The Tavern Keeper Blog

8 Things I Learned From Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares

For some ungodly reason I don’t quite understand, I’m hopelessly addicted to Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, especially the UK version of the show.

Aside from Gordon just being a handsome devil, it’s the morbid fascination with the kind of people that start restaurants, and how Gordon applys the same formula over and again to every restaurant, with great success (provided the owners don’t f**k it up afterwards).

Here’s the main things I’ve taken away from the show and applied to my own startup company:

1. The food is the most important thing. Period.

In a restaurant, it’s all about the food, first and foremost. Ugly decor? 2-hour wait? If the food is totally amazing, you forgive the rest. I’m sure you can think of at least one place like that – the divey little local spot that has the most amazing food. Back in New Jersey our spot was a place called Devone’s. Oh god, Devone’s.

In a startup, what you serve to your customers is the most important thing. Period. It’s not sexy design, it’s not SEO, it’s not a brillant marketing plan. It’s creating and serving something people actually want and enjoy. It’s that simple.

Great marketing doesn’t grow a business nearly as well as a product that people love so much they just can’t stop talking about it to everyone they know.

2. Never compromise on quality and cleanliness.

Right on the heels of #1, and a big part of having delicious food, is being relentlessly focused on always serving the highest quality food you can.

That doesn’t always mean the most expensive food, it means if you’re going to serve burgers and fries, you serve fresh fries and fresh burgers, and not frozen 3 month old crap, in a sparkling clean kitchen.

In a startup, it means always delivering the highest quality product and service you can at any given time. It does not mean wait to ship till it’s perfect – Your MVP can still be high quality, if incomplete. It means write clean, maintainable, tested code for what little you have. Just like a dirty kitchen, dirty code begins to show through the product, little by little, until it becomes an unmaintainable mess.

It means always be presenting yourself and your company in a way you’re proud of. It means that if you had to shut your doors and move on tomorrow, you can look back and be proud of your work, always.

3. Serve the kind of food your customers want, not what you think they want.

It’s financial suicide to open a Fine Dining restaurant when the neighborhood wants a BrewPub. You’re not serving a product your customers actually want, you’re building what you want to stroke your own ego.

Do your homework, and test the market by getting prototypes in the hands of potential customers as soon as humanly possible. And then listen to your users. Watch the trends. Stay focused but not so much that you don’t waver from your original plan when the evidence so clearly shows you need to change. People will vote with their “feet”.

If you really, really want to be a Fine Dining restaurant… then maybe you need to find another location for your business? Likewise, perhaps you’re serving your product to the wrong demographic. It’s up to you to decide what the right choice is.

An idea may have been born from your own desire, even better if it stemmed from a problem you sought to solve for yourself. But once it evolves into a business, you become just one person of many it serves.

4. Your customers are paramount.

The people that buy what you are selling are the most important part of your business. It’s that simple. Treat them with respect and kindness, listen to their feedback, and cherish those blessed few that love what you’re doing so much they take the time to give you honest feedback and criticism when you need it most.

You don’t always have to do absolutely everything your users ask you to – if you serve Filet Mingion for free, few are going to tell you it’s an unwise business move, they want the free food! – but it’s up to you to see the bigger picture, recognize the value of what you’re doing, and drive the business.

But if you hate your customers and always think they’re idiots, you’re doomed.

5. Be Relentless.

Relentless doesn’t mean continually doing the same wrong things because that’s always what you’ve done. Relentless is being willing to keep working at it even though things suck. Relentless is pushing through the tough times because you believe that strongly in what you’re doing. Relentlessness is the only thing that pulls you through the “slump”.

It doesn’t matter how much you love what you’re doing, your are going to have days, weeks, months, where things suck. What separates the wannabes from the successes is their sheer, nearly unreasonable amount of relentlessness to see it through to the bright days of success.

6. Be Genuine.

Your business is a reflection of it’s owners and staff. It’s the soul of the place, and brings people to the business or drives them away. No matter what your personality is, be genuine. The days of the faceless corporation are long, long, past.

Your customers want to know who you are, share your ups and downs, and give their money to people who earn their trust. Be that person, and insist that everyone who works for you follows that ethos.

7. Get rid of dead weight ASAP.

One bad employee can ruin a business. Every single role is important, from the cooks to the dishwasher to the bartender to the host. One bad employee brings morale down, ruins effective systems, and will kill your business.

Too many companies I have seen “adopt” rather than “hire”. If they’re not working out, they’re not working. Get rid of them! Like a goldfish trying to fly, some people just aren’t meant to do certain things. Don’t force it, let them go. You’ll both be happier in the end.

8. Own your mistakes.

Right in between being genuine and getting rid of dead weight is owning up to your mistakes when you blow it. You will f**k things up from time to time. It happens. How you handle it makes all the difference. If you’re genuine this is far easier than if you tried to cover up your disaster under a pile of lies and double-talk.

When you’ve been going down the wrong path for a while, it might be really hard to see how far off you are, and feel helpless as to what the problems are, like every restaurant that goes on the show. They don’t see all the problems right in front of them.

When things look bleak, and you don’t know where to turn or what to do to turn your business around, first, take a long hard honest look at yourself and say “what am I not admitting to?” Next, get an outspoken angry Englishman to tell you what a big pile of bollocks you are.