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Getting to the good life

Expert solutions to the pesky problems that plague operators just like you. You don’t have to own a home on the French Riviera in order to live the good life (although it certainly wouldn’t hurt). What’s much more likely to improve the level of satisfaction you have with your life is ridding yourself of small annoyances—frequent travel, insurance paperwork and other mundane inconveniences. We asked four operators about the little things that bug them, then surveyed experts for advice on how to deal with them—and get closer to the good life.

The Consultants 

Alice Bredin, President, BBI, Inc.
Cambridge, MA

Heidi Strommen, Executive Vice President, ProHost USA Inc.
Minneapolis, MN

Brian Crider, Vice President, MS Consultants, Inc.
Columbus, OH

Laura C. McNerney, President, Hospitality Resource Group
White Plains, NY   

Operator: Andy Vap, CEO, HuHot Mongolian Grill, Missoula, Montana

Problem: Red tape hassles when building new units
Among the many challenges of running a growing concept, Vap is most frustrated by the he-said-he-said scenario he experiences when dealing with local planning and code officials. Building inspectors don’t tend to agree with town planners; the fire marshal says you’ve got to do one thing while the health department absolutely forbids you from doing the same. “It’s almost like they’re out to get you,” says Vap. And with HuHot planning to open six to eight units this year—in addition to its existing 26—that makes for a lot of headaches. 

Solution: Involve local officials early in the process. Brian Crider, vice president of MS Consultants, a Columbus, Ohio-based engineering, architecture and planning firm, says that if possible, Vap himself should meet in person with representatives of all the departments that will be involved in the process—before he’s filed one document with the town. At the meeting, Crider recommends, Vap should explain his preliminary timeline and design plans—and, most importantly, that he asks for feedback. “It takes some time and effort to shake the hands and kiss the babies,” says Crider. “But if you don’t do it, it burns you on the back end.”

If Vap is opening too many units to hold all these meetings himself, he should deputize employees—particularly construction or real estate managers—to go in his place, or ask the firm’s architecture or engineering firm to conduct the meetings on HuHot’s behalf.

As for building inspectors’ personal preferences regarding wiring, plumbing or anything else, Crider recommends repeating a simple mantra: “We have an approved set of plans and that’s what we’re working from.”

Operator: Richard Romaine, Owner, Romaine’s Wood Grill & Bar, Northborough, Massachusetts

Problem: Employees’ lousy work ethic

“Managers say things like, ‘I want weekends off,’ or ‘I don’t want to work five nights,’” says Romaine, who attributes much of the problem to the 20-somethings who he says want jobs that fit around their lifestyle, rather than the other way around.

Romaine has tried to deal with the problem, saying he pays “above-average” wages and never asks managers to work more than 50 hours a week. But when there’s an open position at his one-unit concept outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, Romaine says he still doesn’t get a huge number of applicants. And the ones who do show up have very clear ideas about the conditions under which they’ll work—many of which are simply incompatible with the restaurant business.

Solution:  “You have to create incentives that will make employees and applicants think your business is a great place to work,” says Laura McNerney, president of White Plains, New York-based Hospitality Resource Group. “Depending on your workforce, it could be flextime or monthly reward programs or comping a dinner. You have to get creative about ways to make people excited to work for you.”

McNerney also suggests that Romaine examine his hiring process in order to better assess applicants’ work ethics. He should ask probing, open-ended questions, such as “Tell me about a typical day at your last job” or “What are your priorities?”

Then, once Romaine has made a hire, he should invest some time in training. If he’s able to build in some cross-training, he won’t be in such a bind if one person leaves.

Operator: Rodney Anderson, CEO, Panchero’s Mexican Grill, Coralville, Iowa

Problem: Not enough family travel

With 50 existing units and 15 to 20 more scheduled to open this year, Anderson is on the road a lot. He travels two weeks out of three, and on that third week the last thing he wants to do is get on another plane. But Anderson and his wife have three kids who are finally old enough (12, 10 and 6) to make family vacations a lot of fun—if he could find the time and the energy to get away. “In 15 years, my wife and I have taken one trip together,” Anderson says.

Solution: “Think creatively about getting away without getting away,” says Alice Bredin, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, small-business consultant. “If you can’t stand to get on another plane, look for ways to break out of your routine with your family locally.” If Anderson’s family doesn’t normally go to museums, for example, head out and look at some art. Go out for lunch at a restaurant you’ve never tried before, then hit a local park where everyone can burn off some energy together.

Another option is to combine a business trip with a family vacation. “If he’s going someplace that’s a few-hour drive from a great national park,” says Bredin, “he can bring the family along and meet up with them when his work is done.”

The key, Bredin says, is dreaming up a vacation that gets Anderson really excited. “Otherwise,” she adds, “it’s never going to happen.”

Operator: Paul Flanigan, Owner, Quarterdeck Seafood Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Problem: Spends too much on insurance and taxes

“Insurance is just through the roof,” says Flanigan, who owns eight units in Florida’s Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. With $20 million in annual sales, Flanigan spends $1.7 million on insurance and taxes. In addition to the financial hit, Flanigan is frustrated by the amount of time he has to spend on the paperwork. “It’s an amazing burden for a small-business owner,” he says.

Flanigan would love to reinvest his savings in his business, starting with replacing the analog TVs, that were state-of-the-art when he bought them, with flat-screen models. He’d also like to swap out some equipment for more energy-efficient models, such as tankless water heaters and waterless urinals.

Solution: Send the insurance policies out to bid. “Comparison pricing is going to tell you a lot,” says Heidi Strommen, executive vice president of ProHost USA, a Minneapolis firm that writes insurance policies for restaurants nationwide. “If everyone comes back in the same ballpark as your existing policy, you’ll know that’s what the market is.” Then Flanigan should take a serious look at the claims he’s filed and address the underlying problems. If he’s had a number of slip-and-fall claims, for example, he should invest in training, flooring materials or proper lighting. “Loss control is absolutely the biggest thing an operator can do to reduce premiums,” says Strommen.

Another way Flanigan can lower insurance costs is to look at the ratio of liquor to food sales at each location. “You’re always going to benefit from increasing your food sales as compared to liquor sales,” Strommen says.

As for the paperwork: Most of it is generated by the various applications you have to fill out in order to get quotes on your policy. So once Flanigan is happy with his carrier, he should stick with it for three or four years before shopping around once again.

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