We hear the words 'thought leadership' thrown around a lot - especially at the moment, with the hospitality industry in such a state of flux. But if there was ever a 'real deal' in thought leadership, Josh Kopel is it.
With his trademark 'shoot from the hip' style, Josh joins us here to talk hospitality trends that need to die, the notoriously high hospitality failure rate, and his big hope for the post-pandemic future.
"We had all misled each other as an industry – for years, my entire career, everybody was always having the best day of their life, and it just wasn’t true. And somebody needed to say something."
Short on time? Jump to the info you need to know:
- How can you run a business strategically in a way that also protects your staff?
- "The pandemic... has illuminated foundational issues in [hospitality]."
- Why do hospitality businesses have such a notoriously high failure rate?
- How do we overcome those challenges?
- How can we improve staff retention rates?
- Which industry trends need to die?
- What does the future hold for hospitality?
What's your background, and how did you get into hospitality?
Actually I graduated from college in marketing [laughs].
But as a teenager, the first place I ever worked was the Alligator Bayou Bar in Louisiana. The moment I walked into the bar, I knew I would spend the rest of my life in hospitality. I fell in love with the industry.
Plus, I saw hospitality as being something that was universally revered. If you say you work in a restaurant, it piques people’s interest. They’re riveted, and fascinated.
Food is a universal currency. And I knew that in trading in that, it would touch every other industry I was interested in. But I got in like everybody else – started at the bottom and clawed my way up.
Currently looking for work in hospitality? Get prepared with 'Advice from a manager - how to ace a hospitality interview and trial'.
‘Food is a universal currency’ is a really interesting choice of words – do you find that as you progressed in your career your attitude towards it has become less romantic and more strategic?
As an employer, you realize that you are directly responsible for the income of your team. All of those people rely on you, and the choices that you make, to pay their bills.
That’s a big responsibility, and it’s not one that I ever took lightly – and that’s when I really began to focus on the business of the restaurant industry. Because my failure represented the loss of income for dozens of people, and it permanently changed my perspective.
So therein lies the strategy – how do we serve the patron in a way that serves the team?
And how do you do that?
Well, I pivoted from managing to leading. It became about identifying and prioritizing core values, and letting those guide your choices. Being more mindful.
But it is that love of people that’s been the through-line, and it’s adjusted my focus as needed over the years.
Is that what motivated you to start speaking out about the challenges facing the industry?
It was mainly desperation. I so desperately wanted the answers to the questions that I tackle on the show. And what I found was, when I turned to people and I said, ‘there’s a problem in this industry’, nobody responded. There was no resonance there.
But when I would say, ‘there’s a problem in my business’, it suddenly became relatable. When I was vulnerable, other people were willing to be vulnerable too.
So the path that I’m on today doesn’t stem from anything other than me trying to solve the problems that plagued my entire career.
But it wasn’t a strategy. It wasn’t a plan to build an audience and create a movement – I just wanted to have a conversation. I didn’t want anybody to BS me, and I was tired of BS'ing other people.
Because the truth was that things were not great.
I am a huge proponent of the idea that the pandemic hasn’t destroyed the hospitality industry. It has just illuminated foundational issues within it.
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You talk about these kind of experiences on your podcast, Full Comp. Why did you choose podcasting as your medium?
[Laughs] ‘Cause I like to talk!
I mean, if you want to get into the practicalities – very low barrier to entry, very easy to execute… I saw this as a very low-stakes way to have the conversations I wanted to have. I wanted it to be real, raw, conversational. There’s a privacy – going back to vulnerability – that comes with a spoken conversation.
You’ve spoken a lot about the notoriously high failure rate for hospitality businesses. What do you think is behind that?
So the first real ‘ah-ha’ moment was that I’d been asking the wrong questions. Instead of figuring out how I could create a compelling lunch service, I should have been asking, ‘does the market that I’m seated in want us to serve them lunch?’.
And that habit came from the hospitality echo-chamber, because outside of institutions [like Typsy], we were all just learning from each other. That’s why my show features thought leaders front and center – people with expertise in all kinds of industries.
Also, optimism is a perilous thing. It certainly has its purposes – but entrepreneurs tend to be optimistic to a fault. My first lease was crazy – 21k a month in a neighborhood with nothing around it. But I was like, it’ll be fine.
