Dear Food Fanatic: Quality Line Cooks, Balancing the Menu

Tips on restaurant management, including how to motivate employees.

Q. My servers just don’t care like they used to. How do I find a new class of longtimers?

A. Make more of an effort to articulate opportunities as a way to motivate staff. Instead of hounding them to upsell desserts, appetizers and beverages, show them how higher check averages result in tip increases. Because nothing speaks louder than money, create monthly contests based on sales of specific items, such as wine or appetizers. 

Q. New Year’s Eve is amateur night, but we still want to stand out from the competition. Got any ideas?

A. Revelers will come out no matter what, so be sure to offer celebratory packages. Think of those who want to have an early dinner before they ring in the New Year elsewhere. Rather than courting couples, try catering to families and larger parties to fill more seats. You can entice these customers with specials that aren’t available later. Also consider bar specials and snacks for the crowd that comes in post-dinner as a way to build extra late-night sales. Lastly, consider offering group dining takeout, but remember to cut off times for pick-up early in the day to avoid getting slammed later.

Q. Why am I constantly looking for line cooks? I am so frustrated with the turnover in my kitchen. I provide a good environment and competitive wages, and I don’t think I’m an abusive chef. What gives? 

A. Accept the ugly truth that some people will come and go, whether they’re looking for the next opportunity, even the slightest wage bump or perhaps a job in a different industry. Rather than focusing on experience alone, look for attitude, aptitude and the ability to get along with others. For your part, you must be willing to teach. Beware the applicant who has worked everywhere in town, talks as if he knows everything and is so confident in his abilities that training seems unnecessary. As tempting as it may be, these applicants typically end up having a corrosive attitude, resist direction and are not good at getting along with others. 

Q. My customers don’t want change. They like things the way they are, but my business is dying. Suggestions, please.

A. Yours is an all-too-common scenario: catering to a customer base for 10 to 20 years only to find you have been alienating diners by offering more of the same. Try creating a “classics” section on your menu to showcase longtime hits, and slowly introduce new dishes, using specials as a testing ground for both. That way, you can keep the regulars happy and entice new customers with experimental options.

Q. As soon as I put one thing on the menu, another 10 new items hit the scene, making me want to overhaul the menu with trendier products. How can I get some balance?

A. It can be challenging to stay ahead of the food trend curve, but that’s where your seasonal menu, and weekly and nightly features come into play. Try reserving a certain portion of the menu for seasonal items and another small percentage for your short-term features. Short-term features are easy to market using social media, chalkboards and inserts, and as verbal specials. Seasonal menus can easily be inserted into the menu in place of high-cost, low-sales items. Don’t forget about applying the same philosophy to desserts and cocktails, which also can be seasonal and give you a competitive edge.

Q. We are constantly being asked for donations, especially during this time of the year. How do I figure out a fair way to dole out freebies? 

A. Think of these freebies as part of your local marketing costs. It’s easy to just give out gift certificates, but it may be more meaningful to engage your community in a deeper way. For example, if you reward area students for reading a certain number of books, ask your staff to volunteer in schools as reading coaches. Donate to organizations behind walkathons or races, but also encourage staff to participate. Decide how much money you want to allot for donations each year, and set a deadline for organizations to make requests (and stick to it). Lastly, it always makes sense to support causes you believe in.

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