Restaurant Management Tips from Owners Who Are Getting it Right

These four restaurant pros have the ratings and the Michelin stars to prove their methods work.
Chef-owner Iliana Regan of Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2016. (Photo: Heidi Geldhauser)

A successful restaurant needs more than just good food. Restaurants with Michelin stars and top Zagat ratings create outstanding experiences through both the menu and ambiance. They innovate and take risks while still turning a profit. They provide memorable and seamless customer service, making sure diners feel their needs are taken care of.

To make all this happen, owners and managers must figure out how to train their employees and keep them happy, balance budgets and draw in customers.

Four managers and chef-owners from around the country share the secrets of their success.

Iliana Regan, chef-owner of Elizabeth Restaurant

Iliana Regan

(Photo: Heidi Geldhauser)

2016 has been a huge year for Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago. Chef-owner Iliana Regan was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. And she was nominated for the second time for the James Beard Awards for Best Chef in the Great Lakes. The restaurant was also awarded a Michelin star for the third year in a row.

The hands-on chef said her management style is simple. “I try to respect [my employees] and work hard so they respect me,” she said. “I try to be understanding at all costs.”

When it comes to making changes and responding to criticism, Regan said she never responds negatively to negativity. “If criticism has substance I try to make it right,” she said. “Then I reward my employees and point out the good that they do.”

There’s no way around the fact that running a fine dining restaurant is expensive, Regan said. She does not try to cut costs when it comes to buying ingredients, but she and her team are mindful about food waste and try to use everything.

Todd Phillips, general manager of Restaurant Eugene


(Photo: Heidi Geldhauser)

In Atlanta, Restaurant Eugene has been named one of Atlanta Magazine’s top restaurants and boasts a 27 out of 30 Zagat rating. General manager Todd Phillips, who started working in restaurants as a dishwasher before becoming a manager at 23, says one of things that keeps people coming back is that the restaurant is always innovating.

“Our menu changes every day,” he said. “We have new wine pairings every day. The cocktail menu is always changing. There’s never a dull day here, and I think that keeps everyone on their toes and learning.”

Phillips said as a manager, he is always on the floor and working with his team to push them. “I don’t think you can run a restaurant from an office.” Like Regan, he embraces positivity when working with his staff. “I like to manage with more positive reinforcement, and when needed I work shoulder-to-shoulder with my team.”

Restaurant Eugene requires that all employees work their way up to the front of house. No one is hired as front servers or sommeliers. They start in the back of the house and as hosts. This way, “we ensure consistent service and buy-in from the team,” he said. “Everyone who works here, from the host to the dishwashers, are all about Restaurant Eugene and what we do.”

Amber Ault, general manager of The Village Pub


(Photo: Village Pub)

In Woodside, California, The Village Pub not only holds a Michelin star, it’s a favorite with venture capitalists and CEOs from nearby Silicon Valley. After working her way up in the restaurant world, including spending seven years with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, general manager Amber Ault landed at The Village Pub and its sister restaurant, Spruce.

Ault said her management style is all about consistency. “To me, the most important aspect of being a general manager is holding together a strong team by being fair, understanding and able to follow through with accountability,” she said. “And, most importantly, [being] willing to jump in and work alongside the team when necessary.”

Most of the employees at The Village Pub have worked there for five to ten years. In looking for new hires, Ault seeks people who naturally want to care for others. “It is our job to teach and provide tools for learning the technical aspects of the job, but we have learned that you cannot teach warmth and grace,” she said.

Running a fine dining restaurant means keeping costs down is very difficult, so Ault said she looks for ways to improve efficiency rather than buy cheaper ingredients or skim labor costs. Once a week, she and her team meet to discuss sales and expected purchases, maintenance that can be done to avoid big future repairs and the staff’s efficiency. “Keeping the whole team in regular communication is imperative for maintaining cost efficiency,” she said.

Kash Feng, co-owner of Omakase


(Photo: John Storey)

At San Francisco’s Omakase, a 14-seat, prix-fixe sushi counter with a Michelin star, co-owner Kash Feng’s employees have worked for him for years. He knows everyone’s husbands, wives and children.

To keep his employees working for him long term, Feng rewards them in different ways — and often. For one, there’s a bonus program. Also, employees and families go to baseball games together, paid for by the restaurant, and he gives gift cards for a job well done.

To create a more family-friendly atmosphere, Feng pays attention to scheduling to ensure people have time to spend with their kids. “We make sure everyone is taken care of,” he said.

With San Francisco’s high cost of living and a labor shortage straining restaurants across the city, Feng said he pays attention to the news. He gives employees as much overtime as he can so they don’t need to get another job and can feel invested in the restaurant. To save money, Feng has negotiated better rates with his linen companies and suppliers, and he has cut back on the restaurant’s operating hours — without hurting sales.

“You have to make sure people have enough to eat before you make any decisions cutting labor,” he said. “They will work harder and feel like you care about them.”


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