The Top Four Work Styles of Successful Independent Restaurant Owners
If only there was an aptitude test for restaurant management. You can’t
become an astronaut, let alone be accepted to college, graduate or
professional school, without being tested for your ability to handle
the demands of the endeavor. Certainly, running a restaurant is a
challenging feat in its own right and no place for lightweights. If
this weren’t the case, we wouldn’t be able to fill a dozen magazines a
year with content on how to do it well.
In fact, there are characterisitcs — call them work styles — that seem
to be prevalent among successful startup restaurateurs. This article is
a summary of an assessment study conducted by Cleveland-based
personality assessment firm PsyMax Solutions, to learn more about what
defines “the right stuff” in succeeding as restaurant owner and
operator. All of the subjects in this study are subscribers of
Restaurant Startup & Growth magazine/members of RestaurantOwner.com.
If you’re lucky, you have already developed these critical traits;
however, as our motto says, “a good restaurateur is always learning.”
You can certainly shore up any weaknesses you might have. Thus, the
article doesn’t only note the work styles of successful restaurant
entrepreneurs, but also steps you can take to strengthen these
qualities in yourself.
It takes a special person to be a startup restaurateur. Long, arduous
hours of work and tremendous dedication are the norm rather than the
exception. The role of a restaurateur often involves taking on a great
deal of personal risk as well as facing and overcoming daily
challenges. Furthermore, dealing with ambiguity and acting with a sense
of urgency are critical yet regular activities.
What characteristics set up a person for success in this business? Why
do some folks thrive while others barely survive? Certainly there are a
number of factors beyond the control of the individual. Capitalization,
market forces and competition often control our fate. Also, our
business experience, skill and education, whether they are a product of
formal training or the school of hard knocks, may affect the scorecard.
But often the difference between win and lose comes down to attitude
More than 200 individuals completed the PsyMax Solutions assessment
and, of those, 168 were owners of at least one independent restaurant.
Within that group, 95 individuals who reported operating their own
restaurant(s) and maintaining profitability at or above industry
standards were deemed successful owner-operators for the purpose of the
study. Within the group of successful owner-operators, 67 percent were
male and 33 percent were female. Furthermore, 74 percent reported more
than 10 years of experience in the restaurant industry, with 50 percent
of the group reporting more than 20 years of restaurant experience.
This group of individuals represented a range of cuisine concepts with
35 percent being traditional family restaurants, 21 percent Italian or
pizza, 16 percent fine dining, 6 percent Asian, and 5 percent seafood.
Others included breakfast
and coffee shops, steakhouses, and establishments offering French,
Greek and Mexican cuisines.
The Four Key Work Styles
The following is a list of the top four work styles that emerged as
characteristics of these successful restaurant owners-operators.
Creative. Sixty-six percent of successful restaurant owners-operators
in the study showed “high” or “very high” creative scores. Creative
individuals tend to both generate and embrace new ideas and new ways of
doing things. In fact, they will often challenge the status quo.
Additionally, those with above-average creative scores are generally
able to adapt to change in rather resourceful ways, and they willingly
accept calculated risks. While it is clear to see why creativity is
vital in the restaurant business, highly creative restaurateurs should
be aware that they may need to guard against taking unnecessary risks,
changing merely for the sake of change, or rejecting well-tested
Independent. Sixty-two percent received above-average independent
scores. Individuals who show high scores in this area enjoy autonomy.
Independent individuals have a sense of courage and generally engage in
self-directed activities, charting their own courses of action.
Moreover, independent individuals tend to rely on themselves rather
than depend on others. As a restaurateur, an independent work style
will be helpful in planning and growing a business in a self-sufficient
way. At the same time, a strongly independent individual may hesitate
to seek help from others or admit a true vulnerability. Independent
individuals must be cautious of appearing as mavericks and accept
support when appropriate.
Influential. Fifty-eight percent earned above-average influential
scores. Influential individuals exercise authority with ease and enjoy
being in control. They are eager to take charge, and they are usually
comfortable exerting leadership and providing direction. Of course, to
be an effective leader, it is important to avoid abusing power or
coming across as intimidating. If managed effectively, however, an
influential work style will benefit restaurateurs as they manage, lead
and provide direction to others.
Collaborative. Fifty-six percent of successful owners-operators
demonstrated “high” or “very high” collaborative scores. Those with
collaborative work styles tend to act cooperatively. They work to
foster win-win interactions with others and strive to create synergy by
accomplishing goals and objectives through teamwork. As restaurateurs
build and manage their teams, a collaborative work style is essential
in establishing solid partnerships and effective, cohesive work groups.
