“What’s the hardest thing about business?”
The question was posed by a Middlesex Community College hospitality student. I was the guest speaker. I had asked if there were any final questions. Things had gone swimmingly — previous questions mere softballs. But as the class waited for my response, I felt like that confused floppy-eared puppy, furrowed brow, head tilted. I had nothing.
“What’s hard” would have been simpler, but no. She asked for the top of the list, the hardest, the very pinnacle of hard things.
Years of endless possibilities spun in my head. The hours, detail hell, the inadequate labor force, the expectation of omnipresent precision, problematic guests and remaining kind, shortsighted politics, ever-changing regulations, ignoring the tease of the bar. All are hard.
As I remained without the ultimate answer, the lame response I gave was that nothing has been insurmountable — although I avoided saying, “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” I have never actually repeated that worn saying with any real conviction.
This was not one of those times when I thought of a great answer moments later. The question haunted me.
Weeks later, my epiphany occurred while planning to replace a second chef in a few months’ time. The compromise we’d made in hiring each had proved painful. And there it was. “Compromise.” The oft challenge of staying true to your values and standards while accepting the best option available. Serving the whole environment while settling for less, with only faint hope in your heart, is really, really hard. I have implored many a manager to love each employee until the day they are gone. This is the only way to maximize results.
Training new chefs is both daunting and par for the restaurant course. I always say that the great ones are nearly always either on their way up or on the way out. Mine is the domain of youthfulness. Too often as leaders seeking a higher standard we inevitably become faced with “can’t” or “won’t.” Fundamentally, the nature of deficiencies is of little matter. It’s results that matter. Systems matter. Team matters. The commitment to doing things in accordance with proven success matters, and yet too many can’t or won’t. They insist on their way. They take shortcuts. They either settle for less or are desperate for validation. Arrogant or insecure, they often don’t listen.
In business, we are too often forced to accept a compromised standard in the short term while we better plan for the future. Long-term success strategizes for tomorrow. Both of these chefs had previously failed at attempted ownership. There’s no shame in that. The harsh reality is that business itself is hard, and most chefs lack the gravitas to make it on their own. We ultimately paired them, thinking they might complement each other while using lessons learned — one had a solid business foundation to build upon with OK culinary skills, the other an artful comprehension that I dream about. Then, they barely spoke. The head chef would forsake quality for short-term profit. He mistakenly thought that working really hard compensates for a lack of staff accountability and training. Meanwhile, the sous chef, as opposite, overmanaged, criticized and lacked patience. Where weak leadership normalizes lower standards, intolerance and arrogance alienates the team, without whom we are doomed.
When the overworked head chef departed, we knowingly promoted his sous to the level of his failure — the Peter Principle at work. Why, you might ask, isn’t his failure my own? Here’s why. He leveraged the situation for a promotion and pay increase. Had we refused, he would have quit, leaving us grossly understaffed in an instant while creating great stress and risk. So while he lied to himself about his readiness, we in turn lied to ourselves, and then, uncomfortably, to our staff.
We asked for their cooperation, to give the new “chef” a chance, to trust. “He has earned it” and “for the guests.” It’s funny, but in these situations, the staff knows. His failure was inevitable despite the support and coaching we provided along the way. As leaders, had we not previously earned the respect of the team, they would have resisted our “lie” all the while as we planned behind closed doors for his departure.
Soon after, and to no one’s surprise, the second chef quit with no notice —another failure on his résumé — and further evidence of the lacking integrity that is required to inspire others.
Through the years, we do what we must, often against what we have learned is just, staying true to the big picture.
This, dear student, is the hardest of things.
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories which you can read in each and every issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine.