Thursday, February 24, 2011

What I've learned from restaurants

Recruiter and fellow blogger David Rose is conducting an interesting experiment via social media. He’s asking the sizeable number of restaurant vets who follow him as YellowDog_01 (his company is Yellow Dog Recruiting) to cite one thing they’ve learned from their years in the business.

Fortunately for guests, owners and fire marshals, I’ve never worked in a restaurant. But there have been plenty of a-ha moments during 30 years of covering it. Perhaps the most important lesson has been one of the major frustrations of my career.

Despite all the stories I’ve written, all of the columns, all of the blogs, all of the tweets, all of the speeches and panel participations, I’ve never been able to smash one of the public’s major misperceptions about the business.
After hearing what I do, acquaintances and even closer connections will rail about the exploitation of restaurants until they start to froth. Usually it starts with the food that chains serve, though the gripers typically indicate they’ve gobbled plenty of it and don’t intend to stop.

Then they shift to how deplorably the industry treats employees. You’d think the taskmasters running child-labor sweatshops in Asia would scare their charges with tales of working in U.S. restaurants. They make restaurant owners sound like they should be wearing Darth Vader get-ups to complete their mean, exploitative bearing.

I’ve come away with a much different impression. I remember visiting the owner of a family restaurant franchisee who proudly took me to see his outlets in rural Ohio one afternoon. At several of the stores, he stopped to ask a few of the younger workers if they’d done their homework yet. His explanation: Someone has to ask.

I think he was the one who told me about the franchisee of a rival chain who paid his high-school-aged hourlies to do their homework at an empty booth before the dinner rush. They could log another hour on the clock if they had their books out, maintained a certain grade average, and didn’t waste the time by gabbing.

Then there were the countless CEOs who I’ve seen ask youngsters during site visits about their families, their performance in last week’s high school game, or whether they’ve made a decision yet about college. Many would often demonstrate a trick they’d learned from their days of working at a restaurant—how to get a good grip on a tray, or how to turn the water pitcher so the ice didn’t plop out when you pour.

Movies are made about coaches or teachers who make a difference in their young charges’ lives. I submit that restaurant employers can and often do exert at least as much of an uplifting, directive influence. Many pick up where parents have left off, teaching the kids fundamental math—like how to make change—or when a pair of pants is too dirty to wear.

And as anyone in the business knows, they impart life skills, like the importance of being on time, committing to a schedule, being clean and presentable, and working with others.

What I’ve learned: The restaurant industry can leave as much of a stamp on young generations as institutions like schools, churches and families. As the National Restaurant Association recently pointed out, half of us will work in a restaurant at one point in our life. Not that many youngsters play sports or attend Bible class.

Fortunately, based on my observations, that influence is overwhelmingly positive.

And that, David, is the biggest thing I’ve taken away from watching restaurants all these years.

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