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Why storytelling matters in your restaurant - staff tips with Eli Feldman

Posted by Emily Tatti on Mar 24, 2016 10:00:00 AM

Eli Feldman is the founder of Clothbound, an exciting new job search website for the restaurant industry, and the owner of Three Princes Consulting. He focuses on two main areas in his training: operations and staffing.  

We wanted to ask about his management training, which led to an interesting chat about empathy in leadership, and why all restaurants should embrace a culture of storytelling. 


Tell me about Clothbound.

Clothbound is a job search and hiring tool specifically for those in the restaurant industry. We just launched six months ago and we’re growing fast. We have about 75 of the top restaurants in New England on our site, and we’re looking to continue growing and moving into other places. 

You’re also the owner of Three Princes Consulting. What do you do there?

My background in general is in restaurant operations. I spent the first 15 years of my career in restaurant operations, primarily in the front of house. After that I stopped working for specific restaurant groups and started a consulting company focused on restaurant operations, particularly hiring, staffing and openings.

When you open a restaurant, you essentially hire a team of consultants: a construction consultant, a design consultant, a chef consultant… but we found that anything to do with culture and people was missing. That was the niche that we filled, and continue to do. 

This all sort of aligned with a period when restaurant tech was becoming a pretty hot topic, so we also became the consulting company you would go to if you wanted to build a piece of restaurant technology but didn’t understand the industry.

What are the main personality traits that a good manager should have?

I would say empathy and tenacity are the two that I look for most in a manager. I think empathy is just an across-the-board requirement for any leadership role, especially in the hospitality industry.

And there aren’t a lot of big wins when it comes to restaurant management. It’s really a story of small victories, and incremental victories. That’s where the tenacity comes in. You have to find a way to recharge based on small victories. 

What advice would you offer a new manager preparing for their first day?

I think we all desire impact. The advice that I often give young first time managers is that no one expects you to make an impact on day one, and honestly you are doing yourself a disservice by trying to make an impact too quickly. There is real value in taking a step back and giving yourself time to learn in an environment before you try to assert. 

"It’s amazing what happens with a group of people when you help them find purpose and meaning in what they’re doing."

The second advice I would offer has to do with hiring and seeking out people. If you’re going to lead a team, try to get yourself as integrated into the selection process as possible. As a young manager, you rely on people recognizing that you have a mandate. Being part of the selection process lets you communicate that without having to do it in a really top-down way.

How should they prepare for pre-shift meetings?

For every one minute that you’re presenting, there should be two minutes of planning. That’s one of the things we don’t think about as managers in restaurants. If you’re standing up in front of your staff for 15 minutes at pre-meal, and you want to have something compelling to talk about, it’s going to take you half an hour to figure out what that is, and how to present it in a compelling and retainable way. 

What are common mistakes you see when it comes to scheduling employee shifts?

I think managers have a tendency to not really understand earnings. In most restaurants, the person who understands the week-to-week or biweekly earnings of a service team is not the person who is scheduling, it’s the person processing payroll. And because we operate in an industry where compensation is not set, we sometimes miss opportunities for pattern recognition.

We are talking about someone's livelihood and you have to look at it in that whole context. So when you’re mocking up a schedule in Excel or Google Docs, keep each new schedule as a separate tab so that it’s really easy to jump back and see what the last three weeks have looked like for that person.

Do you have any secrets to share when it comes to conducting inventory?

If you are counting inventory by yourself, in my opinion you’re doing it wrong. There should be another person there taking down the information. Say you’re doing liquor inventory, and you have a bar-back in your restaurant. If the bartender is on the sheet and the bar-back is counting items on the shelves, then that is actually a pretty cool educational opportunity for the bar-back.

"No one expects you to make an impact on day one... there is real value in taking a step back and giving yourself time to learn. "

In terms of frequency, I know people have different opinions, but I personally think that counting inventories weekly is not a good use of time. If you have a culture that requires you to count that frequently (unless you’re in a really high volume bar environment, which I can appreciate), then that should probably be addressed. 

How can managers cultivate a positive team culture?

Really what that boils down for me is a culture of storytelling. I think that’s something we struggle with in the restaurant industry: creating a legacy of storytelling about the positive things that are happening in the restaurant.

Too often our storytelling is more negative, whether it’s about a night or a guest or a dish. Creating a culture of positive storytelling is really where team culture starts. And it can be tiny things. Facilitate storytelling about staff who don’t normally get attention, like busers and food runners.

Don’t be afraid to elevate the dialogue around what is going on in your restaurant. On one level, you’re selling people food and wine and bringing it to them. On a whole other level, there’s the beauty of walking up to a group of strangers with the desire to make them happier than when you first encountered them.

I think we’re a little timid about elevating our dialogue, but it’s amazing what happens with a group of people when you help them find purpose and meaning in what they’re doing. Ultimately I think that’s something everyone wants from their work.


For restaurant industry news from Eli and his team, like Clothbound on FacebookIf you're hiring staff at your restaurant, or seeking a new position for yourself, take a look at the Clothbound website 

Topics: Hospitality interview, Tips for owners