Business Pain Points in the Restaurant Industry are a Very Particular Beast

Mar 11, 2024
Alison Arth and Bill Summerville serving a table of guests at Spoon and Stable

Photo courtesy of Spoon and Stable

The majority of my media diet consists of leadership podcasts and personal development books. (And the rest of it consists of binging Love Is Blind). 

I learn so much from reading the work of thought leaders like Brené Brown, Gabor Mate, and James Clear, and hearing from the many incredible guests on podcasts like the ones hosted by Mel Robbins, Tim Ferriss, and the women of We Can Do Hard Things. 

And I also gotta say, as a hospitality professionalsometimes I feel left out of the narrative. 

The scenarios that get analyzed in most leadership development dialogues don’t account for the many unique business pain points that restaurants and hospitality businesses of all stripes face. 

To name just a few…

  • Most businesses have flexibility with deadlines that restaurants do not. You can’t push back lunch service or decide to shorten your hours of operation because 2 cooks called out, or because there was a death in your family.
  • There’s a required immediacy and responsiveness in restaurant businesses that’s uncommon in other industries. You can’t tell the irate guest in the dining room asking for a manager that this is the time you have blocked for creating next week’s schedule, so you’ll need to get back to her in an hour.
  • Food, labor, and real estate costs are going up, but diners’ willingness to pay more for dining out isn’t moving at the same pace…and may actually be trending in the opposite direction.
  • The financial model and operational demands of food businesses mean that nearly every square foot of your 4-wall be used for either functional back of house space or guest-facing areas. The office (if you have one at all) tends to be thimble-sized and used by a lot of different people, making private, quiet, distraction-free spaces to do focused work alone or in groups extremely challenging. 

These are just a handful of the non-negotiable realities that hospitality leaders face that professionals in most other industries don’t. But the list doesn’t stop here…


Some of the pain points you face as a hospitality leader are true circumstances. 

The undeniable challenges of working and leading in this business that you can’t control or change create what we’d call “clean pain” at Salt & Roe.

If you’re one of two managers, and your colleague comes down with Covid the day that you were planning to attend your best friend’s birthday party and there’s no other option but for you to run service that night…the rightful disappointment you feel is clean pain.  

If you’ve been investing extra time and energy to groom your thoughtful, committed Assistant General Manager to move into the GM role for months so that you could move up into a Director of Operations role, and she let’s you know that she has to move out of state to take care of an aging parent…the sadness and frustration you feel is clean pain. 

It’s also true that some of the pain points you face as a hospitality leader only seem like they’re completely out of your control, but really, there are more possibilities for responding than you realize. This creates what we call “dirty pain” at Salt & Roe. 

Dirty pain is self-induced suffering that can be avoided by utilizing leadership skills like time management, mind management, clear communication, and boundary-setting.

For many, many years of my restaurant management career, I would spend the time in between lunch and dinner service answering emails in the office with the door open. Every time a team member poked their head in to ask for their cash tips from the safe, let me know they needed to borrow an apron for service, or tell me about a bathroom repair that needed to be handled, I would stop what I was doing and respond to their request. 

Inevitably, I’d spend 1.5 hours getting through 1.5 emails and head to pre-shift feeling frustrated, behind, and like a victim of my “circumstances.”

In this example, it is true that private, distraction-free spaces are hard to come by in restaurants.

It is not true that there was nothing I could do about it. Choosing not to hold boundaries with my team or take responsibility for when and where I respond to emails created lots of dirty pain for me all those years. 

There are dirty pain points aplenty in restaurants! 

In part because you’ve got a tough set of circumstances that just comes with the job in this business, and in part because you weren't taught the leadership skills that support you in cleaning up piles of self-induced suffering. 

If some of the main culprits of clean pain are: 

  • Restrictive physical environments
  • Inflexible hours of operation
  • A challenging labor market
  • Rising costs
  • Inconsistent norms around tipping within the industry

Then some of the main culprits of dirty pain for hospitality leaders are:

  • Lack of time management skills
  • Unclear workplace boundaries
  • Lack of personal boundaries
  • Leading from burnout
  • Poor emotional regulation skills
  • Avoiding giving feedback, or giving it poorly
  • Insufficient physical and mental self-care habits


When we put the clean pain and dirty pain together, what does it look like?

