The Pros and Cons of Consultants

More restaurant managers than ever are relying on consultants to provide input on major decisions. This has long been a trend in corporate chains. However, more independent owners are seeking outside feedback, especially given the pitfalls of the business and the amount of capital at stake with larger stores. In many cases, consultants can provide valuable tools to support decision-making and really turn around a store that has been struggling for awhile.

The benefits of outside consulting are obvious. In most cases, they can provide:

  • Another pair of eyes
  • Low-cost input on industry trends
  • Proven cost reduction methods
  • A way to get outside the four walls of the restaurant

But there can certainly be drawbacks with outside consultants. They are usually people who have spent minimal time in the building and the surrounding community. They typically are offering cookie-cutter solutions to store-specific challenges, and that can create problems in some instances.
When considering whether or not to bring in a consultant, it’s important to first consider the pros and cons, and how they stack up with the unique challenges and opportunities within the restaurant.

See What’s Happening in the Rest of the World

Think it’s hard to get outside the building? The daily grind of running the restaurant can make it impossible to see the big picture of restaurant management. This might include anything from how to present entrees to what the bathroom should look like. Even the most talented managers and chefs are duty-bound to their dining room, kitchen, and back office.

Consultants survey the landscape and learn about what is working and what is not in restaurants around the country. They can help quickly eliminate options when considering multiple solutions to a problem. They can help with issues such as:

  • Entrée/wine price-setting
  • Ideas for special events
  • How to increase bar sales
  • How to manage a front-of-the-house staff

This input can be invaluable when times are tough and the next decision needs to be the right one.

Sticking with Your Vision

There is also a lot to be said for sticking to your guns when there aren’t enough fannies in the seats. Most operators are in this position because they are passionate about the business. They’ve usually seen what works and what doesn’t, and they have a corporate mission and a clear vision for success.

This won’t always jibe with the input from a consultant, which can lead to friction and confusion. In some cases, the result is paralysis, in which few productive decisions are made and executed. A management team in conflict with itself is far less effective than one on the same page, and an outside consultant can introduce conflicting opinions in some cases.

Knowing the Clientele

One precondition that many operators use for consultants is that they be local, or have extensive familiarity with local diners. On the other hand, many consultants will sell their services based on their familiarity with similar client bases, or markets that are similar in terms of size and demographics.

There is a great deal of value in knowing your clientele intimately. This means that extensive rapport must be built up over time. It also means understanding the history and outlook of the people in the surrounding community – the subtle nuances of life in your area. This is one reason that local consultants are almost always preferable, if they are available.

If they are not, it might be a good step for the operator to travel to similar restaurants in other areas of the country, simply for ideas. In some cases, travel can be arranged through food/wine vendors. This can be a helpful resource for the operator who is struggling to fill up his dining room.

Trust Your Vendors

Believe it or not, in many cases the vendors who enter the building most days can be the best consultants in the business. There are many reasons to build up relationships with a few select vendor reps. They are among the very few people spending significant time in the confines of the competition. They usually know what is working and what is going poorly. A trusted vendor rep can set an operator straight, particularly when he is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

In the end, the decision on whether or not to bring in a consultant is based on many factors. However, it is always a gamble to throw good money after bad, which outside consulting firms run the risk of. Be sure the consultant intimately knows your opportunities and challenges, and can apply professional experience to the nuances of your market.