Sean Finter, CEO Barmetrix, on Necessary Mindsets for Bars and Restaurants

Sean Finter, CEO and founder of Barmetrix, is a world-renowned coach and mentor for world-class bars and restaurants across the globe. Finter has been hosting weekly webinars through his Bar Revival series on how owners and operators can survive and plan to re-emerge stronger as the industry begins to reopen. 

Bar & Restaurant sat down with Finter to learn how operations are shifting their focus, timeless profitability strategies, insights he has learned from his guest speakers, and how important it is not to overlook one's mental health. Check out the full video interview and transcript below.

B&R: Welcome to the Bar & Restaurant interview series with Sean Finter. We're super excited and humbled to have you as a guest. For those that don't know Sean, he's a mentor in the industry. He's a coach. He's a consultant. He helps people all across the globe grow their businesses. Sean, welcome. How are you doing?

Finter: I'm doing great. Thank you for having me. A pleasure to be here.

B&R: It's a pleasure to have you. We have five questions today. Obviously, people are starting to reopen. As of yesterday, all 50 states have now announced a target date for their state to be opened. Some cities are lagging behind, but overall you've been handling this from the start with your weekly webinar series and having some great speakers on there. What are some of the questions you're getting now, and how have those shifted in the last few weeks now that we're reopened as opposed to a couple of months ago when everything's shut down?

Finter: I think looking back a couple of months ago, what most people were focused on was getting their people back to work and serving their community. Now, the sobering reality, you're starting to look at the real factors of business in a compromised market, so you really have to go deep on issues of viability. It's easy enough to get open for two, three, four weeks, but does this work over the course of 12 to 18 months? You're starting to have to find out things that you didn't look into before, like risk, like how much debt, what is this government debt that we're taking on, and if we do go under, how does that affect us?

Then further to that, you've got the exposure issue because a lot of people that aren't in the industry or people that are in the industry that have never been in an ownership position don't realize that a lot of these businesses are backed by the owners, unlike a lot of other industries that are able to get institutional funding. We like to joke that our industry's funded by the three Fs: family, friends, and fools. They put money into the next great restaurant, and everything's going to work out. "I'm going to quadruple your money in four years," and all of that.

Well, now you're all in it together, and it's like, "How much more money do we put in, and if it does go under, do we lose our home, our cars, our cottage," and whatever assets that they could clawback. These are very real issues and very frightening issues for a lot of people in the industry right now who really just want their business back, who really just want to employ those 40 or 400 people and be that hub in their community. Now they have to figure out all this other stuff to project the future, which you need a crystal ball to do in this environment.

B&R: Yeah, absolutely. I think you're doing a good job of making that crystal ball a little less murky. As you mentioned, the guest experience and the regulations around this industry have changed, but the focus on profitability is more important than ever, and that's really the time strategy that should always be at the forefront. That was okay when you had tailwinds behind you. As you mentioned, that wasn't really maybe the tight focus. Now you got to be laser-focused on that part of the business. What are the strategies you're now talking about more or more just reinforcing that you were already discussing?

Finter: Yeah, well, to start at a 10,000 foot level in this industry, in an industry that harvests less than 5% net profits during a boom economy, the fact is not many people open a bar, restaurant, café, or a pub to get rich. These are labors of love. These are craftsman, craftspeople that want to share something, whether it be food, drink, or just their hospitality with others. I don't say the thing I'm going to say next to diminish anybody, but this isn't a community that's laser-focused on business fundamentals and makes cash. They need to know. You really need to if you want a chance of survival.

I think firstly, now, more than ever, you really need to know your numbers, not just what just happened last week, but what is about to happen in 90 or 120 days from now. You need your whole team to be financially literate. It's important that the folks washing dishes and chopping vegetables and greeting people at the front door and serving drinks really understand the difference between that 1% decision because you stack five or 10 of those up, and suddenly create momentum to have a week in the red, and these businesses are not in a cash position to have many of those, if any at all.

Secondly, I'm encouraging all of our clients and everyone that I'm talking to get out of them, reopen mindset, and get into this new business mindset, like whatever was before is just different now.

