Sandwiched between early restaurant gigs in her native Colorado—waiting and bussing tables, washing dishes, and bartending at different mom-and-pop eateries—and the 2003 launch of her Denver-based culinary syndicate alongside chef and business partner Jennifer Jasinski, Beth Gruitch gained an unofficial degree in restaurant operations from Chicago-based Levy Restaurants and the Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants enterprise.
As Gruitch reflects on her experience working at Levy-owned hotspots like Bistro 110 and Voila, as well as the Kimpton Monaco Hotel’s Panzano restaurant in downtown Denver, she uses words like “grateful” and “valuable.” Those experiences, after all, provided Gruitch with rich lessons into the disciplined operations, meticulous systems, and calculated processes powering successful hospitality concepts.
“I got to see systems created and refined many times over,” Gruitch says.
When Gruitch left Panzano with Jasinski in 2003 to open the Mediterranean-influenced Rioja in Denver, she did so armed with an education provided by two hospitality industry standouts. Nearly two decades later, Gruitch and Jasinski’s Crafted Concepts group features five heralded Denver restaurants: the still-flourishing Rioja, as well as Bistro Vendôme, Stoic & Genuine, Ultreia, and Flavor Dojo.
“I couldn’t imagine starting without that critical background,” says Gruitch, who shared a James Beard Foundation semifinalist nod in the Outstanding Restaurateur category with Jasinski in 2020. “There’s so much I learned about all those things that are foundational to success in the restaurant business like accounting and food costs, the process of receiving goods and paying invoices.”
While chains have gained much from their independent peers, particularly in areas such as food quality and culture, the education can—and does—flow back the other way, too. Large restaurant groups and corporate entities—the latter often derided as the enemy of the human soul with their tightly buttoned-up procedures and policies—can show independents a thing or two about running with purpose and structure, says Joe Melanson, an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Food Innovation & Technology.
“You don’t grow to dozens of restaurants flying by the seat of your pants,” Melanson says.
1. Know yourself—and don’t budge
Applebee’s boasts more than 1,600 restaurants. At each one, the “neighborhood grill and bar” shines with a casual, family-friendly atmosphere and value-laden menu devoted to mainstream American dishes such as burgers, chicken, and ribs. The Dine Brands–owned chain plays it right down the middle, neither revamping its menu to satisfy the latest trends nor listing dishes beyond the means of the typical American family.
Doug Roth, who launched and operated award-winning restaurant concepts like Levy’s heralded Bistro 110, says the most successful chains adhere to a formal concept clarity statement. This is about more than the restaurant’s “theme,” Roth notes.
The concept clarity statement identifies clear parameters providing both internal staff and external guests a crisp understanding of the restaurant. It informs everything from the menu and the service staff to the physical environment and the pricing, giving direction, driving accountability, and stimulating full alignment at every turn.
“It’s like a litmus test to make sure all the dots are connected,” says Roth, who now heads the Chicago-based Playground Hospitality restaurant consultancy.
2. Know your numbers
It should be no surprise that many of the nation’s largest full-service chains know their books inside and out. In fact, many public companies regularly publish detailed financial reports indicating exactly where they stand with key metrics like revenue and expenses.
“That’s imperative because you never want to be willy-nilly with your finances,” Gruitch says.
But knowing the numbers runs beyond quarterly reports. Individual restaurants rely on budgets and forecasts to inform decision-making and create formulas that spit out the price of each dish based on ingredient cost and portion size.
“Chains are good at crunching the numbers, which allows them to quickly see if something is out of whack and responsibly react to it,” says Carl Borchgrevink, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality Business.
Consider the menu. On a regular basis, Borchgrevink says, savvy chains analyze what’s selling, evaluate food costs, and investigate what they might promote at the table with staff or on the menu. If an item is not selling or contains a costly product, it often disappears.
“You can make the most delicious food, but if there’s no profit, then it’s challenging to be a sustainable restaurant business,” Borchgrevink says, adding that successful restaurant chains systematically study their data to make sound performance-driving decisions.
3. Keep a close watch on inventory
When Melanson was working as a chef at a chain restaurant, he dreaded going in every Monday.
“That’s when I had to do the weekly inventory report,” Melanson recalls.
Now, teaching at Johnson & Wales, Melanson champions that very same routine to his hospitality students. Chains do weekly or biweekly inventory, he says, so they know where they stand with goods, can proactively adapt to problems, and more efficiently manage their budgets.
“There’s a method to the madness,” Melanson says. “It’s not busy work, but necessary work to ensure a responsive, profitable restaurant.”
Keeping tabs on inventory also means closely monitoring prices, pivoting and adjusting to swings in the marketplace. While chains boast their own procurement departments, cleverly leveraging their size to increase buying power, the independent lacks such fame and fortune.
Jeff Elsworth, Borchgrevink’s Michigan State colleague, urges independents to be in regular contact with their distributor and vendors to better manage their inventory and costs. Distributor sales representatives (DSR) can offer important value-added services, such as menu analysis, providing trend information, suggesting substitutions, and sharing inventory control best practices. Given that DSRs see their operator clients regularly and learn about the restaurant’s operation, well-informed reps can play an important role in profitability.
