8 Management Tips From Independent Restaurants

Woman hanging an OPEN sign in the window of her restaurant.

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Independent restaurants and local businesses have been making a big impact on the hospitality sector in recent years. Driving the “farm to fork” and “eat local” movements, they’ve taken hospitality back to its roots to create a more community-driven dining experience.

So, what management tips can larger industry players learn from these establishments?

8 Management tips big industry players can learn from independent restaurants

For the most part, owner-operated businesses are much more flexible and can adapt at short notice. They can provide a friendlier environment for staff and customers alike, and can have a very well-defined brand identity.

Here are 8 ways in which larger businesses can emulate the successes of independent restaurants:

1. Create a positive workplace culture through open and honest communication

African American couple managing restaurant

Creating a workplace culture that works for everyone is much easier said than done. Although this is often high on the list of priorities for employers, many stumble to achieve the delicate workplace balance that boosts everyone’s performance. 

The hospitality industry has a notoriously high staff turnover rate, and money isn’t always the reason. Many staff quit because they don’t like their work hours, feel unappreciated, see no career opportunities, or simply feel burned out. 

A positive work culture can help alleviate many of the issues that lead to employee turnover.

What is a positive work culture?

Work culture includes the values, beliefs, and attitudes that propel an organization forward.

A positive work culture is characterized by transparency and communication and is one in which employees feel at liberty to discuss their concerns with management.

Positive work cultures experience many benefits, including better performance and productivity.

Since owner-operated restaurants tend to have smaller teams, they often end up addressing potential issues or concerns more quickly. Larger chains can learn from this by communicating clearly and often, as well as by providing managers with tools (such as real-time labor insights) that will allow them to stay flexible and manage in the moment.

2. Prioritize staff retention over new hires

Smiling blonde restaurant owner

Hiring new staff costs time and money – in fact, almost always more than it would cost to retain an employee in the same position. That’s why it’s in the business’s best interest to hold on to good employees

Independent restaurants tend to be more people-focused, with key staff members often being valuable brand representatives.

For example, losing a chef can be seriously detrimental to your business, especially if your chef’s reputation is the driving force behind your brand. As such, these businesses tend to do all they can to keep hold of great team members.

According to a national study of Human Resource Practices, restaurants that invested and improved their HR practices had an annual turnover rate of just 26%. Their employees also stayed with the company for an average of 6.3 years. 

Investing in your staff will always pay off, so rather than focusing on new hires, set up incentives to keep your current staff onboard and excited about your brand. From specialized, in-house training sessions to team-building exercises, there are plenty of ways to keep your employees keen.

3. Offer opportunities for career advancement

Your staff is more likely to be productive if your business can provide professional growth. This is a very powerful motivator and will encourage your team to aim toward something that’s more than just the next paycheck.

In particular, pay attention to your most dedicated and self-driven team members and promote them to higher positions when possible. Independent and owner-operated restaurants tend to do this well.

For example, a seasoned member of the waiting staff can be promoted to front-of-house (FOH) manager, while an experienced bartender can be promoted to bar manager.

Use your staff’s job tenure to your advantage — after all, it’s better to keep experienced staff on board than to lose them to your competitors. On top of that, by promoting in-house, you maintain continuity with other employees and clients alike, whereas bringing in someone new can cause disruption.

Frequent management changes can also dilute your restaurant’s mission, vision, and identity, which can harm the future of your establishment. So, aim to keep your existing staff interested by creating an environment in which they can grow and realistically rise through the ranks.

4. Delegate minor maintenance jobs to in-house staff

Restaurant worker sweeping front step

Owner-operated restaurants don’t usually bring in outside staff to handle facility management. On one hand, this saves them money on third-party vendors; on the other hand, in-house staff is more familiar with the way things work at the restaurant.

For example, a bartender that is invested in your business can learn basic cellar management responsibilities. This way, you won’t need an engineer call-out every time there’s a minor problem with a beer line.

Of course, there are some exceptions. One of them is stock taking, where hiring a professional to handle an inventory audit will yield more accurate results. Another is specialized equipment maintenance, which is best handled by trained experts — especially when it comes to regular health and safety checks.

5. Encourage creativity among team members

Woman in apron packing to go containers

Here’s another management tip big industry players can learn from independent restaurants: up-and-coming businesses are often forced to think outside the box, which allows them to navigate the shifting economic currents. Create an environment that encourages your staff to think creatively and to find better solutions to everyday problems. 

One way to do this is by giving your staff more freedom while still requiring them to follow an essential process. This improves their problem-solving and helps with the upskilling required for potential senior positions — without compromising the essence of your brand.

Avoid micromanagement. Give your staff the opportunity to be self-sufficient and to follow the processes you’ve laid out. This will help free up your managers to focus on more important things that only they can do.

6. Value your return customers

Local restaurants have stronger bonds with their communities and, implicitly, their customers. It’s a partly matter of survival because, unlike big chain restaurants, these venues rely heavily on return customers to stay afloat. 

There are several tried and true ways to encourage return customers, such as loyalty cards and discounts. But the most efficient method is, coincidentally, also free: coaching your staff to create a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.

Something as simple as greeting return customers by name or remembering their order will make them feel welcome and encourage them to come back. 

Plus, they’ll be more likely to tell their friends and family about a restaurant that makes them feel at home. Remember: some of the best advertising is word-of-mouth.

And, again, it all comes down to your staff. Employees that have been around for a long time are more likely to remember loyal customers by face. This creates a feeling of continuity and community that makes the customers feel valued and welcome. 

7. Build better public relations

Smiling male barista in apron

Although independent restaurants are unlikely to have a designated PR team, their owners and managers always appreciate the importance of maintaining good public relationships. This includes building better relationships with your staff, customers, vendors, or your immediate community.

For example, independent restaurants are more likely to have a wider network of suppliers. This enables them to diversify their supply chain and establish ties to their community by offering local produce.

Customers often like to know where their food is coming from and will pay more for a meal that was sourced locally. As a bonus, using several local suppliers allows such a restaurant to avoid catastrophic delays or shortages.

Also, aim to integrate your business into the local community, whether by hiring staff locally, making your venue available for local events, or offering VTO as an employee benefit. That way, you’ll create a network of loyal customers that may assist in your restaurant’s survival during difficult times. 

8. Use your strengths to define your identity

Smiling bakery owner holding OPEN sign

One study looking at why restaurants fail highlights the fact that successful venues have a well-defined business concept that relies on more than just the food they serve.

Indeed, having a concept is deemed more important to success than having a well-set-up strategy.

Owner-operated restaurants tend to have a more people-oriented approach to business, which allows their staff to become brand ambassadors. Rather than hiding your staff behind a set of corporate rules — let them shine. They can help express what your brand stands for. 

Having a clear identity will also reduce upkeep costs, such as unnecessary renovations or redesigns. 

Learning from successful independent restaurants

Restaurant window up close

Independent, owner-operated restaurants are more nimble and adaptable thanks to their size and lack of corporate oversight. Luckily, there are several management tips big industry players can learn from them without having to downsize the business.

One of the biggest lessons is to look after your staff. Create an environment in which they can thrive, and you’ll be able to enjoy the many benefits they’ll bring to your business. 

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Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO of Limble CMMS. Limble is a modern, easy-to-use mobile CMMS software that takes the stress and chaos out of maintenance by helping managers organize, automate, and streamline their maintenance operations.

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