Nearly 24 years before I started my own company, I worked in a family-owned restaurant in Maryland -- a place called the “Crab Shanty.” I remember how eager I was to apply there when I turned 16. It wasn’t even a question where I wanted to work; my older brother had worked there, and his stories showed me there was a world far beyond my small suburban neighborhood.
“The Shanty” was a stellar brand in the community; customers would wait upwards of an hour on the weekends for a table. If you hadn’t booked your holiday reservation weeks in advance, you weren’t getting in.
Our manager ran the restaurant with an efficiency I rarely see in companies today. He allowed employees room to have fun without being unprofessional, yet he also kept us in line, mostly because he continuously trained us on how to do our jobs well. We witnessed how he built loyalty with our regulars by greeting them warmly and ensuring their dining experience surpassed their expectations. We saw how he handled difficult customers with firm grace and knew that he wasn’t shy about firing an employee who was underperforming.
As an entrepreneur now myself, I know that there are a few consistent attributes of businesses that have stood the test of time, and that I saw at this restaurant, which was my first job. These include: an owner who executed a thoughtful business strategy, a differentiated brand and management that can hire, retain and grow a team, as well as shape it into an organization’s largest brand advocates.
In particular, here are six things that seemed insignificant at the time but that I now value -- so much so that I directly apply them to the operations of my company today:
1. First and last impressions are critical.
We hostesses offered the first and last interactions our customers experienced. How we greeted them set the tone, sent them out the door and/or resolved their issues, directly impacted their experience. It may also have impacted how likely they were to return and/or recommend the restaurant to others. The same rule applies today. Every person at my company who touches a customer or client is held to the highest standard of conduct; and I know it’s the complete sum of our interactions that will define our success.
2. Minimize your “trips to the kitchen.”
Waiters know that if you have to go to the kitchen multiple times, you aren’t properly servicing your tables, so you must be organized and anticipate what customers might need. The longer it takes for customers to complete a meal, the fewer times the tables will "turn over," and the more limited the tips will be. Each time waiters go to the kitchen for a one-off request from a customer, they are losing money. My company has to be highly organized, and I think about efficiency day and night, as we march toward profitability in year three.
3. Teams matter.
Waiters are on the front lines with customers, but they aren’t alone. I learned when to ask for help; I relied on numerous members of the staff, from waiters to bussers to managers, to help me ensure the customer experience was as positive and seamless as possible, no matter what. Today, every individual at my company plays a valuable role, and we’ve created a team stronger than I’ve had anywhere in my career. Everyone leans on one other, and we all back one other up. Period.
4. Personality matters.
There will always be indecisive, impatient and even combative customers. You don’t know what their days have been like, but you have the power to change the outcome. Be patient. Smile. Be empathetic. You’ll be far more successful in the long run. I understand now that good partners see things from the clients’ point of view and find points of compromise.
5. Employees should be brand advocates.
You can’t service customers with a staff that is unhappy, disengaged or untrained. The owners at the restaurant hosted an employee picnic at a local park each summer, featuring steamed crabs, volleyball and lots of bonding moments. They also provided dinner for employees before the doors opened on Christmas Eve; a midnight champagne toast on New Year’s Eve; and an employee costume contest every Halloween. Nearly every new employee was referred by an existing employee; managers were promoted from within; and many of the customers were our own families or neighbors.
We were in it together and we were celebrated for it. I’ve strived for the same thing with my own company today, and instead of marketing our company, I rely on my team to live and breathe our brand and bring in business from their personal networks. It’s my job as CEO to give employees the tools, power and rewards to accomplish this.
6. Don’t wait too long to evolve.
Our county grew fast after I went off to college. Chain restaurants sprouted up everywhere, and highway expansion made it easier for residents to get to Baltimore. Mini-communities brought in young families and single professionals; and the regulars, we noticed, were aging and not eating out as much. The restaurant was renovated, a new chef was brought in and the bar was expanded. Today, at my tech company, we're similarly aware of change: We have short- and long-term strategies and often focus on “test and learn” strategies with our clients to determine where we should be going. We will remain true to our vision, but we understand that evolution is part of the process.
Of course small businesses like the Crab Shanty come and go, and this past December, I learned my last lesson from the restaurant. No matter what the circumstances may be, there comes a time when decisions need to be made about what’s best for the business: After nearly 40 years, the family-owned company closed its doors.
But in January, the owners hosted the employees one last time to thank us, and that occasion served as a great reminder about how a business should be run. While there isn’t one formula for success, there are sources of inspiration all around us. I take numerous lessons with me as an entrepreneur, a boss and a marketer. And I wouldn’t be the same CEO I am today had I never worked at “The Shanty.”