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What I Learned from Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares

You can observe a lot by watching - Yogi Berra

I like to watch - Chance the Gardener, from the Peter Sellers movie, Being There

Gordon Ramsay is a controversial guy, not everyone's cup of tea, but the wise business owner shouldn't be afraid to get ideas from any legitimate source.

Ramsay's television show Kitchen Nightmares is one of the better shows out there for a small business owner. Sure, he's a chef and tells restaurant owners how to run their businesses. And maybe your business isn't a restaurant. But that doesn't mean you should ignore what Ramsay says.

The show of course has a formula: Ramsay investigates the restaurant of the week; (usually) blows up at the owner for a deplorable state of operational and financial matters; assesses how committed the owner is to change; (most times) gets the owner to buy into making much-needed changes; implements the change; and then tests it out in the closing section -- usually with success.

At a more general level, here are some of the key business issues the show addresses. These are applicable to any business:

  • Motivation: This is the gut-check question, and in Ramsay's interaction with the restaurant owner, it's usually the first issue that he addresses. Does the owner have the caring, the commitment that will be needed to turn the business around. Some of the restaurant owners may have started out with passion, but it's clear the daily grind of hassling operations and losing money has worn them out. Warren Buffett talks about tap-dancing to work each day.
  • Staff issues: Once the owner's motivation is back on track, the next challenge is usually to deal with performance of the staff running the business. In a small business, this sometimes means that the owner has been blind to what good performance actually means (all those scenes where Ramsay is cleaning out disgustingly old food). But sometimes the change to higher levels of performance reveals a poor choice in the current employees, so that one or more have to be fired. For some owners, this is a difficult decision.  But if an employee is holding back your business, you've got to do what's best for the business -- and getting rid of an employee that doesn't fit the business is probably a good thing for the employee, even if it hurts in the short term.
  • Appearance matters: Any business that interacts with customers has to look the part. This is a part of the show that is more a magic transformation: Ramsay sends his team in, and literally overnight they do a full makeover on the restaurant decor. Partly, it's a matter of caring enough to notice details (such as outdated signs), and partly it's a matter of being able to bring fresh eyes to a tired presentation.
  • Business process matters too: The final issue dealt with is to simplify and refresh the menu. Can your business be re-jigged so that production is simpler but better for your customers? In the restaurant setting, this often results in cost savings because of less wastage, or Ramsay's insight that a particular cuisine will work better given the kind of customers that are avialable to the business.

I've been watching the effect of a changeover in the cafe downstairs. For the last few years, it was run by a couple as a Chinese restaurant. New owners took over, with a totally different kind of restaurant idea: paninis, fresh salads, and coffee. They are drawing customers -- local workers -- that I never saw before when the Chinese restaurant was operating.

Not all TV is trash -- use it to get better ideas for your business!


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