Q&A: Sustainable Systems vs. Operational Systems

Greg Provance says that effective, sustainable systems are ones that, once installed, trained, and woven into the culture of the business, almost run themselves. (Photo: Courtesy of GP Hospitality Partners)

Bar & Restaurant Chats with Greg Provance of GP Hospitality Partners in the Greater San Diego Area, to Get His View on What Signifies a Successful Operation

Greg Provance, a restaurant industry consultant and principal of GP Hospitality Partners in the greater San Diego area, believes that sustainable systems and not operational systems are the key to success for any bar or restaurant.

Provance, who’s also the author of the forthcoming book, Butts in Seats: How to Create Raving Fans Who Come Back Again and Again, routinely advises his clients on how to effectively operate their business, and his insights are especially interesting and useful now, during a challenging environment for the industry.

During his more than 35-year career, Provance has worked every position imaginable. As a struggling actor in the ‘90s and early 2000s in Los Angeles, he worked his way through restaurants to pay the bills. Later, he worked in New York City and Virginia markets, and he began to acquire a keen understanding of operations – most of them in high-end, high-volume settings. “These environments filled my need for constant challenge, and I learned to run teams of 100+ doing volume upwards of $14 million annually at any given location,” he said.

One Provance settled in the San Diego area, he signed on with the Cohn Restaurant Group as general manager of Vintana at the Lexus Center in Escondido, Calif. “Knowing I wanted to stay in San Diego, I used the knowledge I gained from that experience to start my own consulting firm,” he explained. “I began working with local restaurant owners to help them to grow and scale their brands.”

Since then, Provance has helped numerous organizations, such as everbowl Craft Superfood, which grew from one location to almost 30 locations in three short years. He also led the opening of Oscar’s Brewing Company in Temecula, Calif., a 400-seat restaurant/brewery that opened during the height of the COVID-19 crisis and became profitable in three months. Most recently, he partnered with restauranteur Alex Massir to grow and scale Pesto Italian Craft Kitchen, which opened its second location in Mission Valley, a densely populated area of San Diego.

To learn more, Bar & Restaurant spoke with Provance to get his insights on what it takes to run a successful operation, and the winning difference between sustainable systems and operational systems.

Question: Hi, Greg. Thanks for your time. First off, you believe that operations are the lifeblood of a restaurant or bar. What’s your best operations-related advice for the hospitality industry right now?

Answer: One of the main things people hire me for is to help them to install systems of operations that, when implemented properly, can be the basis for growth and scale. Technically, all operations are built using a series of systems. Whether it be systems of cost control, onboarding, training, efficiency of service, etc., these systems work together to form an ecosystem. And like any ecosystem, if one or more aspects of a system are not operating optimally, this can cause things to go out of balance and ultimately can lead to decline.

Question: You talk about sustainable systems vs. operational systems. What’s a sustainable system for a restaurant or bar?

Answer: I am kind of a self-improvement junkie, so I tend to think of systems as more like habits.  One thing that I learned through diligently working on my own personal growth as well as the growth of the businesses that I serve is that consistent action overtime is what produces sustainable results.  For instance, if I want to produce better muscle tone and overall physical well-being, I must create habits around a healthy diet, exercise, rest and hydration. Over time, what I will likely experience is the feeling of a healthy body and mind. There is no difference in my mind with practicing healthy habits in business. In order to achieve great results, we have to take regular inventory, review financials, train, coach and council team members and regularly engage with our community.  The challenge I see that many restaurants and bar owners face is committing to these habits regularly and consistently in the face of just trying to keep the business going day to day.

Effective, sustainable systems are ones that, once installed, trained, and woven into the culture of the business, almost run themselves. They actually become a part of “how we do things here.” This allows the business owner to then turn his or her sights on growing into a new location, or to other facets of the business that can produce additional revenue streams. All too often I encounter an owner operator and feels that they just can't let go. It's that if I don't do it it doesn't get done mentality. That is not sustainable.