"Optimism often leads to those kinds of poor choices. It’s great to have passion, but it can’t just be a passion project – it has to be based in reality."
I mean, there have been a lot of instances where I’ve paid rent to make structural and aesthetic improvements to a building that I don’t own. I would pay rent to make their building better. That’s crazy. But that’s standard practice.
And there’s ego. I wanted a big menu; I wanted to be open breakfast, lunch, and dinner; I wanted to be open 7 days a week. I wanted to throw these lavish events. And I wanted it then and there. I had a 100-bottle sustainable wine list that no one gave a damn about. Wasteful. And it was just because it served my ego to have it.
So then, on the flip side, how can we actively set ourselves up for success?
Look, often people can miss key foundational elements: being driven by data, and good culture.
[You have to use] data provided through customer transactions. Period. Your menu is based on things you know people love, and if they don’t love it anymore you take it off the menu. Simple as that.
And also, for too long, owner/operators have failed to share those elements with people who work for us. But that’s where the buy-in happens. We have to hire and train by those core values, and evaluate your success and failures by those values.
And how does that ‘buy-in’ happen? How do we optimize our teams?
I mean, recruitment. I never had to explain the importance of showing up on time and in uniform, or knowing the nuances of the menu, because I hired people that were predisposed to that behavior.
That’s how I ended up with a 99% [staff] retention rate – because we expected a lot [from] our people, but we only hired people who expected a lot of themselves.
We never hired for skill – we always hired for passion, enthusiasm, and personal responsibility. All of our interview questions revolved around our core values.
Not saying, ‘Are you self motivated?’, right? But questions like ‘what time do you wake up in the morning?’, or ‘what books do you read?’.
Because that’ll tell you everything you need to know about a person.
A person who makes their bed everyday is regimented and highly organized. Somebody that reads books or listens to podcasts has a passion for learning. You can’t teach that. You can only find out if they already have that quality.
Alright, let’s shift gears a little bit. What trends need to die?
[Laughs]. Not to skew towards the negative, but there are so many things that need to change. As an industry, we are in a race to see who can sell the cheapest stuff for the longest period of time. That has got to die.
We have got to stop discounting ourselves to death. When you compete on price, nobody wins. The consumer doesn’t even win, because in order to compete on price, you’ve gotta sell a lower quality product. We’ve got to lead with our core values, and focus on quality and experience.
I understand that people want cheap stuff, but that has been and will be the ruination of this industry.
"Restaurateurs must understand the difference between 'busy' and 'profitable'. Because you can definitely be one without the other."
Also, a rising tide raises all ships. Greater dissemination of information. When we find something that works, and those platforms need to exist whereby we can do that.
We need to stop thinking of this as a zero-sum game. That needs to die.
What's your favorite thing about hospitality today?
The resilience. The resilient nature of this industry is so inspiring, in a real, practical way. We saw this industry torn apart to its roots, and then you watch the entire industry sew itself back together in a matter of weeks.
And it’s not a cliché, because you see the struggle every day. You see people overcoming incredible odds, transforming the very nature of their business, to serve their communities. None of this is done in a vacuum. Everyone pulled together to directly serve the community in whatever way they needed to be served in that moment.
Also, we’re on the verge of a gold rush. After the pandemic settles, demand will be huge. As soon as people can go back to restaurants, they will in droves.
And now, a lot of [hospitality professionals], instead of expanding locations, are choosing to go deep. People are looking at cocktails to go, and farmer market boxes, and takeout and delivery has evolved into its own animal.
A single source of revenue is a very dangerous approach, regardless of industry. But now, hospitality owners and operators are looking at a thousand different angles.
So instead of opening a second location, maybe they take their awesome pizza sauce and send it out to retail, because they have the customer data that backs that up as a revenue stream.
This is definitely something we’ve seen with Typsy. There’s a lot more interest in hospitality professional development.
100%. It’s very inspiring.
Chasing your dreams is a trade-off. But when you put those core values first, sometimes you get a moment where something you thought you’d given up comes back in a really magical way. That’s why we keep fighting the good fight.
This interview has been edited for clarity.