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Urgently Hiring: Servant Leaders

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

by Adam L. Stafford

As anyone in the hospitality industry can attest, the complex network of challenges that accompany restaurant operations can leave even the most ambitious and enthusiastic chefs, FOH, and GMs bewildered, overwhelmed, and exhausted. The grueling hours, staffing challenges, and financial hurdles inherent to this area of the hospitality industry require a level of creativity, flexibility, and drive that can be difficult to conjure on a daily basis.

Turnover and burnout rates are high, profit margins are low, cash flow is scarce, and Murphy's law seems to dictate the flow of many a busy brunch or dinner service.

With the COVID-related social distancing guidelines that effect reopening efforts, this myriad of challenges has only intensified. Operating costs steadily climb as cleaning regimens become more and more tenuous and the attitudes and psychological comfort of guests and employees hangs in the balance. Mandates designed to prevent resurgence of the heinous virus leave owners and restaurant leadership in a quandary of unprecedented proportions.

The desire to once again extend welcoming hands to regulars and newcomers, TO GET BACK TO PROVIDING valued guests with exceptional service has never been stronger. However, a business without profits is only headed in one direction and current restrictions make it exceedingly difficult to establish revenue streams that support sustainability.

The perspective of proprietors across the nation was evidenced in a recent James Beard Foundation survey indicating that only 20% of the nation's restaurant owners are confident in an eventual, full-scale reopening of their establishments.

While the Independent Restaurant Coalition and renowned chefs like Tom Colicchio continue to speak out for reform of recently enacted federal relief programs, hospitality groups and owners traverse the uncharted waters of the COVID-stained culinary scene with realistic and justifiable concerns, exploring new methods to responsibly resurrect business and maintain fiscal viability. From the Mom and Pop’s to the Michelin stars, hospitality professionals from all walks of life assimilate and accommodate to these times of uncertainty in a tireless effort to save their businesses and their livelihoods. Meanwhile, the mountain of challenges continues to grow.

Culinary innovators like Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm and Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert pivot in ways that followers never would have imagined a few months ago, refocusing their efforts not only on the well-being of their staff but also on their communities at large.

Each of these epicurean influencers transitioned their world class, commercial kitchens into commissary spaces designed to provide much-needed sustenance for frontline workers and charity organizations. Along with many others, these servant leaders continue to inspire colleagues from around the world, modeling altruism and servant leadership in a time when these attributes are needed like never before. Their efforts may not alleviate immediate financial concerns but they demonstrate an integral part of the path to recovery, a dedication to their community.

Like every other part of our lives, COVID-19 has and will continue to exert a monumental influence on how leadership is defined and how it manifests itself. Across a multitude of industries including hospitality, the contributions of the servant leader gain saliency and value with each passing day. The servant leader of early 2020 may have looked like the chef de’ cuisine that stays late after a hectic night of service to show the dishwasher a few prep pointers, the hostess that picks up tables in the bar when the bartender gets swamped unexpectedly and the floor is short-staffed, or the owner that pitches in for an employee outing to a local farm or winery in order to build comradery and fortify menu knowledge.

Now, instead of hand delivering picturesque plates to the VIPs at table 24, the servant leader delivers to-go boxes to the staff of a local hospital.Instead of organizing an all heads meeting to discuss the next quarter’s revenue growth plan or a new training initiative, the servant leader organizes virtual meetings to rally for relief programs that actually support the longevity of all of our beloved restaurants.

The shelter-in-place orders of the past several weeks have magnified the importance of our cherished restaurants and leisure venues as well as the people behind them. These venues are the places where we have gathered to celebrate life’s wins and reflect on collective losses, to reconnect and rejuvenate, to decompress and unwind. Millions currently await the opportunity to rejoin the workforce and provide the masses with a precious place of respite. Countless businesses formulate strategies to continue to thrive while maintaining compliance with reopening guidelines.

We do this because, by nature, we are scrappers. As hospitality pros, we know what it is to regularly face challenging situations and stay the course. We strive for perfection in everything that we do, knowing that true perfection can never truly be attained. As each and everyone one of us eagerly anticipates the opportunity to once again man our stations and facilitate exceptional guest experience, ponder a couple of questions. How can we prepare our minds today to be the much-needed servant leaders that our teams will most assuredly need tomorrow? How can each of us do our part to best serve our guests, co-workers, and community?

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