Question: What specifically should a restaurant or bar do to run a successful, sustainable operation? Where should they start, in terms of big picture?

Answer: First is to take a big step back and really define what the goal is. If it is to grow the business into multiple locations, then consistency and uniformity will likely be a focus when working toward building the operation. If it is to, say, increase profitability in an existing location, perhaps efficiency and waste elimination is the focus. Whatever the goal might be, we must first know where to aim.

Culture is something I speak a lot about, as I feel it is one of the most powerful, yet most often overlooked tools in our arsenal. One of the first questions I always ask a new client is whether they have a clearly defined mission statement. Maybe half of those I ask quickly respond that they do in fact have a mission statement. The next question I ask is if every single person on their team understands that mission, can recite it, and knows what their role is in delivering it each and every day. This is where I usually lose people. The fact is, in the beginning, we may spend a lot of time developing a mission statement, hanging it on the wall and even using it in some training. But if the team does not have a habit of committing specific, consistent actions towards fulfilling the mission each and every day, the mission is not ever fully realized. I dedicated an entire chapter in my book about this because it is such a simple, effective tool, but it must be trained into the culture.

Question: Why is the sustainable system mindset important now during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Answer: COVID 19 has brought us new challenges. Often with uncertainty comes a certain level of anxiety, and it can make it difficult to focus on what is important in lieu of having to react to unforeseen challenges. Let’s face it, this pandemic has been devastating to so many of us in our industry. A good percentage of restaurants and bars have not and will not survive. Some, however, may actually come out stronger than ever. One thing that has truly brought things into perspective for me, having now successfully opened two restaurants during this crisis, is the importance of doing the simple, basic things really well. In my restaurants, I have focused on building systems that support mainly three things: 1) quality product, 2) efficiency in execution. and 3) high level of genuine, heartfelt hospitality. When these areas are working together at a high-level, people feel that they are being taken care of, something that is more important now than ever. Sending a message to people that we care is paramount not only during this crisis, but well into the future.

Question: Can you give us a couple of examples of restaurants or bars that changed their operations to sustainable systems? What was done and what was achieved?

Answer: The change is not so much a shift from one type of operation to another, but rather a shift in mindset. Let’s put it this way, most often restaurant owners and managers are incredibly busy. The question is, busy with what exactly? Are the tasks that they are engaging in producing results or are they keeping them stuck in a cycle of just being busy? It has been said that 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of the activity of a specific event. The theory is that if we focus heavily on the 20 percent that yields more of the 80 percent result, we can greatly improve the outcomes by simply focusing on the right things.

In almost all of the outfits I have had the good fortune of being of service to, the best results have come from applying this principle. 

One example is this: Everbowl Craft Superfoods started with one location in Southern California just over three years ago. The owner had a goal of growing to 20 stores within the first two years. In order to experience this type of growth, we knew that creating rock solid, reliable, sustainable systems would be paramount. We got to work installing, and more importantly, training each system, from how to greet guests, to how to count inventory, to how to build the perfect craft superfood bowl. In effect, the culture was the main focus and the company’s motto, “Make Friends and Have Fun,” was the guiding principle. All systems were built around that concept, so anyone on the team knew exactly what their priority was and how to execute. Everbowl is now 29 stores strong and spans 3 states, with exponential growth on the horizon – all by focusing on the simple, yet effective things that yielded the biggest results.

Question: What led you to focus on sustainable operations within the restaurant industry?

Answer: I have a growth mindset. I am always trying to find ways to improve efficiency and make work easier and more enjoyable for teams. I strongly believe in the concept of growing the people to grow the business. I have found that there is little difference between personal growth and business growth. By applying concepts that I have found personal success with to my businesses, I have found that work becomes more enjoyable and that better results are achieved. Remember the idea of creating habits rather than systems? Healthy habits in life create a healthy life. Healthy habits in business create a healthy business. I suppose it is this understanding that fuels my passion for helping others to apply these ideas to their businesses and to create better lives for themselves and their families. At the end of the day, that is often why most of us got into business to begin with. To have happier lives. If I were to simply focus on something like profitability alone, I feel I would be doing this for the wrong reasons. And I believe that profitability comes when all these other things fall in line.

