Restaurants have long been notorious for the chew ’em up and spit ’em out impact on employees and owners. The hours are long, the frustrations many and working conditions can swing by the minute from fun and laid back to absolute pressure cooker. Mix in the fact that good help is hard to find, and the omnipresent stress of being one forkful away from the well being and high expectations of guests and you’ve got a proven recipe for burnout.
Sure, stress can be a positive motivator. But facing such conditions day in and day out can lead to serious burnout—the kind of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that causes health and relationship consequences, sends job performance plummeting and ultimately drives people out the door.
There’s no single prevention strategy, but experts and folks who’ve been there say critical measures include finding balance and building a work culture that places a premium on quality of life. Investing in good people, delegating and providing proper training are other keys, as is rewriting some of the old-school work paradigms that are so ingrained in the industry.
Here, industry veterans who’ve either experienced their own burnout or found ways to keep it at bay weigh in.
Keep it fresh—and find a hobby
Alfredo’s of Rome
Burnout is definitely to be avoided, because in this business you need to always stay upbeat and positive. What works for me is to make frequent changes in the restaurant and on the menu to keep things fresh and interesting. It stimulates everyone, even if it’s just one or two new items. We recently introduced an artisanal chocolate cart, for instance, which created a lot of excitement. Such new projects are critical to avoiding burnout. Customers sense it if a restaurant feels happy and everyone’s in a good mood. If you’re too burned out to do that, you’re not going to make it.”
For Bellanca, owner of Alfredo’s at New York’s Rockefeller Center and a 25-year industry veteran, having a passion for something outside of work—and making time for it—is equally important. “For me, it’s tennis. I really enjoy it, but it also helps me manage stress. If I play before going to work, I go in with extra energy and a clear head and feel I can handle anything.”
Several years ago Bellanca began implementing changes to create what he calls a quality of life restaurant. “We offer managers a decent schedule, including two days off each week that gives them time for family and outside interests. We’re flexible with vacation schedules. At the end of the day, we get better managers and better karma in the restaurant. As a team, we all have more energy.”
Find a mentor
“Look for a mentor. Seek a more experienced person inside or outside of your field of specialty and ask him or her to be a mentor for you. This can also put a refreshed perspective on your business.”
—Dean McSherry, President/Chief Executive Officer, Preferred Restaurant Services
Don’t make friends
“At our level we are typically faced with the big decisions, the ones that deal with intractable issues with firm support from various perspectives. It helps to realize that I don’t have enough time for my own friends, so the last thing I need to do is make new ones [at work]. Dealing with these issues in a manner regardless of who it will affect or how they will feel provides a freedom from burnout-producing pressures.”
—Paul R. Steck, President, Saladworks, LLC
Change the burnout paradigm
John T. Self
Collins School of Hospitality Management
Today an associate professor and consultant, Self spent 15 years first as an independent operator and later as a chain restaurant GM. Those experiences, he says, not only burned him out, but also convinced him that the industry holds a sacred belief that “this is the way it is and it can’t be changed.”
“It’s an emotionally intense business. Most managers and owners spend virtually 100 percent of their time in contact with people—employees, customers, vendors. They’re making hundreds of decisions on the fly and responding to needs all day long. These can be big or small, from ‘I can’t find my timecard,’ to ‘The dishwasher’s sick,’ to ‘Can you go talk to the upset lady at table 42?’ There’s almost never a let-up. Couple that with the long hours and a too-typical lack of recognition for what you’re going through and it’s no wonder burnout is rampant.”
Self advocates shifting the paradigm. Specifically, he says, set schedules so key employees get two consecutive days off each week and one weekend off per month. Pay close attention to managers, regularly discuss their goals with them and keep them informed about what’s going on in the company. “Knowledge and involvement are empowering. When they’re lacking, people start feeling like they’re just part of the machinery. That’s not satisfying or sustainable.”
On the chain side, he also calls for getting rid of “senseless transfers of managers,” recalling his own five transfers to different cities in three years as a GM. “We’re chasing out some really fine people because of the way we’ve always done things,” he says. “It would be such a competitive advantage for a company to take hold of this issue and make it a priority.”
Bring in some help
Max Restaurant Group
Being burned out in the old days was almost a badge of honor. When you’re first starting out, you do everything and you work constantly. But you slowly realize that life is more than running your restaurant. It might be the thing you enjoy most, but it can’t be the only thing.”
Rosenthal, who in the past 22 years built his Hartford, Connecticut-based Max Restaurant Group into a seven-unit multi-concept company, says the key to preventing his own burnout is to build an infrastructure on partnerships.
