Mastering the Art of Checklists at Your Restaurant

I know lots of restaurateurs who go around the bend from time to time. They are entirely overwhelmed by all the things that go south every day. It feels like the day-to-day process at the restaurant is never under control. Many managers honestly believe that they can’t step out of their joint for even five minutes without risking ruin. And so many of them completely ignore a solution that can solve a huge part of their problem.

This solution is obvious. It’s been tested many times in different contexts. It costs nothing. It’s easily implemented. And it works. Actually, it can make a huge difference for any type of restaurant business. A pizza delivery? A burger joint? A fine dining restaurant? Doesn’t matter. The fix is universal and applies to any place where people are supposed to do the same things day after day.

Here it is: take a moment to think about your day-to-day processes. List everything you should do every day at every stage of your operations. Print it out. Put it on the wall. The next time you start something, just read and do the first thing this piece of paper tells you to do. Cross it off. Do the second thing. Cross it off… and go on until nothing is left. That’s all. It’s called a “checklist” and this simple and ancient invention of the human mind can make a huge difference in your life.

Pilots use checklists when they prepare your plane for taking off. Doctors use them when they are performing operations on their patients’ hearts. Scientists follow checklists while performing experiments in their labs… which begs the question: why do so many restaurateurs, individual operators especially, completely ignore it?

I assume there could be a few reasons for that.

‘You can’t fight it’

Some fellow entrepreneurs think that in managing a restaurant, having a mess in the kitchen is inevitable. Can’t be avoided. Can’t even be reduced. So you either get used to it or you quit. I agree with the first part. The second is a delusion. You sure can reduce the amount of stress you experience—if you decide to.

‘Checklists are for the stupid’

Quite a few people feel aversion to checklists because they consider themselves and members of their team too smart to use them. They act under misapprehension that only sloppy losers or underqualified managers can forget to do what needs to be done. In reality, even the brightest of us sometimes miss things. It’s human nature.

Before we started the “checklist era” at Dodo Pizza, we were constantly running out of cash for change. Because we always forgot to get some from the bank. Now we never have any problems of this nature because we visit our bank twice a week—every time the checklist orders us to do it.

‘I don’t have time for this’

Some entrepreneurs admit that having a few checklists might help, but they honestly believe that they simply don’t have time for this stuff. They are always planning on thinking about it—maybe next week … 

And this is a question of priorities. What’s more important—to deal with an issue at hand or to make it never be an issue? For instance, nobody loves cleaning, but our company is hell-bent on keeping our kitchen clean. Sometimes, we had a hard time urging the team to do cleaning, or we just missed some areas while doing others twice. Then we divided our pizzeria into seven zones and added cleaning one of them to our shift manager’s checklist, which also suggested which zone should be cleaned on which day of the week. Problem solved.

‘It doesn’t feel human’

I assume one of the main reasons for some restaurateurs to refrain from employing checklists is that for many of them it feels like “corporate stuff.” Something that can kill the free spirit of an independent enterprise that is supposed to be more human and less factory-like. This can’t be more incorrect. One thing doesn’t eliminate another. You can drive a car in accordance with the traffic rules while still singing a cheerful song and feeling awesome.

So, you want to start using checklists at your restaurant but you’re not sure how to implement them? Consider taking these simple steps to get a new lease on your joint’s life.

  • Identify Your Enemy

Any process that you do regularly can be “checklisted.” The more small operations it entails, the more reason to do it. So your first task will be to identify those procedures that your team performs every day and that often wind up done with mistakes. Some obvious suggestions: an opening checklist, shift change checklist, and pre-close checklist. Some of your checklists will be universal, and some of them will be dealing with your unique processes. Since we run a pizza delivery, we also have, for instance, a dough making checklist.

  • Prepare Your First Killer Checklists

Now it’s time to write your first checklists. You can keep them as simple as you want. A basic spreadsheet or even a text will do the trick, as long as it can be printed out and pinned to a wall. Try putting everything that has to be done in the proper sequence, but don’t stress out if you miss something. Remember the motto: done is better than perfect. So having even an imperfect checklist is better than none.

  • Make Your Team Really Use Them

You should bear in mind that your team won’t start using your checklists just because you’ve written and printed them out. Any change in behavior takes conscious effort. For a few weeks, you’ll have to work with your team on switching to the checklists. Make sure that the general manager and shift supervisors understand the importance of this change. This improvement will actually make their lives easier! Less fuss means less stress, and less stress means less staff turnover and more profit.

Sometimes, the temptation to cross something off without actually doing it is too strong. If you want the job to be done, you need to “check the checklists”—or how they are being followed.

We do this when our general managers fills in our shift supervisor’s assessment form. Basically, everything that’s on our checklists is on this form. And if you as a shift supervisor fail to do something, you don’t get your points. The penalty becomes especially severe if you checked something off without doing it. And the fewer points you get, the less your bonus becomes. Without some kind of control system, your checklists won’t work.

  • Don’t Stop. Ever

Don’t rest on your laurels. The checklists you’ve already made are probably missing some important steps. So when anything bad happens and you have an emergency or an unhappy customer shows up on your porch, don’t just rectify your mistakes—get back to your checklist and add a new item to it so this blunder won’t happen again.

Some time ago, members of our team always forgot to turn on an “open” sign on our porch. Because we didn’t have it when we introduced our first checklists. Only when the task was added to the morning list did we stop forgetting to switch it on.

By the way, it was a small thing, but it drove me crazy. When you see an open sign that is off, you ask yourself: “What else do these guy forget to do? Can I trust them to provide food for my family?”

Punchline: improving your existing checklists should be an ongoing process, as well as looking for new areas that can be simplified with a new list.

If you follow these simple steps and make checklists an integral part of your day-to-day processes, I guarantee that it will make a huge difference at your restaurant—as it did at ours.

When we had just started, I was working 24/7 at Dodo Pizza Oxford, sometimes sleeping in a cardboard box in our pizzeria’s backyard so as not to waste time on driving home. This summer, I could finally afford going on vacation. We’ve found reliable managers and implemented a basic management system that helps us keep things under control. Checklists are a big part of it.