Power Shift: Managing in the Red Zone

Keep your team focused when the place is full to maintain customer satisfaction.

By Jim Sullivan

Don’t tell me about the labor pains,” an exasperated Johnny Sain once told his stunned wife. “Show me the baby.

And yup, they did stay married. For 21 more years.

In football, the area inside the opponent’s twenty-yard line is commonly referred to as the “Red Zone”. Conquering this 60 feet of prime real estate is critical to a winning team. It’s the stress-filled moment-of-truth where the best teams focus their training, execute their strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and prove their mettle. Measuring each team’s scoring percentage within the Red Zone has become a significant NFL statistic, taken seriously by every coach, competitor, commentator, and fan.

In the restaurant business, we too have a “Red Zone”. It occurs any and every time the Game is on the line with the guest, or our teammates. And I don’t have to tell you that every shift is a high-stakes game of Customer Keepaway (from the competition). So whenever our guests are “on the field” we’re playing the highly competitive game of Performance and Profits. And to get in the black financially we must first perform and conquer the Red Zone.

The Red Zone in a restaurant most often occurs when the joint is full and activity is flying in more directions than insults at a Friar’s Roast. You know the scene: the dining room’s packed, the kitchen is chaotic, bussers are bustling, servers scurrying, hostess flipping, noise level amping toward Ozzfest levels, and the quarterback-manager is gamely pin-balling between expo line to front door to bar to dining room, doling out equal amounts of fire-dousing and energy, hospitality, and assistance. At the same time they are keeping the runaway train on the track, the money in the till, and making the guests happier than Jamie Farr at a MASH appreciation party.

The opposite of the Red Zone of course is that unique piece of restaurant real estate known as “the weeds”. It’s a nasty place, where everyone’s swamped, flipping out and feeling like they’ve got one foot on a banana peel and the other in the Twilight Zone. And the worst part of it all is whom they blame for their predicament. I’ll never forget one deer-in-the-headlights swamped server yelling: “If these dang customers would just leave me alone I could do my job!!!”

Well, here are six quick action-able ideas and reminders to help you “score” inside each shift’s the Red Zone:

  1. NEVER practice on the guest. Make pre-shift meetings mandatory, energetic and meaningful. As my old high school coach Max Watson used to say: “Inject game-on-the-line pressure into every practice. Every kick counts.”
  2. Prepare then Execute. Kenny Holmes, Senior Director of Training for Peter Piper Pizza in Phoenix, AZ says, “we have a simple three-step philosophy relative to scoring inside the Red Zone: Step 1: Get Ready. Step 2: Execute. Step 3: See step one.”
  3. If you See it, Say it. A good way to keep the team focused instead of flipping is to offer encouragement and thanks. Keep your team pumped by recognizing contributions throughout the shift. Employee of the Month recognition is nice, but don’t forget your employees of the Moment.
  4. Try a Little Pick-Me-Up. Test the team’s reflexes by dropping a piece of crumpled paper in a high-traffic area and time how long it takes for a host, busser, server or another manager to pick it up. Never overlook the Importance of the Mundane.
  5. Infuse Training into your shift’s DNA. Lee Pitts, VP of Training for Dallas, TX-based Dave and Buster’s says, “the smart manager not only anticipates and assesses the shift’s challenges, but also finds a way to teach every one something new every shift.” He gets daily education infused into the challenges and knows their team’s strengths and weaknesses every shift and using the right strategy to get from between preparation to execution.
  6. Keep the Harried Team Calm. A calm quarterback—or manage—n the Red Zone leads by conviction, determination and demeanor. When your restaurant is slammed and your employees become rattled, force yourself to speak slowly (you choose the volume level). Your rate of speech rate will calm them because they’ll think, “The manager isn’t flipping, so why should we be?”

Remember, hospitality is neither easy nor a spectator sport. So the question becomes: can your team handle the pressure and did they come to play?

Plan your work and work your plan.