Advice to Would-Be Business Owners: Get Out of the Kitchen!

I'll never forget the time just after we opened our first Davio's restaurant on Boston's Newbury Street when I was working the door and a guest lights up this huge stogie. Remember, this was back in the 1980s, when you could smoke in restaurants. Still, a stogie? This was a small restaurant, and a car driving by could smell this cigar, it was so awful.

After the guy had paid his bill, I went up to him and said, "Sir, you can't smoke a cigar in here. You're going to bother everybody. Would you mind taking it outside?"

The man looked at me like I was nuts. "I just spent $200. If I want to smoke a fucking cigar, I'm gonna smoke."

Oh. My. God.

"Sir," I said, "if you spent $400, does that mean you get to take the chair with you? Everyone in this room is spending money."

He stands up. "Really? Well, we're gonna leave."

"Well, maybe that's the best thing." They were finished with their meals anyway. And I couldn't have them bothering other guests.

But this man didn't just leave. He made a big show of it, blowing smoke around the room as he walked to the door, stopping to make a whole smoke cloud before stepping outside. When he was gone, everyone clapped. I still remember what that sounded like, some 25 years later. It was so great.

We didn't have General Managers then -- we were too small. If I hadn't been out keeping an eye on things, who's to say a server would have asked the man to leave, or stood up to him when he refused? It was up to me that night to protect our dining experience and our brand. I didn't want us to be known as that place on Newbury Street that tolerated cigar smoke. I wanted us to be known as a place where you could come and enjoy a fun, high-quality dining experience. While breathing clean air.

It's so important in business to be constantly on the prowl, talking to customers and team members, cultivating an active and engaged management style. There is no substitute for paying attention to operations and how you can improve them. It's about understanding guests, but more broadly, protecting the brand.

A lot of owners in my business make the mistake of hiding in the kitchen. They're chefs at heart, and they think restaurants are all about the food. But restaurants aren't all about the food. Ever eat a meal out and discover that the food is amazing but the rest of the experience stinks? Lots of guests will bypass a place with excellent food, choosing instead a place where they can relax, enjoy, have fun, and receive great service.

You might be able to cook well, even handle the money, but to run a restaurant well, you have to wear every hat from time to time: coach, maintenance guy, server, busboy, host, receptionist, chef, grill, sauté, salad guy, dishwasher, HVAC expert, taster and approver, manager, salesman, ideas man, PR and HR person, garbage picker-upper, and the list goes on.

As your company grows, you need to step into these roles even more in order to stay in touch with the brand and connect with your people. In any large business, whether it's manufacturing, sales, or healthcare, leaders can't succeed if they hole themselves up in their executive suites, thinking they're above everyone else.

There's no room for attitude, so if you're starting or growing a restaurant or any business, I advise you to do what I do: lose the attitude, get in the trenches, and get your hands dirty. Only then will you have a well-managed business that pleases guests, keeps team members on their toes, and most importantly, stays open.