The Roots of Restaurant Success

From RestaurantConnect Academy:
The Roots of Restaurant Success


Choose a form of human expression such as architecture, music, sculpture and yes, food. How is it that some forms of creation can stand the “the test of time” and capture our interest generation after generation? Why is it that some inspire us years after they’re gone while others just come and go?  Why do we still listen to Bach or The Beetles when there’s seemingly limitless other musicians to displace their time in the limelight? How is it such artists transcend their own art form and represent an era, and become iconic.

Anybody can tap into this same power

This may be an audacious thought to some. But we cannot become something which we cannot imagine. So at some level, we’ve got to question our own beliefs. The beliefs that “we’re not good enough” to be a da Vinci are the very kind that limit what we can be– even if the ultimate outcome seems unclear. For most, many roads of those we hold in high regard are full of limitations, rejections, obstacles or set backs. Nevertheless, such icons find their way within the same scope of limitations we all share.

We can wish to be the next Sirio Maccioni, Alice Waters, Tilman Fertitta or J. Willard Marriott. But why not put our own name in the space between these commas? Such lists are added to every day. The space is free and it’s always growing for those who choose to be there.

So while we may imagine our name high up amongst the greats, we must also look to our feet and think about what’s beneath. What do we build our dreams upon?

Build upon the timeless, universal and dependable

Whether defining hospitality itself, creating a new cuisine, building a restaurant empire, or turning a soda stand into a global restaurant & hotel brand, the shift from ordinary to extraordinary happens in our ability to serve each other at the instinctual level. Humility, persistance, greatfulness, sacrifice and passion are often shared traits of those we aspire to emulate.

The reason these traits are important is because through these traits we reach a state that connects us to our core human needs. Here, perceived limitations such as educational background, finances, geography, influence, resources- you name it- they don’t matter. Here, we’re all the same.

With this approach, we can do away with that “fluff” which we too often believe restricts us. If we organize priorities based first on human needs and emotions, we begin to focus on the things that transcend time and circumstance. Then, we layer in the “triggers” that meet our core needs in a positive way. This is done by mapping the customer experience to each of the core six human needs.

Below is example mapping for each instinct described in further detail from the link above. Be sure to attach the word “pleasure” to see these instincts in their positive form. In the following examples, negatively charged outcomes are included. Watch how fast things can go right or wrong- and involuntarily activate the other more powerful instincts:


The foundation of reputation and all other following instincts in their positive form. Without certainty, all others fall short of their potential power. Certainty is experienced when staff is well-trained, knows the menu, and consistently makes good recommendations to those who may be uncertain. The chefs follow recipes and deliver consistent food. Throughout the business, the ability to adapt, to compromise and to go the extra mile enables effective team member empowerment. Meaningful action happens in that sweet-spot between the micro-managed environment and the absent-minded unsupervised environment.

Alternatively, when something such as the hours of operation are incorrect on the website and the guest arrives, the wrong kind of variety over-rides certainty. All other positively-charged instincts become dead in the water. The same goes for inconsistent food preparation, or menu items described differently from what is served, incorrect prices, long wait times (for anything), unclean bathrooms (if this is messy, what’s the kitchen look like!) and other parts of the guest experience where expectations are not met.


Food specials, live music, beautiful sunsets, a thriving bar scene, can all appeal to our need for adventure and balance out the need for certainty. It’s the antidote to boredom or predictability. Certainty and variety work together like the high notes and low notes in music. A busy dining room creates an electric atmosphere that isn’t experienced in the certainty of everyday environments like home or work. Unexpected gestures of appreciation also trigger the need for significance.

On the flip side, when receiving incorrect food, waiting too long to be seated, encountering a hoity-toity hostess or an indifferent server, a negatively charged form of variety triggers a negative form of certainty. Guests can shift into an “on guard” state – slipping closer to survival mode ready to instinctively warn the “tribe”. In scenarios like this, what should be relationship building quickly becomes damage control.


High on this list is something as simple as using a guest’s name. Visits to the table by ownership, management or the chef. Remembering an important date such as a birthday or anniversary (and asking for these dates!), giving something in return for loyalty and always saying “hi” and “bye”. It’s the level of personal interaction that says to each guest “you’re not just a number to us“. When we feel important in a place, we want to be in that place and will go out of our way to return to that place. Combined with certainty, we’ll want those we love to feel significant, too, which triggers contribution.

When we wish to feel significant, and it doesn’t happen, it’s humiliating. Usually the bigger the ego, the bigger this need. Even a slightly humiliated (think unacknowledged) customer is highly unlikely to return.

Love & Connection

Consistent, empathetic, authentic engagement by all team members. Responding to guest’s social media posts (also hits significance), reviews and other forms of communication. Creating a healthy environment to enjoy the company of others at the table. Combined with sustenance, with the stimulation of the senses, and emotional engagement of simply being alive, it is here where the magic takes root: we can live in the moment while creating good memories to experience and share once the moment is over. This only becomes possible when the other instincts have been positive, and it’s here where new and repeat business begins. Master this state for your guests, and what happens next is business acceleration.

However, this dream that’s just starting is easily disrupted. Take a dining room that can’t absorb sound. Without the ability to converse in a relaxed way, this instinctual need could quickly become unfulfilled (should we go somewhere else to talk?). What if the food is prepared inappropriately and needs to be sent back. What was supposed to be a blossoming encounter is disrupted by a literal change in dialogue. When that happens, variety takes the wrong form, and leads to the wrong expression (for the business) of human needs: For example, the contribution instinct will express itself in the form of a negative review.


