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John Belknap, owner of John & Sons Oyster House restaurants in Toronto. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)
John Belknap, owner of John & Sons Oyster House restaurants in Toronto. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)

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When people go to a restaurant, it's partly for a pleasant experience, and a server with a bad attitude can ruin it.

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Unfortunately, for those who work there, leaving whatever baggage they carry around with them at the door can sometimes prove a daunting task.

Those who can, can be an asset to the business; those who can’t, often present a problem to the restaurateur, particularly when it spills over into customer and staff relations.

As the owner of John & Sons Oyster House, which has two locations in downtown Toronto, owner John Belknap was faced with such a predicament.

“It’s not just about the plate of food you get, it’s also the atmosphere,” he says. “You ask people if they’d rather have okay service and a really good meal or an okay meal and really good service and atmosphere, it’s almost 50-50.”

One of Mr. Belknap’s employees, who worked front of house, where the need to meet and greet diners with a friendly demeanour is of paramount importance, became, as Mr. Belknap put it, “kind of disgruntled and frustrated maybe with his role and then he kind of shut down.”

Realizing the effect the employee was having, not only on the clientele but also on the staff around him, Mr. Belknap had a discussion with the employee, and when it was determined that the situation couldn’t be repaired, he cut a severance cheque and the two parted ways. According to those in the know, the owner had few other options.

“That’s a tough decision at the end of the day,” says Stephen Binder, CPA, CA and the national leader of privately held business at Grant Thornton LLP in Toronto.

“But if they couldn’t have that chat and get to the bottom of why this person was negative … then I think he did the right thing, and I say that from a number of different business perspectives.”

Chief among those is the idea that when it comes to business, not just in the service industry but any business, culture is everything. It is what defines how you do business, how you treat your clients and how you treat each other, in the office, the restaurant or the department store, Mr. Binder says.

“I always like to say that internally, colleagues are customers to each other. We serve each other and if we can’t get that right, how are we going to get it right for our customers who are paying us?” Mr. Binder says. “I don’t think anybody’s that’s good, to be negative inside and then be this brilliant positive person on the outside. Something’s going to cave. So I think negative attitudes can destroy an organization’s culture.

“Some people may think culture is touchy-feely, but at the end of the day, culture is an organization’s immune system. You can’t let it get infected.”

Mr. Belknap says that, since taking decisive action, the mood at the restaurant is like night and day.

“Since we let him go, it just feels like everybody is having more fun, there’s a different culture,” he says.

Mr. Belknap, who opened the first of his two stores in 2009, acknowledges he has learned quite a few things from the whole experience.

“There’s a line between being friends and being an owner, a manager or a boss,” he says. “You’re running a business and that’s what comes first. But you need to create culture and you need to treat your staff first, even before the customer, because at the end of the day, they’re the ones talking to the customers so you’ve got to make them happy.

“So if it’s a customer-first-centric culture, I find it works better where the staff feels just as important.”

The other thing Mr. Belknap realized was that how he responded to the situation made a difference to how his leadership was viewed among the rest of his employees.

“If you don’t recognize [the situation] as the owner and do anything about it, it has adverse effects on the other staff who are witnessing this behaviour and saying, well, management’s not doing anything, ownership’s not doing anything, they’re tolerating it,” says Bob Butterill, head of Sage Advice Inc. and a part-time professor at the chef school at George Brown College in Toronto. “What does that say about their commitment?”

In the end though, taking responsibility for any situation is the first step to finding a resolution.

“Any owner or CEO has to lead by example; people will follow the leader,” Mr. Binder says. “I know that if there are ever client service [problems] in my group it’s my fault.”

He adds: “I often find that the best customer-service people in any business are the ones with the best attitudes, not with the most degrees or education behind them.”

The advent of social media has raised the stakes more than a little, too, especially in an industry such as the restaurant business, long regarded as one of the toughest, most competitive environments.

“We’re in the service business, people come to escape when they come to see us and in the restaurant business that’s a mortal blow,” Mr. Binder says. “One bad frown from this fellow if he’s at the front of the house, someone will tell 20, 25 people that they’ve had a bad experience. It’s probably worse now, with technology and social media; it could be thousands.

“There’s no room for it, there’s zero tolerance.”

Mr. Belknap acknowledges he’s now less apt to lean on staff to do the work normally done by management, such as dealing with suppliers, in the wake of his experience. He’s also adopted a more formal procedure for employee development. And his hiring procedures have also changed.

“We’re more strict with hiring,” he says. “One server got called back three times for an interview. He was kind of wondering what was going on over here.

“But I’ve learned to have different personalities interview – a couple of managers, as well as myself – and this helps us get to know the person and their personality better.”

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