? Their visit will be meaningful and pleasant.

Small details attended to, a warm ambience established, all suffused with friendly “sauce” – it’s a winning formula!