It might look like the same building, but all the conditions around it have changed, and you really need to get back to opening your business for the first time in a new economy with a new mindset and really focus on those 500 raving fans that you need to rebuild.

Even if those same faces come in, you need to secure a new commitment from your guests to have them choose you again, to walk through your door as opposed to the other 300 choices in the area.

The third thing that I'd encourage people to really think about and focus on over the next 12 to 24 months is what I've considered, always considered one of the most support positions in our industry is the supervisors that work on your floor. Those folks have 80 or 90% of the organization report into them, and they are much more important now than ever before. How they get a shift started with a pre-shift, the mental health and physical health they're looking at all shift long, and then that post-shift meeting to see who is rundown and damaged.

It's going to be a tough environment to work in for a little while. The complexity of that is that these folks are often 25 years old, 31 years old, have no training in building people up and caring for and protecting their mental health and helping them through a shift in addition to that other 8,000 things you need to do to run a restaurant or a bar. Those people need help and attention and need some education right now and need encouragement all the way through, but I'd really pay attention to that.

B&R: You've had some great guests on that do an excellent job of really coaching up that staff, bringing them up in all areas. I mean, you've had guests, Bobby Heugel down in Houston, Tobin Ellis in Vegas, just the spectrum. What have been some of the key takeaways from your series of webinars? You must be at 40 or 50 now?

Finter: Hollis may know the true number and it feels like a lot because it's a lot of organize, but it's been my pleasure. Listen, I'll tell you the first lesson that I want to share and have people take away is that the organizer or the volunteer always learns the most. It's a very selfish endeavor putting on education because you see what you see, but it's the pre-interview and talking to those folks about the things to matter and all of that as opposed to really thinking about what matters now and what we want to share with the audience. You get immersed in the idea of the conversation, and you build stronger, better relationships with the contributors.

You don't need a global meltdown to become a volunteer in your community and start to put on education. It also doesn't have to be online. If you got a pub or a café, you can have a monthly series, have someone of your community come in to talk to your staff and your customers. Volunteering, they're always the winners. It's a beautiful thing.

I think, secondly though, the guests that I got the most from that I realized, vulnerability is a real strength. You have to be tough to be vulnerable and to be able to put yourself out there. You've seen some of these guests on like, "No hiding, this is how I feel, this is where I'm struggling," and all of that. I'll tell you, that's where I got the most comments and feedback. People felt like, "Oh, that person that I look up to, if he or she is feeling that way, then it's okay for me to feel this way." By the way, that's what they're doing about it, so they're talking about the next steps and so forth. I think that's a real strength.

Then when I ask some of these operators that I really admire, like, "What is it that you're tripling down on moving forward?" almost always it's the basics of their business. Being brilliant at the basics is now more important than ever because when your guests walk back through the door, they want what they always wanted. They want to be seen. They want to be made to feel important. They want a clean, safe environment. They want to have a genuine connection with your staff. They want fair value for what they're paying for your food and drink, and they want to have a space to be comfortable in for an hour or two. That's all people have ever wanted, and now, we just need to do it better, and now, we have some additional things that we might need to do, but being brilliant at the basics.

The final thing I'll say and I'm encouraging people to do is to get focused on 20% net profits. As crazy as that sounds right now... and that's going to take some time to do. If you set out to lose 10 pounds, and you lose four or five, I don't know if you feel good about it. You set out to lose 40 pounds and you do very different things, you go after it, you're going to change your diet, you got to change your regime... I hope every business has realized that sitting on the razor's edge of three, four, five, 6% net profit is a very dangerous place to be.

You owe it to your team. You can do a lot with your profits: health care and footwear and a safer environment to work in, an education. You can't do much when you're losing money. I would be encouraged to say, you're now open again, and you've been a different circumstance, but you've got a different opportunity, and make the most of it.

