Sorry… did you say “Training Packet?”

It was not even a question that the restaurant needed a high-quality, cost-effective, professional training program. I understood what needed to be done: ensure that my staff could deliver exceptional experiences for our guests, reduce the costs (time) of training by creating efficient processes, and provide an atmosphere that attracted career-minded candidates interested in working in the restaurant business. When my understanding of what needed to be done was met with the reality that I couldn’t do it using the tools at hand, I built Restaurant Reason.

Energy Takes the Path of Least Resistance

It was clear as day to me that with a better training program we’d get our staff onto the floor faster, more prepared, and capable of delivering exceptional guest experiences. We’d be able to attract higher quality candidates, those that wanted to rise through the ranks by dedicating themselves to our business. We’d raise check averages, move unusual inventory items, and delight our guests with a unique experience.

As a server, I couldn’t understand why “no one cared” enough to make our program better. FOH training was not high on the priority list when I took on the program. When I finally sat in the driver’s seat, I got slapped hard by this reality: as a manager, your primary function is to be on the floor and make sure that each shift runs well. You might have some setup responsibilities at the start of a shift, like leading a pre-shift or printing menus, answering guest emails, maybe social media stuff, invoicing… You have financial responsibilities at the end of the shift, reports to fill out, logs to write, and you may have to lock up. You do this work for 50–60 hours a week, minimum.

It wasn’t that no one cared, it’s just that in order to do all of that training stuff you need time to think strategically and plan. Who has that kind of time? The workflow for managing on just menu training alone is massive: (a) get the information, (b) organize the relevant parts, (c) write it up in a format that is easy for people to learn from, (d) distribute the materials, and (e) assess the retention of the information. This was the path, and there was a TON of resistance. While I won’t get into every hurdle, I’ll share a quick story to illustrate the point.

When our Executive Chef spoke about the menu it was inspiring, with genuine passion and excitement. So, I asked him to dictate the descriptions, preparation, and the story behind the dishes I needed to add into our Menu Description packet. This took about 30 minutes. Distilling what he said into useful, actionable training materials … over 3 hours. We did that only twice. The process was inefficient and unsustainable, at best. I needed a system, not a hack. I needed a path with less resistance.

With or without a program, training happens

I remember sitting at the computer with a new hire about to come into the office for orientation. I hadn’t updated the menu packet in months. I couldn’t keep up. I was embarrassed by the conversation I needed to have. We were one of the top restaurants in one of the top restaurant groups in New York City, and this is what I told her:

“Here is the Menu Description packet. We haven’t had a chance to update these in a while, so there are a number of dishes that aren’t on the menu in here. As well, there are new dishes that we haven’t added in. Study what you can from here, and the rest you’ll pick up through training.”

Supremely frustrated, mostly at what I saw as my own failure, I took to the internet. I said, “I can’t be the only jerk in a basement office wanting to do better training, and it’s 2013… There has to be a website or app or something that has figured this out.” There were a couple things, but neither was right for my business because they used “curriculums” and “courses,” but I was running a restaurant, not a school. What I learned was that unlike our reservations and POS systems, the hospitality business hasn’t upgraded the paper training packet to a digital system that is easy to use for both the trainee and the trainers.

Now I’m an entrepreneur

The first year was the worst. I came out of the gate with “this great idea” that was a “no brainer” and that “clearly was a good value.” I called up all of my contacts and started pitching… And when I got told “no” just two times, I realized I had absolutely not a clue as to what I was doing. I had a product (which I would later understand was the MVP), and it was good, but the list of what I didn’t have was bigger — and more important. Sure I knew how to train, develop and manage a training program, and manage a business someone else built, but that isn’t even close to the same thing as creating a business from scratch.

I had no business plan, no budget, no sales strategy or process, no pricing model, no CRM to manage sales and clients, no accounting practices or software, no pitch or brand identity, no contracts or NDAs, no professionals to help me with these things… When the cacophony of these moments became unbearably loud, I felt demoralized. It was actually kind of terrible how emotionally challenging this was. I’ve never admitted this, and certainly not publicly, but the time was intertwined with bouts of depression and strong sprints of productivity.

I started with low-hanging fruit like following Inc. and Entrepreneur on Twitter and reading about all the startups in Silicon Valley. I read books by famous business people, helpful articles about starting businesses and blogs about lifestyles of the entrepreneur. It was helpful both in teaching me what I should do and what I shouldn’t. The first year was foundation building and learning and bootstrapping at it’s best. The big lesson here: there is no silver bullet and it’s really, really tough.

I can now say things like: “Our mission is simply to make it easy to train restaurant staff so they can create exceptional guest experiences and increase sales.” That one sentence took months to get right. I can articulate managers, employees, and guests as the three stakeholders that benefit from implementing Restaurant Reason. I have two dedicated people that believe in me, that have committed themselves to my vision (now our vision) and to what we are doing. We have strategic partnerships. We have a sales pipeline and a process, with contracts and pricing.

We are nowhere near perfect, yet. I can confidently say, however, that Restaurant Reason is the best way to manage your restaurants training program if you are an operations-first business. One of my biggest influences is Sam Lipp, now Managing Partner of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. He said: “Take the harder class and get the A.” Entrepreneurship is the hardest class I have ever taken, and I’m still waiting for the grade.