“I own 50 percent of each restaurant and the managing partner of each owns about 20 percent. As we open new units, the managing partners of existing units take a small ownership percentage in the new ones, as well. If you’re going to be in this business for a long time and don’t want to be the one working 90 hours a week, you have to invest in partners and managers and don’t burn them out, either. They have to be rewarded well and get time off. When that happens, the business benefits. They enjoy what they’re doing and when they go home they have time to play with their kids, go golfing or skiing. We all need time to do whatever it is that gives
us pleasure other than work.”
One strategy he’s recently employed to that end is changing schedules. “New managers now get two weeks off per year, so they’re working 50 weeks. Of those, they’ll work an average of five days per week. Some weeks, when we really need them, they’ll work six days. But for every week they work six days, they’ll get a four day week to keep the balance.”
He adds that while hiring good managers helps prevent burnout, equally important is actually letting them manage. “You have to give them room, let them make mistakes and grow.”
One word: scotch
“You have to know when to put your blackberry/laptop/cell phone down… A good scotch can’t hurt either.”
—Steve Charron, Chief Financial Officer, DBGlobal (Chef David Burke enterprises)
Family time: honor it
“If you are in a family business like ours, be the first to “move out of town” with a plan to commute once a week. My wife and kids know that for the three-and-a-half days I’m at home, I’m all theirs. My business partners, my brothers, know that for the rest of the week when I’m at work, I’m all theirs. It requires an understanding family, especially at first, but if it makes you a nicer person and more pleasant to deal with—and it should—then everyone is happier.”
—George Cole, Co-Owner, i Fratelli Ristorante & Pizza Delivery
Give your team the right tools
Creative Hospitality Group
Ingegno recognized his own burnout some 10 years ago. “I woke up one day and realized I hadn’t seen my two-year-old son for five days. I was working 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. and was physically and mentally exhausted. A lot of my colleagues were doing the same. Some turned to self-destructive behaviors, like drugs and alcohol, to handle the lifestyle. I chose a career change.”
A CIA grad and former executive chef for leading corporations including Disney and Lettuce Entertain You, Ingegno now consults. “I’m a workaholic and always have been. The 24/7 schedules and pressures of this industry are the nature of the beast, and while it’s gotten a bit better thanks to technology, some things just don’t change. As you get older your priorities shift. If the job’s not going to change, you have to make a change.”
Operators, Ingegno says, need to look at burnout from the 30,000-foot level and consider how they can proactively prevent it. “The hours are crazy. Does it really have to be that way? Maybe not. What’s the work environment like? Is it fun during down time so people remain committed when the pressure gets intense? Do you provide enough staffing and training so people are equipped to do what’s required and not stretched too thin? Have you thought about your workflow and physical layout and made it as easy as possible for your people to get the job done? Have you outlined standard operating procedures so they know what’s expected? All of these things make a big impact on reducing pressure and increasing satisfaction, greatly reducing the conditions that lead to burnout.”
“Now more than ever is the time to resolve oneself to a physical routine and stay healthy. I’m an avid runner and frequent biker—often before my business day starts.”-Chris Morocco, Partner, Planet Smoothie
Assess, accept, move on
Having certain success along the way, things got rolling and the business started feeding on itself. Opportunities were presenting themselves and I’d convince myself that, yes, I could fit one more thing onto my plate. Financially, it made a lot of sense to keep taking things on. Unfortunately, at a certain point it was like my day was starting at 3 a.m. and ending at midnight.”
Levitz, a chef-owner, achieved acclaim first for his fine-dining operation, then a museum café, bakery café and catering operation he had built in Manchester Center, Vermont. He served as president of the Vermont chapter of the American Culinary Federation. His culinary star was rising fast. Then he burned out completely.
“I began feeling incredibly disconnected from my family and simply couldn’t function anymore,” he says. “As a restaurateur, you’re always putting everyone else first. When I looked at my children, I realized there were so many things I was not part of. In hindsight, I think you have to regularly take a step back and look at the larger picture. What effect is your commitment to work, the energy you’re expending and the hours you’re putting in having on the rest of your life? Is it worth it? If not, don’t be afraid to make changes, because they could be life-altering in a very positive way.”
His own burnout led him to make the ultimate change. He opted not to renew his leases, shut his operations down and started to pursue a long-suppressed ambition. Two years ago, he and a partner launched Wagatha’s, a company that manufactures gourmet organic dog biscuits. “I wish I’d done it 10 years ago, before running myself into the ground,” he says. “It’s not that I’m not working long hours now, but it’s more manageable and coincides with my family life. Sometimes, you have to give yourself permission to move on.”