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Common Foodsense: Develop the Right Infrastructure to Avoid Multi-unit Madness

I once quit a head chef’s job in order to write a cookbook that was going to make me rich and famous. I was not particularly interested in becoming either, but I was thinking of a concomitant benefit: it would be nice to be able to lie on the couch all day in my bathrobe. I quickly found that without an external structure to my day, I could skip the fortune and fame and all the bothersome work to get there. This message comes to you today from my couch.

I suspect this response to complete freedom is not so uncommon. Most jobs exist within a motivational superstructure built of rewards and punishments, with the tasks that trigger them at least somewhat well defined. Do this and do it well, earn both the esteem of your colleagues and ermine mudflaps for your Maserati. Do it badly, earn collective scorn and have your Yugo repossessed.

The larger the organization, in general, the more closely this structure is detailed. Take a look at a Craigslist ad for a cook for a small, single-unit family restaurant, and compare it to an ad for Cook III at any random Hilton. The former will ask for two years’ experience; the latter will ask for your blood type, color preference, and your performance evaluation from second-semester kindergarten.

I used to use these antipodal HR concoctions to give my students a view of their possible futures. The stereotypical characterization would be that on one side, you work in a stultifying, soul-killing cage of regulations constructed by undead HR professionals. On the other, you have a joyous, creative, sex-drug-and-TV-contract-filled life, until this anarchy dooms your employer and your prefrontal cortex and leaves you living in a cardboard shack.

Both of these opinions are, of course, fundamentally correct. With the big organizations you have predictability, in the way your duties are defined, the way you advance in your career, and the way you get paid. Your schedule tends to have some coherence, and not change from minute to minute. You tend to have (gasp!) benefits. What you don’t have is rock ‘n’ roll. 

In the indies, you have the energy and creativity of a place where no two nights’ menus are the same, where there is constant competition on the line to be the fastest and on the plate to be the coolest, where hours are long, pay is short, and bonuses come in the form of bragging rights. Paid holidays? Sure, you’re going to be working ‘em—we have to pay you. Health benefits? Yes, it’s beneficial to be healthy, but you can go ahead and work when you’re not. 401(k)? My god, we let you drink on the job—isn’t that an investment?

Where these worlds begin to collide is at the opening of the indie’s second unit. All of a sudden there is a need for coordination, either to avoid duplication or to enforce it, depending on the context. If you, now an owner after surviving your hipster career, are looking for cookie-cutter replication to spread your message across the globe, you didn’t fit into the classical indie universe anyway. You obviously learned enough to go incognito, have a beer or two, and get out as quickly as possible.

If, however, you have grown your genius to bursting and you want to bring those seeds of wild creativity to new untrammeled soil, you will now be throwing your whole soul in twice as many directions as it went before. Without a few strong cords to hold it together, the laws of physics will have their way.

There was a French chef—damned if I can ever remember his name, but I want to meet him—who was on the road to becoming what is now called an Emperor Chef, with multiple units in multiple states. He was the titular head chef of each of them, which meant, of course, that he would barely cook. Maybe he could manage one day a month in each place, but someone else was always in charge of the production. He got to spend the bulk of his time in front of a computer, looking for help and arguing with the next landlord. So he sold all of his restaurants but one and went back into the kitchen.

But for some, the idea of painting on a lot of different canvases is attractive, even if others have to do the brushwork. So if you don’t mind sitting back, letting others run with your ideas and overseeing loosely from a distance, you should look for a balance between indie anarchy and corporate entropy. You don’t need to define every movement made by every person, and you can skip some of the dumb stuff that is included by big companies. “Must be able to speak, read and understand basic cooking directions.” Really? You need to write that down? 

You do, however, need some structure. There may be no similarity of menus at all, and that’s fine, but if there is no similarity in the ops reports, inventory control, hiring practice and even how often you get your hoods cleaned, then you’re suddenly trying to speak 10 different languages and you will spend so much time in translation that you won’t get anything done. This is where you need to decide where your heart is: Develop the infrastructure that allows you to automate everything else, and concentrate on what you love.

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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