February 29th, 2012

Business Wisdom from Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares

Gordon Ramsey

I’m late to the party on this one, seriously late, but I found Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares on Netflix, and I am hooked.

For those not familiar, the format of the show breaks down like this:

  • A restaurant has submitted a request for famous chef and restaurant owner, Gordon Ramsey, to come and set them straight.
  • He comes, tells them how their food tastes like crap (usually), critiques the shoddy state of the kitchen, and works with the owner to sort out what’s wrong at the heart of their business, and how to correct it.
  • He works with the staff and owner to try to turn the restaurant around, sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
  • One to two months later he returns, to see if they’ve kept up the improvements they made together.

The more I watch, the more I am blown away by not only his genuine dedication to his craft and to the people he’s trying to help, but also the varied and poignant business lessons to be gleaned from each episode- which are applicable to more than just restaurants!

Here are a few of my favorites, and I hope that you’ll queue it up and experience it first hand for yourselves!


Bonapartes Restaurant

A struggling restaurant in a working class area suffers from mismatched cuisine, and a young head chef who BS’d his way into the position.

The lessons here are two-fold.  The first, and most obvious, is that you need to master the basics before you can hope to be truly competent.  Knowing a few flashy moves might get you in the door, but you’ll crack under any serious scrutiny.  Secondly—whether you own a business, or are developing a product, it has to be able to meet the needs of its customers, and pivot as necessary to speak to them in a language they understand.  In this case it was trying to sell fancy, complicated food to a meat and potatoes crowd, in your case it could be a brand that’s out of touch with its roots.

The Glass House

This restaurant suffered from (among other things) an experienced head chef that wasn’t connecting with, or appreciating, his kitchen crew.

After working on a few teams you’re bound to realize sooner or later that experience and skill don’t necessarily equate to leadership ability.  It takes a special charisma to not only manage a team effectively, but also inspire and build them into something special.  Not everyone has it, not everyone needs to have it.  It’s the small business owner’s job to recognize the dynamics of a team and make sure that the right person is taking the lead (or hire someone who can help build your team).  You are going to be close to the situation—which makes the decisions all the more challenging—but having the right people with the right chemistry is critical to success.  As a small business owner when things go poorly it’s easy to place the blame on your team, but remember you’re likely the one who hired them, so be prepared to scrutinize your own decisions as well as theirs.

Momma Cherri’s Soul Food Shack

This is a great one.  They’re doing a lot of things right, but it’s a case of the owner being a little too involved.

It’s a classic small business owner vice—trying to do it all.  I know I’m a bit of a broken record about this, but making time to work on your business is just as important as working in it. Trying to promote your services, perform the services, and manage the business will wear you down fast, and you won’t be able to do any of the jobs as well as you could be.  Even complex tasks can be broken down into a process, which can then be delegated to your staff, freeing you to focus on whatever aspect of the business you are best at.  Just like any other resource, using your employees efficiently will improve your bottom line, and hopefully reduce your own stress levels!

General lessons

There are a few things that Ramsay does for each restaurant that are fairly standard in each episode, and they are analogous to any business that is struggling from being stretched too thin.

  • He refocuses their menu, typically this means cutting out about 60% of the dishes.  This is classic “less is more”, a golden rule in design, copywriting, and beyond.  This could mean cutting superfluous features from a product, or service offerings in your business that are there because you feel like they should be, not because they are particularly profitable or compatible with your vision for the company.  Stay focused on your goals for the business, and on what provides a real value to your customers, not on the appearance of a greater breadth than you’re capable of providing.
  • He rides the head chefs hard, using force if necessary to get them inspired and passionate about their craft again.  In this instance the “head chef” could be analogous to you, your sales team, your designers—anyone on your team, but most importantly those in management/leadership positions.  Professionals need to be able to take pride in their work, and take time to hone their craft.  If they’re constantly feeling harried and rushed, too busy to pause and breathe, it’s all too easy to slip into autopilot and work just becomes “getting through the day”.

I hope reading this inspires you to at least take a peek at the show, it really is worth seeing.  Knowing beforehand some of the business lessons awaiting you I think you’ll be able to glean even further insights!

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