The secret to restaurant success (or success in any business)

Over the last three years I’ve interviewed dozens of successful independent restaurant owners for Schedulefly’s Restaurant Owners Uncorked book and video series, and here’s what I have learned is the secret to success in the restaurant business: there is no secret! You’ve simply got to figure out your own personal formula for success through trial and error and tinkering. That doesn’t make things easy, but its the reality you’ve got to accept if you truly want to succeed.

When we decided to start interviewing owners for the book, I believed there would be common threads woven throughout their stories. I assumed we’d be able to construct a narrative around some set of characteristics or philosophies they all shared. Would they all be optimists? Or have grit? Or passion? Or a focus on putting customers first? Or on putting employees first?

Most books and articles about success tell us that if we just follow the steps or the path the author is laying out for us, we will win. In an autobiographical scenario, the author will either convey his/her own story as an example and walk the reader through what he/she learned on the way to success. Though any discerning reader would view that one person’s perspective as perhaps interesting, but narrow. More often though, we read about success from authors who’ve found multiple successful people that fit into a pattern. The people the author references have all done these three things, or followed this specific path, and they all succeeded. Therefore, you can replicate their success by simply replicating what they’ve all done.

We enjoy these types of books or articles because they simplify something that seems so daunting: how to be successful at some endeavor. All you need to do is use the process they offer, or follow their three of five or ten “simple” steps and, voila, you will succeed as well! How easy!!!

Yet every one of the authors who spin these yarns miss a critical aspect: silent evidence. Silent evidence is simply the collection of evidence of people who used the same seemingly alchemic process the author has outlined, yet didn’t turn their business into a success. Rather, they failed.

For every person who used grit to be successful, there may be ten others whose gritty efforts came up short. For every passionate winner there may be twenty passionate losers. We don’t ever really know how many people followed the same steps or took the same path that success books and articles and stories lay out – and failed. Why? Because we never interview people who failed. Rather, we look for commonalities in the people who’ve succeeded and construct a narrative around those commonalities. And in the process we ignore those same commonalities in people who have not succeeded.

It may seem odd that I am writing this post, given that we produce a popular video series which shares advice and wisdom from successful restaurant owners, or that we published a well-received book which contains a collection of interviews with successful owners. But this lack of a clear formula for winning is exactly why our book doesn’t have a central point, but rather lays out each owner’s story without our commentary. And it’s why the videos often contain contrasting opinions from the owners,and we make no remark on them. We’ve learned that while one extremely successful owner might tell you to make sure to leverage social media at every chance, another equally successful owner might not have ever sent a tweet. One might tell you to focus on volume over margins, while the other might say its all about profit. Customers always comes first over here, employees always come first over there. There is simply no right answer.

Ultimately what I’ve learned while helping run a small business and from listening to so many successful restaurant owners is that the path to success is opaque. Success is complex, it’s nuanced. Or perhaps, more importantly, each person’s path and each business’s path, is different. The only secret formula is the one you figure out for yourself and for your business, and it only works for you, and the only way to construct it is through trial and error. In fact, most successful restaurant owners will tell you they’ve learned more from failure than from success. Making mistakes, and being self-aware enough to learn from those mistakes what not to do is often more valuable than trying to learn what to do. I can assure you the best lessons we’ve learned at Schedulefly came from things we tried that failed. So mistakes and failure have been a really good thing, because we have narrowed our focus and know so well what won’t work that we are enabled to focus more sharply on the things that do work.

While this commentary may seem to make the path to success more daunting, I believe that once you learn not to follow the footsteps of others, but rather to attempt to blaze your own path – and expect, and even relish in, the road blocks and stumbles along the way – you actually give yourself better odds of doing what you set out to do: figuring out how you will succeed.