By Dr. John M. Paitakes, Professor Emeritus, Seton Hall University
Special to the Hellenic News of America
During the pandemic, the public has labeled many workers as “Heroes”. The following are some of those: doctors, nurses, police, firefighters, truck drivers, delivery persons, to name a number. I believe diner and restaurants owners should be added to this list. These are the people feeding a noticeable segment of the population. During the past two years I have frequented numerous eating establishments in person and at times ordering for delivery or pick up. In conversation with owners, they discussed the difficulty of maintaining their business in the face of declining revenue.
Unfortunately, a significant number of them, (above 35%), went out of business due to capital depleted. However, there were also a number of businesses which thrived due to their creativity during this time. Those owners who were able to cope with the challenge remained open. Many began offering take-out and pick-up to customers. Some created “Family Packages” for customers at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, many had to lay off staff and reduce operating hours. Owners and managers had to multi-task duties normally handled by other employees. In addition, a number of owners took a reduced salary and sometimes, no salary. As the weather became cooler some owners reacted by adding covered outside seating venues if their property was able to accommodate same.
In addition to additional expenses, there were zoning permit issues to comply with. As the weather became even colder, there was the issue and expense of outside portable heaters. Once again, permits and expenses became an issue to deal with. Physical changes to the interior was another factor to consider. Rearranging seating to conform with 6 feet between tables, which may reduce the seating capacity and therefore, revenues, was another issue. Installing improved ventilation systems was something to consider as it was important that customers felt safe when dining. However, the dedicated, hardworking owners and operators weathered through this difficult time hoping for an end to the pandemic and better times.
Lessons learned: How did the owners and entrepreneurs in the food industry work through this most challenging period? Based upon the authors experience and in conversations with a number of diner and restaurant owners, the following can be attributed to their dealing with and moving successfully forward.
Work Ethic: Many owners and managers had grown up in the food industry and working hard and long hours was normal. They had seen in many cases how their parents set this example. This was normal. Therefore, working weekends, holidays, and nights was normal to be successful.
Working as a Team: The term “Working as a Team” has strongly been emphasized in this business. If as an owner/manager the short order cook, waiter, or dishwasher was overburdened or did not show up for work that day you had to step up and assist. You may have had to wait on customers, take out the garbage, bus tables, whatever was needed to serve the customer, and keep the business running if you wanted to be successful.
Diverse Customer Base: In the food business you may serve people from all races, colors, religions, gender, and ages. You learn and develop the skills of accommodating all if you desire to have a successful business.
Decision Making: In the food industry you must daily be able to make numerous decisions. What and how much to order weekly, monthly; who to hire and at what salary; when to open and when to close? One of the biggest challenges facing the food industry was operating a successful business during the pandemic. Decisions must be made daily either independently or in concert with staff and others.
Communication Skills: Many of the owners and managers in the food industry are not college graduates with advanced degrees. However, to be successful in this most interesting career, one must be able to communicate and relate effectively with a diverse customer base. I remember my father, who was a school dropout as he had to help support his family, was an excellent communicator. I marveled how he would speak with customers in different positions; the President of Rutgers University; the Chief of Police in New Brunswick; the Supervisor of Sanitation; the Building Inspector and so on with a variety of persons from different work environments. He was able to communicate effectively with these persons from various positions. This skill assisted him in operating a successful business for over twenty years!
Customer Relations: The customer is our most important product in the food industry. Without a solid customer base we cannot be successful in this business. A major theme in the restaurant business is “the customer is always right”. A satisfied customer will probably be a repeat customer and a great referral agent. A wise owner-manager will ensure hospitality by making a personal connection with every customer if possible. Greeting a customer when they enter their establishment and then checking with them during their dining experience to ensure their satisfaction is important to ensure satisfaction. When the customer is about to leave, thanking them for their patronage is also recommended. It’s these actions that will make a lasting impression on customers. Greeks are well known for their “Philitimo”-love of hospitality so this is natural for them.
Donating-Giving Back: It has been reported that many successful owners found a way to give back to their communities. During the pandemic, we have seen that many owners in the food business have delivered food, at no cost to some of the first responders, nurses, low-income persons, the homeless, and many others during this difficult time. This exhibits the humanistic side of the owners by exhibiting their goodwill. This will provide psychic rewards to owners and may also assist their business at a later date by some of the recipients. The Greek entrepreneur almost always donates to churches, especially during festivals and other church activities.
About the author: Dr. John Paitakes grew up in the diner restaurant business. His father owned and operated the Spinning Wheel Diner, Restaurant, and Cocktail lounge during the 50’s and 60’s in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Beginning at age 16 and then through High School, college and a year after graduating, he worked as a waiter, bus boy, dishwasher, maintenance man, bartender and night manager. This provided the interaction with and supervision of employees to include, waitresses, busboys, bartenders, short order cooks, chefs and maintenance personnel. In the mid 60’s my father decided to retire after 45 yrs. working in the food industry. He and his wife moved to Florida shortly thereafter. Thus began my career, working for the Somerset County New Jersey Courts as a Probation Officer. I worked there for 29 yrs. attaining the rank Of Assistant Chief Probation Officer. Upon retiring I began my second career as a University Professor at Seton Hall University. I retired after 20 years at the rank of Sr. Faculty Associate as I was appointed by Governor Christie as an Alternate Parole Board member. When I reflect back upon my careers in several different positions, I attribute much of my success for the great opportunity of working and learning about human relations provided by this great industry.