Culture; noun, ‘The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.’

During my time working in the industry, I have managed a broad range of businesses, spanning from fine-dining restaurants, high-volume clubs and independent venues through to PLCs. Amid all the training, the lies, the hypocrisy, the passion and the success, I have noticed one word that is thrown around more than a puppy’s favourite chew toy: culture.

Culture is not a specific term, nor does it have a particular theme or meaning. As above, it is the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular collective of people or society. In other words, culture is whatever you want it to be. Why, then, is the term constantly plastered on the face of any successful restaurant or bar operation?

I have been led to believe from many a narcissistic General Manager that culture comes from the top, but through my own experiences I have found this is not the case. I believe culture comes from the top, the bottom, the left, the right, and is continuously changing direction and evolving within a business. In a restaurant or bar, there are three main cultures present: management, staff and guest.

I will begin from the top with management culture. If the manager in charge of constructing rotas completes them on time every week and does their best to adhere to staff requests, a trusting relationship between the team and the manager will blossom. This is a positive culture being bred from the top (management culture). There is a mutual respect and unspoken contract between both the team and the manager; if the team files their requests in time, the rota will be built on time and everyone is happy. Adversely, if the rota is often late, requests are forgotten about and it is clear the manager writing the rota doesn’t care, then the culture becomes toxic, as does the relationship between the manager and their team. As a result, the team, regardless of any other factors, will naturally sustain a lack of respect, reciprocating that from above. Their behaviour - not only when delivering their rota requests, but throughout all aspects of their work - will suffer because of the negative culture being displayed by their senior.

As I have mentioned, most managers I have worked with think culture comes from the top. I believe they have been led to think this, as the ‘top’ is the easiest place to implement culture. It may be the easiest to implement at the top, but it is far from being the most effective. If you disagree, feel free to google ‘Management Vs. Leadership’ and allow the internet to argue on my behalf.

The culture embedded in the core team is by far the most difficult to implement, but by far the most successful and genuine way of growing and maintaining a successful bar or restaurant. The culture in your team can be felt as soon as a guest steps through the front doors. Is there someone close by greeting them as they arrive, or saying goodbye as they leave? Has someone noticed the Grandma in the corner sweating profusely after her 12-bean chilli and offered her a glass of iced water? Is there a waiter darting out of the door after boozy Sharon from table seven who had left her purse behind? These things aren’t in the instruction manual, but they all accumulate to create a positive, caring culture in your business. After all, that’s what people look for when they go out to eat or drink, right?

Staff culture is the most important cog in the wheel of a successful business for me, and it all boils down to an effective recruitment process. It doesn’t matter how good your training system is, how thorough your onboarding process is, or how many pages that cocktail manual you wrote eight years ago has. If you don’t hire the right people, your business will not run successfully. Or not for very long at least…

There is no instruction booklet or spec sheet to teach people how to deliver great hospitality. Service? Yes. But not hospitality. Hospitality is the culture of going above and beyond for your guests, and I believe it comes from home. The most successful team members in your business will be those who understand what it means to be well and truly looked after and to feel at home. I once employed a waitress who was an absolute nightmare. She’d frequently make a dog’s dinner of guests’ orders and take ages to do everything, but would make a point of learning the names of every person on every table, spending time learning what they liked, disliked, reasons for their visit etc. From an investor’s perspective, they’d say: who cares? She’s messing up service and we aren’t taking as much money. However, without fail, her tables would leave the restaurant absolutely beaming, and would come back asking for her personally the following week, and the week after that, and the week aft…

I’m not saying every business needs a Stacey (let’s call her Stacey so I can sidestep a potential lawsuit), because during dinner service on a Saturday evening, I can assure you Stacey was the last thing I needed in my business. However, I’ve since used Stacey as an example to stress the importance of hospitality over service in every business I’ve worked in.

Among the businesses I have worked in, I have encouraged my teams to spend some of their free time in the venues, to bring their families and their friends, and have always made sure to look after them when they do. Whether this was a free round of drinks, a healthy discount from their bill or similar, the idea was to make my team feel as welcome in their own venue as I would have liked them to make my guests feel. My ideology was: if I could make my team feel like they are at home when they come into the venue on their day off, then they would indeed treat it like home; they would care for it, take pride in it, invest in it, and, most importantly, be more of a part of it.

I have not yet had an instance where this hasn’t worked for me. It meant that work families were meeting actual families, colleagues learnt more about each other, quieter members of my team were encouraged to emerge from their shells, in an environment they felt more comfortable in.

When working in clubs and bars, every Friday and Saturday night I would make a point of going to each bar within the venue, and doing a shot with everyone on that bar. Not individually – we would hold service for 20 seconds, and every bartender and barback on the bar would do a shot together, as a team, while the sea of thirsty party-goers cascaded in front of the bar, gagging for service to resume. Initially, I started this as a little ‘pick-me-up’ for my team. It’s nice to take 20 seconds to do a shot with your manager and, if only for five minutes, gives each person on the bar a little ‘lift’ to get them going. After only a few times, however, I started to realise the impact this had on the guest culture within my business. The guests who were previously screaming their lungs out for their next tipple, had actually calmed down and were waiting patiently for their turn. By stopping service in front of a three people-deep bar for just a few seconds to do a shot with my team, I had invited the guests to be included in our culture. For just 30 seconds, the guests had a brief insight into what it’s like to be part of my team - to be part of the family. Service would resume, admittedly still fast-paced, but with a much more relaxed aura. Guests would buy my guys drinks, leave heartier tips, and often end up dancing and joking around with them.

Living in London, a land of its own where nobody speaks, a little conversation and personability can go a long way. Breaking the culture of this individualist city doesn’t take much effort, but can have such a positive outcome for your business. In every club I’ve managed, I was always sure to be present on the door as much as I could, and made sure I had the friendliest security guard on the front door with me. Everyone was welcomed with a smile, often a handshake, and always best wishes on entering my venue. Similar to the way looking after my staff when they came in on their days off helped them feel a sense of ownership for the venue, looking after your guests and treating them with respect will lift the atmosphere, and the culture in your whole business will reap the benefits. As a result of this culture, guests would clean up after themselves and look after each other, and I can assure you I heard the words ‘thank you’ more times than you will hear in any other club in the country.

I hope you’ve gathered from every scenario I’ve written about that, in my opinion, the way to run and maintain a successful bar or restaurant is to treat people like people. Treating each and every person in your business like they matter to you (because they do) is the most important thing you can do. This includes your team (both on- and off-shift), your guests, suppliers, EHO… basically, anyone who walks through your door.

Positive culture breeds well-being, and fortunately for your business, positivity will keep your guests coming back, enjoying themselves and spending their money. The fundamental aspect of this positive culture is to surround yourself by a team that ‘gets it’. These people will already have ice water on that table for Grandma, will have already noticed Sharon getting tipsy and reminded her to take her purse, and will have guests coming to find themto say goodbye.

Mitch Simpson

Founder - Eighty-Six Hospitality