Fulfilling the certainty instinct helps stimulate the growth instinct. When conducting business during lunch, celebrating a birthday or anniversary,  a retirement or a first date, we frequently choose restaurants to express the most important periods of growth in our life. Add to that, the transformative nature of sensory exploration, the power of growth is experienced in a dynamic and fulfilling way through new textures, flavor combinations, ingredients, cultural discovery, history and so much more.

On the other hand, if we shell out a few hundred dollars on a rare French burgundy (likely an act of seeking growth) and the sommelier mishandles the wine or the wine itself is corked, the opposite of growth happens. Now the negative forms of variety, significancecertainty, and contribution.

A good exercise is to imagine what our guest’s internal narrative may sound like. Let’s take this wine example and say there’s nothing technically wrong with the wine ordered, but it’s clearly not connecting with the guests at the table. Let’s play out the host of the table’s thoughts while she glances around at her friends:

  • What’s going to happen now?
  • Is this how it’s supposed to be?
  • It’s not as good as I thought, I talked this wine up to everybody and they don’t look happy about it, do I have to pay for this?
  • Made a bad choice, not good at choosing wine.
  • Should have stayed with what I know and not spent the extra money.
  • Thought I’d share something special with my new wine-loving friends.

When we take the time to hear our guests most intimate thoughts, when things go right or things go wrong, we can better evaluate operations, proceedures and empowerment necessary to ensure all team members are inspiring positive thoughts- even when the unexpected happens.

So in the example above, a sharp sommelier immediately notices the group at the table doesn’t seem to be enjoying the selection. The sommelier takes responsibility of the situation by bringing another wine to taste as a suggested alternative at a slightly better price:

  • Can’t believe how fast the somelier replaced that wine for me. (certainty)
  • This one’s even better. (growth)
  • Would have never thought to try this one. (variety)
  • Can’t wait to recommend this wine to everybody on my Facebook page.  (love & connection, contribution)
  • How is this wine less expensive than the other? (variety)
  • All my new wine-loving friends can’t stop talking about this hidden gem. (significance)

Sure, the sommelier could have done nothing and such a response would be acceptable – but the real opportunity for growth would be lost.

For this outcome to be possible, this is because of design, not chance or luck. This sommelier is empowered to make these kinds of decisions- because he is skilled. There’s a good wine inventory that’s strategically dynamic in pricing and selection. The profile of this human being is that of somebody is in this role first and foremost because they love wine. They study it. The look at maps of wine regions, daydreaming about trips to this one or that one. They attend classes, they subscribe to magazines, they come in early on the weekends to check bin numbers and check POS inventory. It’s part of who they are. He has a capable team around him that has the skill to handle a strong percentage of wine-related needs- so he’s able to focus where his higher skill levels and knowledge is best placed.

Being able to take control of guest experiences, and re-route them in unexpected, positive ways, as each moment presents itself, is what creates a brand people are passionate about. The value of this moment far exceeds the cost of the wine to the restaurant. This is about true ownership of the guest’s experience.

It is in these kinds of unscripted moments where the great restaurants emerge.


Our need to grow, no matter what our path in life, will reach a pinnacle evolutionary instinct which is to give back. Restaurants provide an outlet to express this need when we pick up the check for our friends or family. It’s an expression of the love & connection instinct. For the big tippers, there’s pleasure in contributing to the well-being of another person who enriched our experience at the restaurant. As we seek to contribute to those in our life, it’s important that we see them receiving something special along the way. As we contribute, we in return seek to fulfill other instincts such as significance, certainty and growth.

If these other needs are unmet, then the desire to contribute will be redirected by the certainty need which means a person takes their business elsewhere. When the needs are met, however, the power of those who can influence the most contribution, results in the positive expression of love & connection. The cycle repeats in a natural and healthy way that attracts more contributors towards areas of certainty.

These aspects of human behavior are programmed. They’re not learned behaviors. They’re a part of us that’s immutably encoded into our DNA.

Let this get personal

The potency in all of this is how we ourselves, as operators, understand and apply these very same instincts to our own daily life. They control us in the same way as they control our guests.

Once we become certain of a possibility, the power of certainty itself puts us in a position of real power. To be certain there’s a way to influence our guest’s behavior opens doorways to our own needs and instincts. This in turn affects our behavior and choices as it relates to running the restaurant.

As our own needs are experienced in their positive form, the restaurant’s work environment naturally becomes a better place to be- for everybody. Go through the list above and see how each need grows from certainty into the other needs. Knowledge and control of each need adds more power to an ability that directs the restaurant’s success.

The more needs a restaurant appeals to, and the more staff and ownership experience the fulfillment of these needs, the greater the positive pre-programmed response a guest will have.

Envision the results happing throughout your guest’s journey

In this series, we’ll be imagining each guest’s needs and mapping them to the ideal customer journey. We’ll see how we can embrace our natural ability to serve with purpose, with love, and a balance of responsible generosity which ensures what’s paid for is never felt as stingy.

See your guests coming to the restaurant knowing, that at that moment, they’re being reunited with their missed loved ones. Feel their joy while they dine, smile, laugh, and savor each bite. Recognize the contribution when somebody picks up the tab for all, or buys a new friend a round of drinks at the bar. Be there in heart as uncertainty becomes certainty when she says “yes” along side a spontaneous glass of champagne and a sparkling new ring. Feel the power of significance when your guests hear their name spoken each time they come to visit. Know with certainty they’ll take this with them wherever they go next. Then know with certainty what made it possible for something special to happen in these people’s lives.

Map the important moments to your guests’ lives, make them matter, and they’ll find you without even understanding why.

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