Mentor or Manager: Leadership in Restaurants

Even a well run restaurant is chaotic. When a dining room is packed and service is in full swing, each moving part of a restaurant must run properly for service to be successful. A smooth shift is a combination of customer service and technical execution. But what helps restaurants run smooth year after year is consistency and the helpful hand that pulls employees out of the weeds. As a manager, how can you make sure you’re leadership is inspiring your employees to work hard and be successful, instead of just correcting mistakes and being authoritative. Thinking of yourself as a mentor instead of a manger might be the golden ticket to a successful restaurant.

Is Managing a Restaurant Worth It?


First off, managing a restaurant can seem like a thankless job. The hours are long. The pay can be moderate. And the stress of managing a group of part-time employees while trying to please the general public can be the perfect cocktail to feel jaded about the service industry. I remember, right before I took my first management position, many friends and industry veterans told me not to take it. “It’s more responsibility and stress for less money,” was the usual refrain. And that is partly true. Like a line of hungry customers at a buffet, a restaurant can consume your life with a seemingly endless appetite.

But it can also be a great job with many perks. It’s all about how you approach it and what you want to gain from it. One thing a restaurant can teach someone is how to be a strong leader. A good restaurant must be run by those who strive to be mentors, and not just managers. That’s where you can find real success and value in a job that is more taxing than it appears. I learned the most from the mentors I was lucky enough to work with and I still make the most of the lessons they taught me.

A Mentor Must Wear Many Hats

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Running a restaurant means you are overseeing many departments at once. A good manager is experienced and knowledgable about each of those areas. Though you may have expertise in a specific area of hospitality, it’s vital to know how each department in your restaurant works. You have to be able to find solutions when those departments aren’t being efficient.


Here is a short list of how managers can gain better knowledge of each department.

– Rotate coverage and work within each department

Through out the week, managers should rotate coverage between different departments. This should be a focus. It’s the best way to learn the ins-and-outs of your restaurant; it also connects you with each employee which will make them more responsive to constructive criticism. On Monday night, you could focus on the host stand. Understand and help with protocol. How should guests be greeted? What duties can the host do when things service is slow? On Tuesday, help the kitchen run food. Learn how the board and tickets are handled in the kitchen. What stations are slow? Which are fast? How can this information be related to service staff so operations run smoother? A good employee will respect a manager that can handle any job that’s needed.

– Become a Moderator and hold employee forums

An employee forum is really just a meeting where the employees are able to lead the discussion. If this sounds terrifying to you, I understand. Restaurant staff are never short of complaints or excuses. But if done properly, this can become a very productive way to interact with your employees and learn more about the pain points staff experience during service. This is also a useful way to minimize turnover and keep employees feeling engaged. If staff feel they have a voice, and issues are heard and addressed, they will stick around. If you show loyalty and concern for your employees, they will show loyalty to you.

– Be an advisor and teacher

Part of management is teaching employees how to do tasks the proper way. But too many managers have poor communication skills and rely on their authority to tell employees when they’re not performing. But, you should become a teacher that is instructive and not just tell people how to do things, but show them.

Also, think of yourself as an advisor. Part of being a good teacher is understanding each student and there idiosyncrasies. So it’s important that you have an open-door policy for employees to ask questions and air grievances. If employees feel like you have their back and they can come to you when something isn’t right, then the restaurant will be better off in the long run.

Explain Each Job in Terms of the Big Picture

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Do you know what a Dementor is? It’s a sort of demonic creature in the Harry Potter  franchise that sucks the souls right out from the worst criminals of the wizarding world. This soul-sucking punishment leaves these criminals feeling unbearably cold and unable feel happiness ever again. This is exactly what a micro-managing supervisor does to a good employee.

And remember, it’s the good employees that we are really talking about throughout this article. But what is a good employee? It doesn’t necessarily mean the most talented or the one with the most ability. Usually, the best employees in a restaurant are those who are reliable, have respect for their job, and respect those around them. And these are the types of people you should seek to mentor.

But often times a manager doesn’t explain the job properly to a good employee. Because a good employee not only wants to know how a job is done, but why it is being done. Explaining the process behind certain decisions can be more educational than simply learning how to do a task. It’s all about the “because.”

Here’s an example: If you run a bar and an employee is making a cocktail for a new seasonal menu, but the ingredients they’ve chosen would result in a drink that is way to expensive to put on the menu, then explain this. And go one step further. Explain how and why the drinks are priced a certain way, and what considerations need to go into making drinks for a cocktail menu. This gives them guidance for the future and a better understanding of how the restaurant operates.

Connect with Employees Outside of the Job

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This doesn’t have to mean building a relationship outside of work. No, I’m not telling you to go to the bar after work and take shots with your servers or bartenders, that is up to you. But it is important to learn about your employees and their lives outside of work, and for them to learn about you. We all know working in a restaurant is a social job that can be insanely stressful. It helps to have friends you can rely on. So, tell stories, be relatable, make people laugh. That goes a long way in a restaurant. But always remember, and remind your employees of this too, the foundation of a good working relationship is hard work. Nothing connects co-workers more than knowing the person next to them is pulling their own weight, and each person has one another’s back.

So, work hard. And after the work is done, have a laugh.

Leadership Resources and Training

There are a lot of great resources for learning how to be a better leader in a restaurant. Here are some places to get helpful information on becoming a leader in your restaurant.

National Restaurant Association: Manage My Restaurant

Kellog Leadership Program: Women’s Foodservice Forum

Restaurant Industry Forum: Food Service Forum

Restaurateur Danny Meyer: Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality

Reddit Community Forum for Restaurateurs

For Students Looking for a Career in Hospitality




Kyle Thacker