B&R: Four really good points. I want us to go back to that second one because you post about this, and that mental health, as you mentioned, being vulnerable, it takes a lot more strength to be open and to show that than it does to kind of brick up and act like nothing's wrong. I mean, that level of openness is tough. It is, really, I think the strongest trait a lot of leaders can have, and you yourself have talked about this. I think we came through this pandemic, and that was such a mental toll, and then a lot of places got two days to reopen, so there wasn't a really reset. They went, really, from one sprint to another. What is that more marathon mentality to make sure that people can mentally go through this next 12-18 months of getting back to profitability and not burn out like so many of our peers and friends do, unfortunately?

Finter: Yeah. Well, that's it. I think the first thing you need to do is to adjust your timeline. Some people feel like we're a few months into this, and something terrible has happened over the last few months, but the real battle starts right now is a day you get reopened at a diminished capacity. You don't have to be a geek like me to really understand that 50% occupancy doesn't necessarily equate to 50% revenue and 50% revenue does not pay 100% of rent or insurance or any of the other fixed costs that you have.

There's a finite amount of time that you could ever hope to be in business, but let's say when you get opened up 100%, I think we have to recognize that the world has changed, buying behavior has changed, people are going to look to find different things in the market so we're opening again for the first time. I think asking yourself the question, like, "Have I got 24 months in me to go through this?" because a lot of people that I've talked to are like, "Out of steam now and out of cash now," and so you have to reset all that, so, "Okay. I'm going to go after it, and I've got the funding to go ahead and do so."

I'm very familiar with a lot of people's struggles. As you know, Jeremiah, I've struggled with depression myself over the years. I've had a few good years that I've put together now, and I'm very happy with that, but it's not something that you really beat. It's something that you manage and that you hope to have a good year next year, and you got to be committed to doing the work to do so.

Sharing my show is a reason I've done it, and it gets a little easier to do every time you do it, but it's still never easy because I have my family will contact and say, "Are you okay?" and my friends, and I say, "I'm okay." I just want to share it because every time I do, I get hundreds of private messages that say, "Me too, and I'm really struggling. Man, I had no idea that you did." All I'm trying to do is to help people understand that I've never met a person that doesn't struggle with their mental health from time to time, just like I've never met anyone that doesn't struggle with their physical health from time to time. We all go through it. What I'm speaking to is the depths of depression, which is definitely the other end of the spectrum, but it takes time to get there and build up.

There's an old acronym for 'FEAR', which is false evidence appearing real. My belief for a very long time was that if I ever told anybody about it, especially my corporate clients or my franchisees or whoever else, that people would run from me. "This guy's broken. He's defective, and man, why attach our wagon to that?" The opposite is true. You have to do good work, and you have to back yourself, but people don't take off on you, and those that do, the few that have with me, good, okay, great. I'm glad we know who each other are now. We got that cleared up.

My encouragement for everybody is that if you've ever struggled with mental health before, be open to the idea that things are going to get worse over the next couple of years. When the environment changes and becomes constrictive, that affects you. What you need to do is to start to develop your battle plan now and start to develop the inner circle that's going to carry you across the line, start to change your diet, start to exercise differently and more, start to reduce the amount of garbage you put in your head that I put my head, like the news, cut that back and put positive stuff in. There's a formula for it, and it's different for me than it would be for you, but you have to be open to the idea that if I keep doing what I'm doing right now, I'm probably going to be setting myself up for some pretty tough days.

B&R: Well said. For those listening, Sean's going to be with us for our virtual event in a few weeks. He's, again, one of our speakers at our show, supposed to be obviously in March. We're going to have that in October. But in the meantime, where's a good place people can find you and check out some of your content?

Finter: We've got a couple of places. We set up a site called Bar Revival, so Bar & Restaurant Revival, so you can go on Facebook and check that. It's a free group. It's where I'm posting all the content. Barmetrix, we run everything through there as well, and then my personal Facebook. I'm always making room for people in there. Too many cat photos, you're gone. I don't need 150 photos of your baby. I'm just kidding. But yeah, you can check it out there. I'm always trying to find helpful things to help people through this.

B&R: Oh, awesome. Well, I'll put this in a link to this. Really appreciate the time, and keep doing what you're doing. It's wonderful information to share with the industry that needs it so much right now.

Finter: Thank you, man. I appreciate it. Thanks. Thanks for having me today.