Photo courtesy of The Battery, my headshot back in 2013! 

Take a look at the chart below to see what they looked like for me, which echoes a lot of what we hear from our clients. 

Welcome to a day in the my life as the Food & Beverage Director of a private members club in San Francisco that held multiple restaurants & bars, a significant private events program, and in-room dining:




I just woke up and I feel more tired than when I went to sleep (physical exhaustion).


I planned to give myself an hour to be quiet, drink my coffee, and maybe even workout before I head into work, but I just got a text that the breakfast manager went home sick, so I’m going to skip all that and head in now. No point in working out if I’m just going to be worried the whole time.


This place is a mess. I should sit down with the closing manager, ask him what happened last night, and give him clear guidance on what needs to change on the closing checklist because this is the 3rd time I’ve noticed this, but…I don’t have time, so I’ll skip it today.


I’d loosely planned to meet with my GM to talk about recent service issues and how we can work together to improve front of house training, but it’s going to be a busy lunch and it looks like someone else called out so we’re gonna skip it and cover the floor for lunch service together.


I know I should be in the office prepping for our manager meeting this afternoon, but I can’t because it’s so busy and if my team sees me in the office instead of helping them run lunch service they’re going to think I’m lazy. I need to lead by example and be in the trenches with them.


Lunch service seems under control, and I can almost hear my inbox bursting. I haven’t had time to get through email for two days and there’s no way I’m going to make a dent if I head to the office now, plus we’ve got a bunch of important guests in today who keep grabbing me. I guess I’ll prioritize them.


Still in lunch service…I feel so guilty and ashamed that this is how I’m spending time. There’s no way that these famous, successful food people I see on TV and Instagram are busting their asses running lunch service. I don’t know how to get out of this cycle so I’m just going to double down on this one. 


One of the servers is having a total meltdown and I don’t trust any of the managers who are here right now to handle it, so it’ll just be easier if I handle it. 


I wish I’d prepared more for the manager meeting. I used the last hour to coach that server instead, so now I’m going to sit here with my team, make an excuse for why the agenda is mostly the same as last week, and spend an hour reporting the news and getting stuck in the weeds of problem solving rather than using this time to meaningfully connect, collaborate, and make progress towards our goals.


I’m exhausted. It’s the first time I’ve eaten todayI’m starving so I’m going to hoover a giant plate of pasta and cake over the trash can before I hit the floor to get ready for pre-shift.


Lights on, curtain up, here we go. I’m just going to stay for the first 30 minutes of service because I promised my partner I’d make it home to cook dinner together and connect.


WOW. SHIT. It’s busy and we have so many staffing issues. I have to stay and apologize later to my partner. I never told my team I had a hard out time and they were counting on me being here.


Well…missed my opportunity to make it home in time to cook. May as well stay so that the team doesn’t judge me for leaving so early.


I really shouldn’t be here. I should have gone home. I should have spent my whole day differently. I’m gonna zone out on Instagram for a few minutes and check some easy, but low priority tasks off my list (aka productive procrastination).


Emails suuuuuuuck. There’s too many. I’m so behind. Maybe a few more minutes of Instagram and then I’ll check on the team.


I think it’s late enough, I can go home without having to face the disappointment of my partner. 


I need to watch an episode of some mind-numbing TV to unwind and get to sleep.


Shit! How is it 1am??! Everytime I think I feel ready to turn this show off and go to sleep, my thoughts start spiraling. I feel like I’m on a treadmill that keeps getting faster, and I keep getting more tired. I want to do things differently, but I don’t actually trust myself to follow through on making changes and sticking to them…what I’m doing now is comfortable even though it’s painful. Does everyone else have this all figured out?!


OMG, I can’t sleep. And if I don’t sleep, I’m going to be exhausted tomorrow.


I have to get up soon. I’m so behind. I didn’t get anything done yesterday other than firefighting….


Does any of this sound familiar to you? 


After walking through a day in my leadership life circa 2013, it’s probably no surprise that my days were marked by guilt, shame, resentment, overwhelm, self-doubt, exhaustion, imposter syndrome, fear, and anxiety. 

