Jim Sullivan, the legendary US restaurant guru returned to the UK recently to deliver his ‘Leadership Masterclass’ workshop to a number of top foodservice and hospitality operators. His messages for a market that is rapidly changing still matter, writes Charlie Martin.
It has been over three years since Sullivan last graced the sector this side of the pond. A lot has changed since his last visit, David Cameron was still Prime Minister and Brexit was just a fanciful idea that was finally going to be put to bed via a referendum.
The hospitality industry has changed at a similar rate (although not in such a disheartening manner as our politics) and continues to evolve. New operators have come on the scene with exciting consumer propositions, while other, more established businesses, continue to battle for market share.
However, Sullivan’s insights on leadership resonate as strongly as they did previously and can still help transform the way an owner, CEO and managers lead their teams and drive their businesses forward.
Sullivan’s first workshop in London was in the mid-2000s, when the eating out sector looked decidedly different, big brands dominated the industry with the likes of Pizza Express, TGI Friday’s and Frankie and Benny’s having a loyal cohort of customers.
Back then, UK operators looked to the US for inspiration; where they went, we tended to follow. Some of the biggest brands were either inspired by those from the States or originated from there, and UK operators looked to the US for best practices in terms of service, culture and operating models.
Today we no longer seem to rely on our American cousins to lead us. As the market has developed and evolved, the UK market has learnt to stand on its own two feet and, perhaps, become slightly dismissive of what can be learnt from US hospitality.
Within that context, some may question how relevant Sullivan’s insights are. As an American and someone who has predominantly US-centric points of reference, what can he really offer us Brits?
During the workshop, Sullivan was aware of the fact that his audience was slightly more reserved than their American counterparts and put to bed scepticism quickly. He assured attendees that it wasn’t one of those workshops with “hugs and trust falls”. He was also acutely aware of certain British sensibilities and humour and quickly won over the room off the back of that.
Importantly, it’s not just his personality that endears him to the audience but also the content. His insights on what he terms ‘habitual consistency’, how to best execute pre-shift meetings and tackle staff turnover were pertinent and valuable to businesses of all sizes.
Joining him in the room that day were Tony Hughes and Ian Neill with the audience treated to a short Q&A from the two industry legends. Hughes was integral in successfully bringing over TGI Fridays to the UK and Neill took Wagamama from a couple of sites to hundreds. Both of these men have an abundance of experience and success and were happy to share the wealth of knowledge acquired during long careers.
Some might easily dismiss them as out-of-touch old timers, no longer relevant to a sector that is fast-evolving, both with ideas on service, culture and business models that no longer apply. They couldn’t be more wrong.
The fundamentals of success
Hughes discussed his principle of treating “every customer as a special guest as if in their own home”, something that is now considered a given, but was a revolutionary approach at TGI Friday’s many years ago. Neill at Wagamama brought the concept of ‘fast casual’ to the fore in the UK and servers that were allowed to show personality with tattoos and piercings.
Their insights on hospitable but casual service that has inspired so many, in tandem with Sullivan’s understanding of how to build great teams, leaders and culture, remain unrivalled.
Together they understand the fundamentals of the restaurant and casual dining business from A-Z. And in an age when competition is ferocious, choice is unrivalled and consumers are hard to please, these fundamentals are more important than ever.