“Go talk to your distributor and tell them what you need help with,” Elsworth says. “There are valuable insights they can provide.”
4. Create and document standards
Chains prioritize and prize consistency, which positions them to regularly meet guest expectations and, ultimately, stay in business. Whether it is training programs, opening and closing procedures, recipe development, or even something as granular as greeting and seating guests, successful full-service restaurant chains carefully design systems to fuel the front of house, kitchen, and back-office operations.
And these standards, Gruitch says, are most definitely documented.
“That way, there’s no gray area,” she says. “People know what’s expected and what to do.”
Recipes, for instance, are detailed and precise, while job descriptions are similarly explicit and well-developed so hiring managers can target the best possible fit for a specific post, whether that’s a line cook, host, or event coordinator.
“When you set and consistently follow clear standards, you’re then in a better position to hold people to those standards since there’s little room for people to wiggle their way out,” Roth says.
5. Know how and where to get credit
Before COVID-19 rattled American life, veteran restaurant consultant Fred LeFranc says the independents were “kicking the chains’ butts.” As the pandemic wore on, though, chains re-established their might. What ignited the shift? Access to capital, LeFranc says.
“The chains all have access to a line of credit and that helped them through COVID,” says LeFranc, founding partner of Results Thru Strategy.
Led by full-time chief financial officers, the chains know how and where to get capital, which helps them navigate downturns and endure challenging times. By contrast, independents often put credit on the backburner and only turn to capital considerations when they encounter trouble. As such, they frequently struggle to provide lenders or investors a crisp and compelling case for financing.
Working at larger enterprises, Gruitch says she learned how to behave in a corporate environment, which has proven critical whenever she’s needed capital for Crafted Concepts.
“Investors want to see a strong business plan and feel confident they’re going to get their ROI,” she says. “Without this, you’re playing from behind.”
6. Develop your talent
At Levy and Kimpton, Gruitch found two enterprises that were very detailed with respect to advancement opportunities. Both organizations, she says, offered road maps for upward mobility, providing, say, entry-level managers a list of skills they would need to master to position themselves for a promotion.
“There are always employees who want to know how they get to the big seat, and chains do a better job of mapping this out,” she says.
To Gruitch’s point, Melanson says many independents struggle to define the necessary skills team members need for the restaurant to thrive with their food, their operations, and the guest experience. As a result, staff members often become locked into certain positions or are thrust into new roles before they are ready.
“So many operators just drop items on a table and say go, and, as a result, an employee is stuck on the salad station for years,” Melanson says.
While independents do not possess the same capacity to offer advancement opportunities as their chain counterparts—it is, after all, far easier to find internal promotion opportunities in a company of 100 restaurants than in a single-unit operation—independents can still invest in staff development. Melanson recalls creating an eight-week cook training program for one local full-service restaurant that empowered staff to hone their skills, find their interests, and accelerate their progress.
“Something like that sparks retention, quality, and safety, and also helps staff see you’re willing to support their development,” Melanson says.
7. Invest in specialists
When Gruitch worked at Kimpton, she leaned on various internal supporters, including an accounting team, HR pros, and marketing whizzes. The presence of such personnel allowed Gruitch to offload many tasks and focus on delivering a rich customer experience inside the restaurant.
When Gruitch opened Rioja alongside Jasinski, however, she wasn’t so blessed. Like so many independents, Gruitch lacked the resources to have full-time specialists on staff supporting the business, which she considers a principal advantage for chains.
Though independents might not be able to hire full-time staff to oversee back-office tasks like benefits and payroll, social media, or public relations, they can invest in capable external partners or even technology to streamline work in such areas. An organization like the Council of Hospitality and Restaurant Trainers, for example, provides training and development resources. Additionally, the National Restaurant Association, state restaurant associations, and chambers of commerce might also offer cost-efficient programs or leads to qualified partners who can provide these ancillary services.
At Rioja and its nearby sister restaurant, Bistro Vendôme, Gruitch uses accounting services provided by the property managers of Larimer Square, the Denver historic district those two restaurants call home.
“Finding this support is so critical because we’re not always accounting or marketing people, and we need to find specialists in these areas,” Gruitch says.
8. Constantly hunt for improvements
While adhering to their business’s core tenets, chains aren’t afraid to evolve, pivot, and shed a system or practice falling short on performance. Though a 50-unit full-service chain might be tough to move quickly, it will move eventually to improve profitability, guest satisfaction, or efficiency.
Over the last two years, for instance, many chains unveiled curbside pickup, customer-friendly to-go environments, food kits, and packaged meals. Others incorporated kitchen technology, including automated systems, to improve food consistency, lower costs, and boost worker productivity. Many others touted online ordering, digital menus, and pay-at-the-table options to become more contemporary, nimble operations. Chains also seek new service providers if an existing partner is falling short of goals, and they’ll regularly test promising new equipment or service models.
While maintaining the status quo is likely a smart move when it comes to a restaurant’s signature dish, resisting change in other areas can ultimately prove limiting, Elsworth says.
“I ran restaurants for 20 years and understand the pressure operators face, but I’d encourage every operator to set aside some time to find the right solutions,” he says. “Spend the time and energy to reflect on where you’re falling behind and inform yourself about the solutions. It has to be done.”