Experience Is the Best Teacher: Five Things My Father — and Hard Times — Have Taught Me About Leadership in the Restaurant Industry

I grew up learning the business from the best restaurateur I know — my father, T.J. Moran. He opened the first Ruth’s Chris franchise in 1975 and became one of the company’s largest U.S. franchisees. Throughout his career, which included owning and operating several more restaurant concepts and other service businesses, he spent decades leading his teams through many highs and lows. 

I’ve thought a lot about the lessons he taught me during the challenges of the past year, as well as countless other times when world events have shaken the hospitality industry to its core. Through financial recessions, terrorist attacks, global pandemics, and just the typical challenges we face in the course of daily business, there are many leadership lessons to be learned. Here are five I’ve come back to again and again. 

Never Take Advantage of the Guest

At Finally Restaurant Group, we take pride in becoming part of the community in exceptional small towns across the country. From Baton Rouge to Bozeman, we consider our guests to be family and do our best to earn their business with every meal. 

Focus on creating extraordinary experiences that raise the bar in your community.

My father used to say, “We depend on the guest; they don’t depend on us.” He would never take them for granted with short-sighted decisions like cutting portions and raising prices, however tempting that solution may be. 

It is loyal customers who will stand by your restaurant through the hard times, provided you treat them with respect and always make their dining experience your top priority. Focus on creating extraordinary experiences that raise the bar in your community.

Support Your Staff

Hopefully you have the type of company culture that nurtures and develops your team. Smart employers value the many contributions of their employees and provide advancement opportunities for them to grow along with you. In the good times, this looks like rigorous training, a dedication to time-honored processes, and a focus on building your culture. In the hard times, this can be as simple — and as important — as keeping everyone safe. 

When the COVID-19 shutdowns began, our company turned to our "6 Guiding Principles" to navigate the uncharted territory. One of those principles is to follow federal, state, and local guidelines. By following policies that protect our guests, staff, and the business itself — actions like implementing an updated cleaning and sanitization policy across all restaurants — management teams put safety for all first and showed our staff that we will do what it takes to keep them safe. 

Another one of our “guiding principles” is to keep our teams together. When business was brutal at the start of the shutdown, we made a decision to keep our management teams and key employees on the payroll.  It was extremely expensive, but well worth the cost considering the value of our trained, knowledgeable teams. Hiring and training new management is difficult on top of reopening restaurants once a crisis passes. 

Get Better

Much of my father’s business success was explained in his motto: “Make it better every day.” Constant improvement was expected at all of his companies. In fact, he was likely to rally his employees to excellent customer service by saying, “Yesterday was fantastic. What can we do today to make it better?”

Sometimes world events deal those of us in the restaurant business a really difficult hand, but it gives us the opportunity to find success in unexpected ways. My wife and I founded Rib & Chop House in Livingston, Montana, in 2001, just months prior to the heartbreaking events of 9/11. Many restaurants and businesses around us closed, but we fought our way through as inexperienced newcomers, learning a lot in the process by experimenting with our menu, reaching out to the community, and embracing the fact that we were one of the only open dining rooms around. Several months into 2002 we had lines out the door, and we were ready for them. 

When we are living through difficult downtimes — the COVID-19 pandemic being our latest example — it is a time for preparation. Polish your skills, focus on training and retaining employees, and be ready for a big push when the upswing comes again. 

Work Hard

During the first months of the Great Recession, we opened three restaurants. I often say that while our growing company had mostly been a fun lifestyle for me to that point, the economic challenges of the Great Recession quickly taught me how to truly run a business. Survival meant expertly managing costs, growing our operations team, and focusing on the bottom line while still delivering an exceptional dining experience.

We should all be prepared to work hard and handle the new influx of customers. 

My wife and I had to get really smart, really quick to open these restaurants well with minimal staff. I went into salesman mode, doubling our operations by convincing employees to believe in what we were building. That time of economic uncertainty became an opportunity to work hard and define ourselves as a great company.

When COVID-19 first started shutting down our traditional restaurant service, we recognized we would need to change our business model to focus on to-go and delivery. We also sent our marketing teams to contact large businesses, hospitals, manufacturing plants, and schools to find out if we could help with food and catering. Extending out of your comfort zone can help you survive and keep staff employed. 

As the industry is on track to slowly get back to business as usual, restaurants should immediately begin planning to over hire and train staff for summer 2021. While the airline, entertainment, and travel industries will take months — maybe years — to return to normal, restaurants will be simple entertainment for guests. We should all be prepared to work hard and handle the new influx of customers. 

We Are All in This Together 

There are many moving parts in a crisis. One of your main focus areas must be keeping your management teams motivated and safe, so they can concentrate on the well-being of employees and the happiness and safety of the guests. It is a time to follow the rules, maintaining your honesty and integrity and fiercely guarding your reputation. Outside of your four walls, it is imperative to work with your suppliers to keep supply chains and product substitution open. Also look for ways to support your community in its time of need because that’s the right thing to do. 

When you foster an environment of teamwork and collaboration, you move from being “all in this together” to “beating this together.”