Lessons from a Maître d‘
Earlier this year, we read Your Table Is Ready: Tales of a New York City Maître D’ by Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, who ran the front of the house at some of New York’s most famous restaurants, including The Water Club, The River Cafe, Raoul’s, and Le Coucou. Since we know pretty much nothing about restaurants other than that we occasionally like to eat in them, we enjoyed learning more about the sector. We will also probably never look at a restaurant linen closet the same. Perhaps unsurprisingly, during Cecchi’s various stints over a multi-decade career, he experienced a wide range of approaches to running a restaurant; some successful, others not. He observed:
“The restaurant business is unforgiving. It takes constant attention. The second you look away or turn your back, something will slap you in the face. The only way to mitigate this is to be there constantly. Great owners, at least initially, are the first to open and the last to leave. They need to put their eye and imprint on everything. Not doing so is one of the biggest mistakes new owners and those new to the restaurant business make. Guests want to meet the owner, and, if not, some proxies that can behave or act like they have a proprietary interest in the business…
… I was constantly in service. I’d arrive in the morning, take care of the billions of things that needed attending to – ordering wine and booze, linen, making sure the garbage was collected, that the flowers were fresh, that the outside was swept, that the restaurant was spotless, do the schedule – all the things we needed to operate. In the evening, I was on the floor, overseeing service, and, more important, ‘touching’ every single table. Touching a table refers to when a person of authority – the manager, owner or chef – goes to every table that evening to check in on the guests, see how their meal is, the service, the food, the ambiance, get to know the guests, see if they live in the neighborhood, how they came to dine here, and hopefully motivate them to come back. It’s basically knowing your customers. If treated well, respectfully, given a decent meal, they will return. It’s simple but it works.”
Clearly, this reality extends beyond restaurants to the broader world of small business. Regardless of industry, most small companies are successful because the owner devotes her life to making it happen. She knows all the details of the business and can juggle multiple priorities. She makes an effort to know her customers and employees on a personal level. She knows birthdays and kid’s names. She can walk the floor and innately feel if something is “off”. She signs the big contracts in the morning and sweeps the floors in the evening. None of this is rocket science, but it is real work. And most of the time, if a business owner routinely does the basics well, her business will succeed.
Of course, sometimes a business expands beyond the owner’s capability to regularly be on-site making sure everything is taken care of. Cecchi has some thoughts on this as well:
“Raoul’s succeeded because the staff made excellent money and each one of us took care of it as if it were ours, despite the absent management. We were making money and didn’t want to jeopardize it. If an owner thinks they can pay a manager $60,000 a year to run the business like the owner would, he’s out of his f*cking mind. He will close in a year.”
Cecchi wasn’t the owner, but he ordered flowers, set schedules, and touched tables because he was given autonomy and paid accordingly. This set-up is what we aim for at Chenmark. We know we cannot touch all of the proverbial tables in our team of small businesses, but we can choose to work with the type of people who want that role. And when that all comes together, magic happens. Maybe we know more about the restaurant business than we thought.
Have a great week,
Your Chenmark Team