Highly collaborative individuals must keep in mind, however, that while
a focus on maintaining team harmony is advantageous, one may need to
guard against giving in too easily or appearing hesitant to take an
How These Characteristics Relate to Our Business
The importance of these four work styles may not come as a surprise to
you. Consider each of the four work styles as they relate to the
restaurant industry, and specifically to your role as a restaurateur.
The National Restaurant Association has reported that more than 70
percent of food-and-beverage operations are independent, single-unit
restaurants. So what is it about your restaurant that makes it
different from all the rest? As an independent owner-operator, you are
responsible for creating and driving your concept. While there are
certainly many industry “best practices” to guide you, there are a
multitude of issues and questions that will fall squarely on your
shoulders and involve your discretion. What type of menu will you offer
in your restaurant? What atmosphere will you create to draw and keep
customers? The list seems endless.
When making decisions such as these and defining strategies for your
restaurant, some amount of creativity is imperative. While
tried-and-true methods of handling issues and addressing problems may
work, showing resourcefulness and seizing opportunities is often in
your best interest. Although some amount of caution is necessary,
embracing and initiating change is often the best way to gain a
competitive edge, attract business and exceed customer expectations.
Being creative often means being the trendsetter and allowing others to
follow the model that you develop rather than being a latecomer trying
to catch up with the crowd. For instance, two years ago, diets
incorporating low-carbohydrate foods became popular in the United
States. Accordingly, certain restaurants began to offer “low-carb”
menus to attract the many individuals following the trend. Scores of
restaurants joined the bandwagon. In fact, the National Restaurant
Association reported that more than 60 percent of quick-service
restaurants now offer low-carb items on their menus, although there is
indication that the low-carb trend has waned. The first movers
attracted attention and patronage at the critical phase of the trend,
and capitalized on it while competitors struggled to catch the wave. It
is innovation, imagination, openness to change, and willingness to
accept reasonable risk that frequently leads to new opportunities and
exciting results for restaurateurs.
Independence is just as important to a restaurateur. In fact, it is
likely that your independent work style may have been a key factor in
your decision to start and run your own restaurant. As an
owner-operator, you know that the nature of your work involves working
with a high degree of autonomy. You have freedom in thought and action
and, at the same time, you must be ready and willing to take full
responsibility for outcomes.
An independent style drives you to maintain your own identity, and
makes it likely that you enjoy all that goes along with being your own
boss and running your restaurant as you see fit. This is important
because as an owner-operator, many decisions will fall on you alone;
you will need to both set and follow your own course of action.
Accordingly, demonstrating leadership is necessary in setting direction
for your restaurant and your team. It is through your influential work
style that you can mobilize your staff toward the challenging goals
that you establish. Your role can be compared to that of an orchestra
director, guiding members of the orchestra as they each play unique
streams of notes to ultimately produce a harmonious blend of sound and
thus, a successful performance. Likewise, in your restaurant, you must
show leadership in coordinating the unique roles of your staff members
to ensure positive experiences for your guests. Although each
individual carries out a specialized function (e.g., greeting guests,
preparing food), your leadership serves to ensure that the staff is
synchronized and each individual is fulfilling his/her
Above and beyond coordinating efforts, your role as a leader enables
you to motivate your staff, to encourage your team members to
consistently do their best. It is up to you to instill in your team
your mission. Establish your restaurant’s values, policies and cultural
norms, and empower them to share in your vision.
Finally, despite the importance of your role as a leader, it is likely
that you have spent time working alongside members of your team. Most
of you can recall instances when you filled in as a server or a cook
without hesitation. It is even probable that you have bused tables or
washed dishes at your restaurant alongside the staff to ensure that
your team made it through a difficult day. This collaborative effort
and your willingness to help the team shows your staff that you are
ready to roll up your sleeves and chip in when it matters. At the same
time, you model this behavior for your staff. By seeing you engage in
cooperative behaviors, they will better understand that you value such
actions. They will also see the importance of the team effort and will
be apt to work in cooperation with others for the team to achieve
So what does all of this mean to you? We’ve established the importance
of these four work styles, but what if you fall short in one or more of
these areas? Work style development is certainly possible. Below, you
will find some suggestions for leveraging already strong work style
behaviors and building on those work styles that require improvement.
If You Need to Be More Creative…
Practice brainstorming. When trying to solve a problem that may have
emerged at your restaurant, start by generating a long list of ideas
that you can later pare down. The purpose here is to generate, not
evaluate, ideas. Try this activity on your own or with a brainstorming
group. You might want to include some of your staff members in this
activity. Do not think about constraints or limits as you generate your
list of ideas; instead, just think of all the options that you can.
Imagine the ideal and all the possible routes that could get you there.
Realistically assess risk. Thinking creatively requires considering
solutions with no guarantees and some degree of risk. As you are faced
with business decisions, realistically assess the positive and negative
consequences of taking a risk. Evaluate the likelihood of both good and
bad outcomes so you don’t unnecessarily avoid taking chances.
