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How keeping it simple helps Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises continue to delight customers Featured

8:01pm EDT March 31, 2012
How keeping it simple helps Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises continue to delight customers

Kevin Brown looked at Grand Café and he didn’t like what he saw. The French bistro in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood was still a nice place to eat, but it had lost that special something that once made it a destination place.

“We had let some chefs play with the menu a little bit and it had lost its soul about what it was,” says Brown, president and CEO at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc.

Lettuce Entertain You operates more than 80 restaurants across the country and with the responsibilities that come along with each of those locations; it would have been easy for Brown to look for someone else to tackle the problem of Grand Café.

He certainly didn’t have enough time to take on the task himself, right?

Whether he did or not, Brown made the time to do a thorough review of every aspect of the restaurant’s operation. Company founder and Chairman Rich Melman and several talented chefs in the company joined him in the effort.

“We went back and I think we were closed for about three weeks,” Brown says. “We redid the floor plan, redid the look of the menu and we changed the name to Mon Ami Gabi, which was ‘my friend Gabino.’ We just went back to basics and made it a great French bistro again. We worked on the onion soup and the salad frisée and the steak frites. We just went back and said, ‘This is what this business is meant to be.’ We reignited its soul.”

More than a dozen years later, Mon Ami Gabi remains one of the company’s most popular eateries with five locations, including a particularly successful restaurant in Las Vegas.

Brown credits the attention to detail that has been embedded in the culture at Lettuce Entertain You for allowing the transformation from Grand Café to Mon Ami Gabi to take place.

“Leaders, a big part of their job is to solve problems,” Brown says. “That’s what we do. We inspire people. We take chances and try to solve problems. We take risks. Risk creates opportunity. Whether you’re fixing something that is not working or creating something new, you have to attend to the details. The details are what build the engine to make it fly.”

It’s not always easy to stay in touch with those details as your company grows. Lettuce Entertain You has come a long way since June 10, 1971, when Melman and Jerry Orzoff opened their first restaurant in the same Lincoln Park Neighborhood.

But Brown says finding a way to maintain the spirit that the company had when it had only one restaurant is crucial to the effort to stay on top.

“Culture is the glue of an organization,” Brown says. “It fills the gaps where nothing else can fill. It’s the passion and the culture and the drive to do what we think is right and the drive to do things because that’s the way we believe they should be done. That’s our primary motive.”

Here are some of the ways Brown works with his team to help Lettuce Entertain You and its collection of restaurants remain a favorite for customers.

Stay true to your culture

Brown quickly one-ups anyone who shares with him that their job is just never the same from one day to the next.

“My job isn’t the same every hour,” Brown says with a chuckle. “It’s a wonderfully stimulating business. You get to taste a lot of really great food. You get to work with design and you get to work with music. But at the same time, you have to think about how do we run a $400 million company with 91 restaurants?”

The first step for Brown is to not look at this task as if he were being asked to build a new company from scratch. Lettuce Entertain You has been around for 40 years and history shows it has done a lot of things right.

“We have a very entrepreneurial organization with a dynamic founder,” Brown says. “The challenge of my leadership is to help bring the second generation along so we can keep it going. How do I maintain it and keep it going as we continue to drive new ideas? At the same time, how do I structure and help organize and create accountability in the organization to ensure that along the road, we’re healthy?”

One of the keys to his company’s success is the belief that culture is more than just a sign that is posted on the wall or a card that employees are asked to carry in their pockets.

Culture is made through every action you take and every word you speak.

“Your philosophies from the way you want to treat people, the way you want to manage people and the way you view your business, culture is built every single day,” Brown says. “It’s the way you react on the spot to your employees and to your guests and to your vendors and the decisions we make on how we want our restaurants to be run. It’s a day-in and day-out process.

“So when you’re pushed on something and you’ve having to make a decision or something, that decision, if you look at the decision you’re making and it’s a long-term decision or it’s a tough decision, that says something about your culture. I believe it’s those decisions that reinforce the culture. It’s those conversations and those choices. I would hope we continue to make choices in our organization that reinforce our culture.”

Brown prefers not to think of his job as leading 5,500 people a philosophy, which makes it easier to maintain the company’s open culture and easier to tackle fixes like the transformation of Grand Café.

“We don’t focus on the entire company at once,” Brown says. “We focus on one store at a time, one problem at a time and we try to fix things. Now there are multiples of us trying to fix and improve one area at one time, obviously, at our size. That’s how we operate. We don’t think big. We think small. We believe when you think small you can get things done. When you think big, it can be overwhelming. We don’t view ourselves as big.”

Brown and Melman didn’t approach the situation at Grand Café with panic or a sense that the fate of the company was hanging on what they did next. The calm approach gave them the freedom to do what needed to be done.

But even if you are facing a significant problem, you still can’t afford to panic.