Question: What’s preventing some restaurants from thinking about their operations in a sustainable way? What’s getting in their way?

Answer: I think people do what they've always known to do. Sometimes it takes someone with a fresh perspective to come in and provide a different way of looking at things. I think this is why a lot of top performers hire coaches and become active in peer groups and mentorships. The ability to share ideas, best practices even failures can be very powerful. But sometimes in an effort to just run the business day to day, those pursuits get pushed to the back burner. It is very easy to get overwhelmed in our industry, with so many moving parts and so many fires to put out. My recommendation is always to find ways to simplify and again focus on the few activities that will bring about the biggest results.

Question: You have a book coming out this year, Butts in Seats: How to Create Raving Fans Who Come Back Again and Again. Can you share some lessons from that book, which could benefit the bar and restaurant industry now

Answer: The overarching theme of the book is based in the idea that if hundreds of guests visit our restaurant once and only once, we will be broke very quickly. But if those same guests come back again and again, we have a viable business. The ideas I share in the book, as the title indicates, are practical ways to build a fan base that result in more butts in seats more of the time. I mean, that's what we all want right? More butts in seats more often. We have a choice. We can spend our time being reactive, putting out fires, or we can be proactive, creating cultures and growing our teams to be guided by a specific, well-defined mission, training them exactly how to fulfill that mission, even when and especially when we are not there. If we are hyper focused on training each of our team members to be ambassadors of our brand, to treat our guests like royalty, and to create experiences that are talked about well after the guest has left, we will be successful. It's, quite frankly, shocking to me how inhospitable the hospitality business can sometimes be. But for those of us that are passionate about it, and can execute it well, it’s the secret weapon to success.

Question: What other advice do you have for restaurants and bars that want to create “raving fans” that keep coming back?

Answer: My biggest advice is to first partner with the right people. Do not ever hire someone who's not completely committed to fulfilling the mission. Those that are not on the train that is moving north need to get off at the next stop. Next, take the guest experience seriously. Never compromise on the quality of the experience.

At my newest San Diego restaurant, Pesto Italian Craft Kitchen, our mission states, “Make Every Guest a Regular. Make Every Dish with Love.” You will never walk into any of our locations and find a team member that does not know, understand and execute on that mission. And if you do, I'll encourage you to contact me directly so that I may solve that problem immediately.

Photo: Courtesy of GP Hospitality Partners

Question: Something you’ve said is: “Every time I go out onto the floor of the restaurant, I feel that I am on stage. I am known for asking my staff to work like they are on camera… it is their time to shine.” What can you tell us about that philosophy and the benefit of that mindset?

Answer: I spent a number of years in the entertainment business. And although someone define my role as serving the restaurant and hospitality community, but I still consider myself to be someone in the entertainment business. It is my job in the restaurant always to entertain. I don't know, perhaps I am living my rockstar dreams now through this lens, but I love the idea of seeing my staff as the players in a show. Everyone works together to produce a potentially soul stirring experience for those who come to have that experience. A little dramatic? Perhaps. But that is how I choose to frame it and it works for me.

Question: Thanks for your time. Any final thoughts or additional words of advice for the restaurant and bar industry?

Answer: The pleasure is all mine. Any chance I get to be of service to my fellow restaurant, bar and entertainment community I'm humbled and honored to do so. There are so many amazing operators out there that inspire me to continue doing this work and I thank you all. No more advice other than to say keep it simple, have fun and focus on the right things, and I believe you can have a successful rewarding and enjoyable business.

To learn more about Greg Provance or GP Hospitality Partners, visit GPHospitalityPartners.com.