Said differently, my leadership life was littered with dirty pain

These emotions do not generate empowered, forward-moving action. They generate a leader (and therefore, a team) that feels stuck and stalled out despite working very, very hard. 

One of my most crushing memories was when one of my strongest managers gave 4 months notice that she’d be moving on from her position (an incredibly generous amount of time to find and train her replacement) only because she was so worried about my health and feared how much stress it would create for me when she left. Did I appreciate it? Hell yes. 

But, fearing that your boss is one bad day away from being hospitalized is not the type of retention that makes for a thriving team.

Leaders who are swimming in dirty pain:

  • Lead reactively instead of proactively
  • Struggle to retain high performing team members
  • Passively create a culture of burnout by modeling martyrdom as a virtue
  • Fail to move big picture, high priority projects forward
  • Struggle to implement effective systems

To be clear, I’m not shitting on the 2013 version of myself here. If you relate to anything in the chart above, I’m not putting you down either. 

You’re a great leader. I was a great leader at that time too. I cared deeply about the success of my team and the success of the business, and I worked my butt off in service of both. I am so proud of myself for taking the huge step up into managing the biggest, most complex organization I’d ever managed through the most tumultuous opening I’d ever experienced. 

I was one of the most highly valued members of our leadership team, and I bet you are too. 

Getting stuck in dirty pain doesn’t make you a bad leader or a bad person. It makes the experience of leading feel terrible, and it keeps you away from getting even better results. 

Dirty pain is the roadblock between great and exceptional leadership because stacking up days that look like the one in the chart above is completely unsustainable. 


So, what was I missing? What did I need that I didn’t have to sort the dirty pain from the clean pain, and 86 it?!

Leadership skills. 

I needed to learn how to:

  • Manage my mind
  • Manage my time
  • Set and hold boundaries with my team
  • Set and hold boundaries with myself
  • Get to the root of why stepping out of my pattern of rescuing everything and everyone felt so uncomfortable
  • Develop and stick to self-care habits that protected my health 
  • Step out of day-to-day operations and into higher level leadership visioning 
  • Manage my relationships inside and outside of work effectively 

One of the best things that happened to me during my time in this role was that the owners of the club hired a coach for me. I worked with Dr. Neha Sangwan for a year, and it changed my life. 

Had I known that working with a coach to learn leadership skills in an intentional, structured, supportive way was a thing….I would have done it much sooner. 

Neha helped me see what I couldn’t see. 

She gave me a confidential place to share what I was struggling with and practical, actionable tools to approach my work differently. 

She called me out every time I showed up in a victim’s mindset, falsely believing that everything was happening to me, and there was nothing I could do about it. 

Neha painted a picture of what leading differently could look like so that I had a tangible goal to move towards. 

She challenged me to keep my commitments and cheered me on with every win, big or small.

And, ultimately, she helped me to understand that the work environment I was in wasn’t a fit for my values, goals, and growing edges. I stopped seeing myself as a victim and my workplace as the bad guy, and instead saw the truer truth…we just weren’t a fit. 

Sometimes the gift of coaching is receiving the tools, guidance and support you need to stay right where you are, but experience it all differently. 

And sometimes the gift of coaching is receiving the tools, guidance, and support you need to put one foot in front of the other in a new direction. 

If you’re up to your knees (or eyes, or over your head!) in dirty pain…

If you’re not sure whether you want to stay or go…

If you don’t really know what you need, but you know you need something…

I hope you’ll take a look at Salt & Roe’s Leadership Development Program

This is private, personal, 1-on-1 coaching for hospitality leaders, from hospitality leaders. We intimately know every nook and cranny of what makes this profession especially hard, and we’re here to help you separate what you can control from what you can’t. 

This is a place for you to be seen, heard, and challenged in the direction of what you most want in your leadership life inside and outside of work.

It is possible to wake up feeling differently about the day ahead, but if you want that result, you have to take action. Learn about Salt & Roe’s coaching for hospitality leaders and apply to work with us to receive private, one-on-one support to move out of your dirty pain and towards a new vision today. This old Chinese proverb says it best, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” What are you waiting for? 

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