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Family vs. family

Question:

We have a family-owned restaurant. To make any decisions I need to get my sisters and parents on board. I have ideas—new menu items, an expanded bar, a small plates menu—but everyone is afraid of change. Any advice?

– Restaurant Owner-Operator, Westchester County, NY

Answer:

Running a restaurant successfully is a challenge under the best circumstances. Add management decisions by committee and the emotional baggage that comes with working with siblings and parents, and it can be a real struggle.

In terms of advice, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Family counseling. Seriously. I am often asked to consult to restaurants. When the restaurant is owned by a couple or siblings, I often find myself doing more counseling than advising. Family business impasses may be manifestations of all sorts of family issues—one partner is mad at another so shoots down every suggestion, a younger sibling always feels bossed around so refuses to contribute, and so on.
  2.  Experiments with pre-determined metrics. A manager trying new things is held accountable to the owners. When a family both owns and manages an operation, it can be hard to separate feelings from rational business decisions. Some decisions, such as a renovation, need to be carefully studied. Others, such as a new menu item, are lower-stakes and you should try it. Develop a trial with a pre-determined metric. For example, run a potential new menu item as a special and decide collectively at the outset that if you sell over a certain number in a given time period, you should have the freedom to run with it.
  3. Delineate ownership from management. It sounds like you have a mixture of people (at least five), who both own the restaurant and are actively involved in its management. For a single operation, that structure is complicated and lacks agility and accountability. It may be that some of the partners need to act as investors but give the management responsibility to one or two family members. If your business is successful, opening another location may help with that.

I grew up in a family business and saw my father deal with it in a way that worked for him—he sold his share!

More on defusing family business drama here.

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