What Is Killing Hospitality?

Independent restaurant operators like to blame their struggle on the encroachment of national restaurant chains but, other than perhaps in access to capital, the independent really has the advantage in the marketplace. A good independent can be closer to the market, more adaptable and generally more focused on creating a personal connection with their patrons.

Entrepreneurs might be surprised at just how much a restaurant's success hinges on an owner's ability to keep the pressures of work from affecting life at home. A study in Columbus, Ohio by Professor H.G. Parsa of Ohio State University found that one of the most critical factors contributing to a restaurant's success -- more important, even, than "location, location, location" -- is actually how well an owner juggles the demands of the business with family life.

He determined that, "beyond muddled concepts, failure seemed to stem in large part from an inability or unwillingness to give the business sufficient attention, whether due to lack of time, passion or knowledge."

Most of the failed restaurant owners he interviewed attributed their downfall at least partly to competing family demands, including divorce, ill health, and retirement. Some owners voluntarily closed when the family sacrifices became too much, like one owner who said she didn't want to miss seeing her children grow up.

So if the competitive edge in the hospitality business comes from the ability to run an efficient business and actually deliver the experience of hospitality as Danny Meyer demonstrates, and if the owner is in a constantly scrambled state of mind due to lack of time, conflicting interests, poor organization and lack of understanding, its no wonder so many restaurants fail to gain the traction necessary to grow.

Just as love cannot flourish in a climate of indifference, the spirit of hospitality cannot exist in a climate of fear ... and many operators are running scared. In a book called Waiter Rant, the author -- a working waiter -- points out why the true hospitality experience may be so rare in an industry that espouses it. He writes:

"Over the years I've come to realize that [the owner's] anger and anxiety stem from his fear of losing everything that he's worked so hard to create. [He] is no stranger to failure. He flunked out of a dozen jobs before finding success as a chef. He also has a strained relationship with his ex-wife and children back in Italy. Now, at forty-six, he has a new wife, a new son, and a robust business. [He's] got a second shot at happiness and he doesn't want anything to mess that up, but I worry his anxiety will destroy the very thing he wants to protect.

"[His] worrying has turned him into a jumpy, irritable, and angry man. Like a soldier just home from war, his eyes are always scanning the horizon for threats. This anxiety hurts him in social settings. Because thoughts are banging around the inside of his head like electrons colliding inside a particle accelerator, his attention span can be measured in nano-seconds.

"While [he] has the capacity to be very charming and considerate, he's usually on his best behavior only when dealing with people who have something he wants. [He] doesn't have the energy or inclination to be nice to people he perceives as beneath him ... and if you work for [him], he thinks you're beneath him."
Not all restaurant owners are quite this stressed, of course, but to one degree or another, these feelings are common in many independent operations. This leads to a high burn-out rate among single unit owners, dissatisfaction and cynicism among restaurant staff and a general absence of true hospitality for restaurant patrons.

Couple this with a typical chain restaurant's focus on process and profitability over creativity and personal service, and it is easy to see why the overall dining experience in the country is becoming increasingly impersonal and unremarkable.

Finding a workable answer to this dilemma is critical. The National Restaurant Association estimates that the restaurant industry's share of the food dollar has increased from 25% in 1955 to an estimated 48% today. Fully 53% of adults said restaurants are an essential part of their lifestyle. A vibrant -- and viable -- restaurant industry is critical to the well-being of the country.

Perhaps independent restaurants themselves are not be an endangered species, but the spirit of hospitality -- the true lifeblood of the industry -- may well be. What to do?

An Elegantly Simple Solution