Category: Food for Thought

13- Apr2018
Posted By: Tracy Lawler

JGL’s Roots – A Tribute to Our Founder

Most people who meet me and learn what I do for a living ask “how did you get into this”? My answer is in a very circular (yet organic) way. It all started with my dad James Gates Lawler (yes – JGL… I know – not very creative). Jim worked for two of the “big three” in his career and was instrumental in developing cultural business for Restaurant Associates in the 1970’s and 80’s. As a teenager I used to love going into Manhattan and eating at all the great restaurants he had access to. In 1983 he ventured out on his own and started JGL Management Services. Although his first clients were city clubs, he quickly decided to adjust course and started working with museums and performing arts centers. A lifelong cultural aficionado, Jim had a unique understanding of both the cultural institution guest experience and the way in which food service providers viewed these accounts. Jim and my mother Barbara were always going to museums, symphonies, and operas; as his business flourished I would hear about the food service experience as often as the cultural experience. He started his business in an era when many museum directors still did not understand the value of visitor food service; to his great frustration many a client still wanted to relegate their eateries to the basement or some other out of the way location.

I worked in restaurants all through high school and college and loved the business. I graduated from college, went through a restaurant management training program and after several years reluctantly decided the lifestyle did not suit my needs. Although my dad and I had talked about working together, it seemed unlikely as I exited the restaurant business and moved on to publishing. I loved my magazine publishing career; I rose to General Manager of several national publications and got my MBA from NYU along the way. A funny thing happened though – after the birth of my second child I was visiting my dad and offered to help him with some financial projections for one of his clients. After a few months of doing this I think a lightbulb went off for both of us. He needed help because his business was growing, I was looking for a new challenge and no longer wanted to commute into NYC from Princeton, and voila – we found a way to work together!

I worked with my dad from 1998 until 2010 when he retired. Along the way he taught me everything he knew and was always so generous with his time and experience; he always responded to me as a professional while I must admit I sometimes responded like a daughter. I use my maiden name professionally so over the years I have run into many people who say “Lawler”? are you related to Jim Lawler? When I respond that he is my dad, they invariably launch into a great story beginning with “I remember when your dad…” He is so well respected and admired in the community and I always love hearing stories about the early days of the business. Just last week I spoke to a food service operator in Atlanta who related how well Jim ran an RFP process and how fair he was to all involved. While Jim has retired, he still loves hearing about the business and to this day we frequently end up talking shop when we have dinner together. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work so closely with Jim and to have taken over a business that I have such as passion for!  Third generation anyone? (That’s for my kids!)

10- Apr2018
Posted By: David McCallum

Smile, though your heart is breaking…

I grew up in the restaurant industry. My father had a small inn, 20 rooms in total, along with a fine dining restaurant on a small island in the Chesapeake. It’s cliché, but true…the restaurant industry is in my blood. For the better part of three decades I have either been a waiter, busser, host, manager, bartender or General Manager (or Senior Associate at a swanky foodservice consultancy, 😉 ). Over those years, I have worked with some of the most wonderfully endearing folks that I’ve ever come across and I’m dear friends with many of them to this day; however, some people just don’t seem to fit with the foodservice industry.

Let’s face it, whether you are a cashier in a fast food restaurant or a district manager overseeing multiple world class museums, you will frequently find situations come up where you must humble yourself to some very unpleasant people. It’s not the best part of the job, but we all know it’s part of it.

As a manager, customer service training was always one of the most difficult, costly and time consuming aspects of the job. For many institutional foodservice positions where wages are relatively low and tips are not prevalent, staying fully staffed is an infrequent luxury, so it is rare that an operator has the option of holding out for service staff with naturally effervescent personalities who can stay cheery in the face of King Joffrey complaining that there’s something in his food. The vast majority of people don’t have that skill and if someone gets unreasonably upset with them, they will react in what would be considered a perfectly understandable manor in any other circumstance.

So, how can you change your employee’s personality so that they are less likely to react negatively in these situations? You can’t. The Geneva Convention won’t let you. It may seem obvious, but many very competent operators spend an inordinate amount of time telling their employees to “Smile more! Act happier! Be friendlier!”, s though the problem was that they just hadn’t thought of that yet. Though these tactics might show some short term success, eventually employees revert to their natural state.

In recent years, GM’s have become responsible for “creating a positive work environment”, which is absolutely important, but if you are walking into an existing business that already has a less than positive atmosphere, turning that around can take years of painstaking work. What can you do to make a difference right now?

Plenty. The key is less about focusing on the employee and more about focusing on the customer experience. A good leader needs to be able to identify points of service and policy that could create tension between customers and service staff and eliminate them. If customers have to wait in long lines, they will be in a bad mood when they finally get to the front. They will most likely take out their frustration on your service staff, who will get worn down after badgering about a situation that they have little control over. The problem isn’t the grumpy customer or the grumpy employee…it’s the line. Why does it take so long to get through? Does the menu need to be reduced? Is there too much customization at the station? Too many decisions for each customer to make?

The price of creamer goes up. An operator decides to charge 15 cents per single creamer to recoup the cost. The customer is flustered because he has never had to pay for a creamer before. The cashier is flustered because she has to deal with this situation over and over again, every day. Is the 15 cent creamer really worth the loss of business? The employee turnover? Couldn’t that added cost just be folded into the overall coffee pricing so that the customer doesn’t feel nickel and dimed?

Your restaurant has run out of a couple of wines on the wine list, but most of them are correct, so you tell the wait staff what has run out and consider the situation dealt with. Inevitably, those wines are ordered at some point and the waiter is forced to tell the customer, “I’m sorry, we are actually out of that one tonight”. Perhaps the waiter should have initially come to the table and told their guests that some of the wines were not available, but why were they put in that position to begin with?

Managers get busy, they have to deal with countless problems every day and they often have to prioritize which ones are dealt with first, but many, many negative customer service situations come out of these types of situations. In all of these scenarios, the employee was placed in the line of fire to fix a problem that should have been dealt with before service started. Those employees who are customer service super stars will be able to deftly parry these attacks for a while but, eventually, even they will succumb.

What’s the best way to identify these little seeds of tension? Ask your frontline staff. They know and they will be more than willing to vocalize them to you. Don’t just ask them what the problems are, ask them for a solution and if you can delegate the implementation of that solution to them, all the better. You have not only addressed the point of tension between the customer and staff, but you have made your employee integrally involved in solving the problem which gives them ownership of that solution’s success.

Most human’s don’t like to be yelled at or condescended to, especially if they aren’t responsible for the problem. Trying to train perfectly reasonable people to react in an unreasonable way is a losing battle. Much larger and more expeditious dividends will be paid if instead, you focus on eliminating the confrontation before it starts.