Make time for creativity. Make a point to jot down novel or innovative
ideas that pertain to your restaurant as they come to you throughout
the day. In addition, spend some time appreciating the creativity of
others. Visit a new restaurant in your area or take a drive for dinner
at a recommended spot. Enjoy yourself and take in your surroundings;
something you see or experience may inspire a new idea for your own
If You Need to Be More Independent…
Establish an independent identity. Although being part of the team is
important, it is also important to develop a self-identity separate
from that of your team. Practice tactics for independence: Form your
opinion before asking others, voice a dissenting opinion to encourage
discussion, and foster healthy debate rather than conforming quickly to
maintain harmony. Work toward acceptance of some amount of controversy
rather than consistently seeking acceptance or approval.
Openly share ideas and intentions. Be proactive in conversations and
meetings with others. Bring forward your recommendations or thoughts
during such interactions. Consistently provide input and share your
unique ideas with your staff and colleagues. Hold yourself accountable.
Publicly state what you intend to accomplish and by when. Then, stick
to your personal goals and make things happen.
Increase your power base. Acquire new expertise. Consider taking a
seminar or reading up on something new that will benefit your business.
Work to become more connected to other restaurateurs who may be able to
share valuable information on their successes. Tie new information and
ideas to the success of your business. Determine how you can use new
knowledge to set challenging goals for yourself and achieve results.
If You Need to Be More Influential…
Create a balance. It is important for you to be comfortable exercising
authority and making decisions. However, it is a good leadership
strategy to balance a top-down style of telling and directing with a
bottom-up style of listening and questioning. Create an open climate in
your restaurant that fosters honest, two-way dialogue with your
employees. By listening to input from others, you will encourage a
culture that promotes information-sharing, and you will be better
equipped to lead your team.
Balance action with analysis. Authoritativeness is often associated
with a strong preference to quickly bring issues to closure and move
forward. Ensure that you understand the nature of the problem
confronting you or your restaurant before you decide on a solution.
Work to be well-informed. To be effective, you must analyze issues
thoroughly and know what you are talking about before persuading others
to follow along.
Observe other leaders in action. Consider shadowing or observing a
fellow restaurateur who you know to be a success in this arena. Pay
attention to the behaviors and actions that enhance this person’s
leadership influence. Watch how this individual motivates his/her team
to work together and achieve high-level results. Then, model these
behaviors in your own role.
If You Need to Be More Collaborative…
Clarify the roles of team members. Discuss individual roles within your
team. Together, determine how each member contributes to the overall
mission of your restaurant and the atmosphere you are working to create
for guests. List how you can provide support to each team member in
his/her efforts. Also, list ways that team members may be able to
support you. Follow up with team members to ensure they are receiving
the support they need from the team.
Provide clear feedback. Keep in mind that people have different
communication styles and ways of approaching work. When
misunderstandings arise, be careful to treat everyone in your
restaurant with respect. Provide feedback to staff members by
discussing behaviors instead of making judgments about people. Also, be
deliberate in providing positive feedback when things are going well
and thank your team members for their effective performance and effort.
Focus on opportunities to cooperate. Think about ways you could offer
increased assistance to your key associates and demonstrate a
cooperative style. Check in with your staff from time to time to ensure
that they have the resources they need to do their jobs well. Show your
willingness to work together with your staff toward common objectives.
We’re All Works in Progress
Wherever you find yourself in your restaurant management or ownership
career, keep in mind that your personal development is ongoing. Whether
you’ve been a restaurateur for years and years or whether you are just
starting out, keep in mind that you (just like your restaurant) are a
work in progress.
Think about the effects of making improvements in just one work style
area. Small changes could result in improved relationships with your
staff members, greater customer appeal for your restaurant, or even an
increased bottom line. Set some specific, measurable goals for yourself
and tie them to the outcomes you want to achieve. Consider asking for
feedback from others as you work to transform your plan into a set of
effective work style habits that will become part of your everyday
There are a variety of reasons you might have chosen to be a
restaurateur. You might be fascinated with food, or enjoy providing
pleasant experiences for others. You might have worked in a restaurant
and decided that you want to run the show. It just might have felt like
a good fit. In any event, no one comes to any job or profession without
aspects of their personality and work style that could use fine-tuning.
Constant self-improvement will not only make you more successful, but
keep the journey interesting.
Restaurant Startup & Growth
The author, Maria R. Louis-Slaby, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and
Development of PsyMax
Solutions, LLC. PsyMax Solutions has authored a white paper entitled
"Managerial Hiring in the 21st Century: Using Expert Systems to Optimize
Decision Making." Download a free copy by