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Lessons Learned:

Making the Most of the Most Important 15 Minutes
by Bob Brown

There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think of Michael O’Grady. I cannot forget the creative ways he coached and mentored so many to new heights. In this new series, Lesson’s Learned from the Magnificent Manager, I’ll share my insights, breakthroughs, tools, and techniques which honor Michael’s legacy of helping others grow and succeed.

Are your pre-shifts bland, boring, and just a necessary evil? In my travels I’ve seen a mixed bag. Years ago, I remember pre-shifts being nothing more than, “your shoes are dirty, you can go home early, and we’re out of sea bass” kinds of affairs. Today, they range from a fly-by-night posted sheet to a 90-minute lesson extraordinaire.

Whatever the case, the pre-meal briefing is the most underutilized precious few minutes in a shift. How meetings are conducted is the difference between millions of dollars gained or millions lost. Don’t believe it? Compare the numbers between the champions and the chumps.

Managers are rarely trained on how to conduct effective meetings. Many suffer the common pitfalls of any presenter: zero planning, starting off with “How’s everyone?,” data dumping, telling rather than showing, lackluster audience interaction, the absence of clear expectations, and the “Have a great shift” ending. The result is that participants endure rather than engage in this critical piece of time real estate. Here are a few practices to ramp up your pre-meal meetings.

1 Think like a rock star.
Do you think Elton John just jumps on stage without an arduous rehearsal and a thorough sound check? Hardly. Use a pre-shift planner to craft and execute your performance. Include the following: opening statement; FYI linked to a service and sales strategy; the “raw, prepped, final food show”; feedback; training focus of the day; performance expectation; and signature sign-off. Hold a pre-shift with your chef and management team so everyone’s on the same page. Consider, too, your stage. Is it built to captivate, or is it filled with attention-diverting kitchen clang and dining room din? Is your audience leaning on countertops or craning their necks, struggling to hear and see you? Create a comfortable listening environment in a quiet corner or private party room, and position yourself in a command position. Oh, and by the way, start meetings at the same time every day. Everyone will relax and managers will stop saying, “I feel like a babysitter.”

2 Stop asking “How’s everyone?”
This close-ended question is guaranteed to deflate your audience. It telegraphs that what’s about to follow will be mind-numbingly routine. How about ”Welcome to another episode of fun in the sun at the Striped Bass?” or “Ladies and gentlemen, buckle up for another exciting ride at the Yippee Ki-Yay Café.” You don’t have to be corny. Just create a little fun and pizzazz. Plus, get on the “good foot” with James Brown, or try a few stretches to get the blood flowing. Start fresh, break the ice, and lower stress. You’ll open the hearts and minds of your audience.

3 Preview the positive.
To entice the troops, tell them upfront “what’s in it for me,” like “You’ll make at least a hundred bucks if you tune into today’s lesson on food storytelling.” Every presenter knows if you don’t emphasize the rewards you risk losing someone in the peanut gallery to a side game of Pac Man on his cell phone.

4 Get relevant.
Too many meetings are filled with a flat exchange of information. Make a connection between the fact that it’s freezing outside and the tomato fennel soup fitting the bill. Or, perhaps, it’s a busy Friday night, so stay away from the 30-minute prep-time lasagna. Ask your audience, “What three things could we do to create a positive mood-altering experience for Mr. Stevens and his wife Hilda for their 10th anniversary?” Many things influence strategy: guest demographics, day of the week, current events, seasonal items, special parties, and the weather.

5 Lead a discussion.
“How’d it go last night?” is a favorite deadend question managers ask in an attempt to get feedback. Recently I heard, “Any questions or concerns?” and everyone huddled down as if to say, “The first jerk that prolongs this agony will pay!” Become a master opened-ended question asker. “What’s one thing that was difficult about delivering the guided tour of last-night’s menu?” The stories that ensue will create a productive exchange of feelings and ideas.

6 Stop telling and start showing.
“O.K., tonight I want you to sell more appetizers,” was a directive I remember as a rookie waiter. So, I followed orders and asked my first guest, “Would you like an appetizer?” and got a resounding, “No, I’m saving room for dessert!” Demonstrate the skill you want team members to master. Take it to the next step and create curriculum-style training. Write a topics list and build mini-training modules. For instance, demonstrate and discuss how to use the “airplane landing technique” to deliver dishes, how to avoid “yes/no” questions, give guided tours, or make “hello” special. Now you’ve discovered how to add 30 hours of training a year.

7 Get interesting with food.
Another missed opportunity is with the daily special presentation. It’s unfortunate that most dishes are presented in their guest-ready form. The chef reviews the ingredients and preparation with jargon-laden details—and no one listens. Most servers just wait for the O.K. to gobble up every morsel, like they haven’t eaten in years. Consider a family-style meal before the shift. It not only helps the team bond but averts attention- devouring hunger before, during, and after the pre-shift. Next, deliver the “raw, prepped, final” magical 3-D food show. While working with Curve, a restaurant in London, the chef brought out a live giant spider crab from Billingsgate Fishmarket. As it flailed around on it’s 15-inch legs, everyone was glued to the creature with fear and fascination. On another sheetpan he placed chunks of tender crabmeat along with mayo, capers, Dijon, and Old Bay. On a third sheetpan he displayed the finished masterpiece: sautéed crabcakes accented with watercress and house-made tartar sauce. He made the narration compelling and simple. The sights, sounds, and smells did the rest. Use the 3-D food show to liven things up. Why not turn your staff into subject matter experts? They’ll deliver a better guest experience and be happy about bringing home some extra cash.

8 Be up-front about coaching.
Now that you’ve provided knowledge, skills, and strategy, ensure your staff gets some follow-up. “O.K., ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be out there tonight to support you and give feedback on the lessons learned today. I’ll focus on the ‘airplane landing technique,’ your presentation of the spider crabcakes, and our orchestration of delighter service for the Stevens,” you might say. Now you can avoid being, in Michael’s words, “a host hugger, office dweller, ping-ponger, or museum guard.” Your purpose and plan is defined. You have less stress. Many managers struggle to hold staff accountable because they’ve never been taught to deliver on-the-mark training and set clear expectations. Lastly, close the meeting with a signature sign-off. “Ladies and gentlemen, be careful out there. It’s a wild, wild world,” Michael used to say. In the end, use the pre-shift to train, communicate, and motivate. It’s the most valuable 15 minutes of your day.

Bob Brown, president of Bob Brown Service Solutions,, pioneered Marriott’s Service Excellence Program and has worked with clients such as Disney, Hilton, Morton’s of Chicago, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster. He has appeared on the “Food Network” and “Hospitality Television” and is author of The Little Brown Book of Restaurant Success and The Big Brown Book of Managers’ Success.

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