“You have certain things that come across your desk that you have to deal with,” Brown says. “Most of the things, if you’re trying to fix something, it’s unlikely they got where they are quickly. And it’s very unlikely they are going to be fixed quickly. So the recovery is going to be somewhat similar to the reaction to what actually happened.

“You have to be intense, you have to be persistent and you have to keep working at it. But at the same time, just know that some issues you go to tackle are going to require smaller steps to solve. You want to try to solve things so that they are solved, not just a Band-Aid.”

Respect your employees

No matter how great you think your company and its culture are, you need to make sure employees have a clear outlet to express concerns.

“This is not an easy business,” Brown says. “There are guests who are rude, and management’s job is to support employees. Back them up if there is a rude guest. Let them know that is not acceptable. Any service business unfortunately can be the brunt of other’s emotions that really sometimes have nothing to do with where they are at the time. Sometimes we’re the brunt of something that happened to them three hours earlier or something that is going on their life. That’s just the nature of being in the service business. You want to be supportive of your staff.”

Hopefully, there aren’t a lot of situations where you have conflict between your employees and your customers. In more typical interactions, the way you treat your employees is often most evident through your actions rather than your words.

“They know when it’s real,” Brown says. “You can’t say it, you have to reinforce it. It’s decisions that you make every day. It’s how you treat people. You can’t say you care, but then don’t back it up. You’ve got to put substance behind it and make people believe that we want this to be a great place for people to work.”

If you’re a company that touts itself as providing world-class customer service, you may want to look in the mirror and ask yourself how well you treat your employees. Is there a difference between the two?

“If you expect your guests to be well taken care of, you had better take great care of your people, because they take care of your guests,” Brown says. “We like to work with a high level of recognition for our employees and high respect. What we ask of them and everybody that works for us is we want them to care. We want them to care about their guests, their food and care about each other. We want them to care about the job they are doing.”

Develop your emotional side

If you’re a leader who has read every piece of advice offered on how to succeed in your industry, Brown gives you kudos. Just don’t think that you’ve reached the finish line and now know all there is to know about effective leadership.

“Sometimes leaders try to read a lot about getting more technical savvy in their business, which don’t get me wrong, is important,” Brown says. “But as leaders, you always have to be developing your emotional side. You have to be developing your ability to lead, your ability to motivate and your ability to read a situation. That’s our job. Our job is to continue to develop ourselves. If you continue to develop yourself in all aspects of leadership, it can be quite fulfilling.”

It’s easy to get hung up on perfecting this process or working on your sales pitch or making the next version of your widget better than the last. But it can’t be all about the nuts and bolts of your business.

“We have a lot of employees,” Brown says. “We as an organization have to fill their financial needs and their job security needs, but there is a certain amount of emotional needs we have to fill with them also. We have to give them a good workplace. The hierarchy of needs, that’s all real. But it’s not a formula; it’s a practice.

“You have to constantly be committed to developing yourself in all aspects of leadership. A developing leader and a growing leader generally speaking will have a developing and growing organization. If I stop growing and I stop developing, it’s kind of hard for people around me. Why should I keep going? Why should I keep pushing?”

Brown says the blueprint for effective leadership is really not that tough to understand. The execution isn’t always easy, but the steps are pretty straightforward.

“You give them as many tools at the management level as needed when they go on the floor to know how we feel service should be and how the guests should be treated,” Brown says. “Once they continue to progress, then it’s just reinforced on the day-to-day decision-making and leadership they see from the rest of the organization. As long as we say it, the proverbial ‘walk the talk,’ as long as we tell people what we’re doing and then we back it up, then it’s believable. If we say what we’re doing, but we don’t back it up, it’s not particularly believable. I won’t say we’re perfect, but we really strive to do the right thing.”

How to reach: Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., (773) 878-7340 or www.leye.com

The Brown File

 Kevin Brown, President and CEO, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc. 

Born: Pittsburgh

Education: Bachelor’s degree, hospitality management, Michigan State University

What was your very first job?

My father had a very small boat dock on the Ohio River. It docked about 30 boats and it had a snack bar. My brother would be out pumping gas and would be on the boats and loved to water ski. That didn’t interest me. I was real interested in what was going on in the snack bar. My father was also the manager of a lot of townhouses that had a pool and a snack bar. I ran that also. There was something in the back of my brain that I like serving food and I like taking care of people.

Who has been the biggest influence on you?

Founder and Chairman Rich Melman and second would be Steve Phillips. The Phillips family owns Phillips Crab House in Ocean City, Md. It’s a large family, and they have a big crab-packing company and 15 or 20 restaurants. I had an opportunity to work there in Ocean City. I wanted to work at the beach, and it sounded like a fun job.

Well, I went into a 1,400-seat restaurant and said, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,’ and six weeks later, I transferred to Michigan State University for the fall. Steve Phillips was driven and intense and cared about quality and took care of his people. Fortunately, I went from Steve Phillips to Rich Melman and he exemplified the exact same thing and both of them have helped mold me into who I am.

What would your last meal be?

Traditional spaghetti and meatballs