Navigating the soul suckage of running a business right now

Taking two (or three) steps back to take one forward.

If you’re reading this and running a small business my guess is that your work life might feel like one big shit sandwich.  Between supply chain issues, lack of staff  and Covid restrictions just surviving a normal workday can be challenging.  Sadly, I’m telling our people to strap in and get used to the bumpy ride – I don’t see a quick end to the current macro environment.  So with that cheery prediction out of the way, here are some of things we’re doing in our business to get through this.


Hiring is a full time job

If you are short staffed, putting up a sign and hoping for the best isn’t going to cut it right now.  You need to do more. A lot more.  In the past few months we have gone overboard with marketing our hiring needs.  We are also fortunate to have a full time HR person working on screening and interviewing candidates.  This means our managers can focus on training and running their stores.  Is this giving us an advantage over other restaurants?  Probably.  I get that few small businesses have the luxury we have.  Any additional re-direction of resources towards hiring will make a difference.  Even, if you, the owner, can put an additional 30 minutes per week towards this, it’s better than nothing.


Focus on quality – think long term

Many years ago, I remember being desperate to find a pizza delivery driver.  For whatever reason, we just weren’t getting any applications.  Finally, a young woman who had just moved to Madison from Alaska applied.  She told me she knew her way around town and her driving record was clean.  I hired her on the spot.  The next day, on the first delivery of her first shift, she got lost going to an address that was two blocks away.  That’s right.  Two blocks away.  What should have taken 10 minutes to complete took an hour.  When the order arrived the customer complained directly to the driver.  Instead of offering an apology, the driver cursed out the customer who then called me to voice her displeasure (rightly so).    When the driver returned I fired her.  It was the shortest tenure of anyone who has worked with us.

In the current environment it’s tempting to hire anyone who applies even if they aren’t qualified.  As hard as it may be some days, we are trying to stay true to our hiring goals; we want to hire people for the long run.  But I’m not going to lie and say we’ve been perfect.  Recently, we held on to a staff member who was a bad fit, because we needed “a body”.  He knew it too and walked out on us during the middle of a busy shift.  We took a bad situation and made it worse.

Quality staff help create a quality work environment, which leads to quality food and quality customer service.  Focusing on a quality creates a virtuous cycle.  The opposite also is true.  Which do you want?


Reduce hours

It sucks to reduce hours or reduce your operation when demand is so strong. That’s where our business is right now along with many others.  One of my friends who owns a restaurant has been killing himself all summer to capture all of the business he can.  After what his restaurant went through during Covid, I don’t blame him.  But he also looks burnt out and acknowledges as much.  Getting our business to bounce back from Covid is a marathon not a sprint.  Right now, I don’t want to burn out our staff, so if it means closing that’s what we’re doing.  It doesn’t feel great, its not our goal, it’s just what we have to do to preserve our quality and human capital.


Double down on the people who are awesome

You know the saying, “Squeaky wheel gets the grease”.  In practical terms it means your staff that is underperforming get the attention.  Meanwhile the people that kick ass get taken for granted.  Instead of focusing on the former, my mentor Paul Saginaw, has preached investing in the latter.  When you double down on taking care of your best people you will increase the chances of them staying with you and help achieve the virtuous cycle I described above.


Look for opportunities

Opportunities can arise when you least expect them.  Right now might seem like a crazy time to start a new restaurant but one of my friends just did it.   He negotiated a phenomenal deal on a great space, signed the lease and opened a few months later.  So far, it’s worked out really well.   Yes, he’s dealing with all of the problems and stress the rest of us are, but when the macro picture stabilizes he will be coming out ahead.

Seizing opportunity doesn’t just mean expansion.  For our original location Milwaukee it’s meant radically improving our efficiency.  Where as the pre-Covid paradigm was to chase volume and hope profits follow, today this location is focusing on the reverse.  The results have been incredible.  Sales are down 10%, but profits have nearly tripled!

If you are reading this and feeling like I am, you too are tired, fed up and hoping for “normal”.  “Normal” will return but it will look different.  The sooner you can figure out how to adjust the quicker things will improve.  I know.  Easier said than done.  As alway, feel free to reach out.