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Why You Can’t Do It Alone and Don’t Have to with Matt Rolfe

Matt Rolfe, Coach, Speaker, bestselling Author, and Entrepreneur discusses how he got into the hospitality industry, how his new book You Can’t Do It Alone offers solutions focused on the people behind your company, the secret to successful operators, and post-pandemic predictions.

Key Takeaways

  1. Ensure that the effort you put into your work has a clear destination.
  2. Once you have clarity and communication in place, make sure you are consistent in the execution of the goals you’ve set.
  3. Successful operators focus on results over activity. 

Transcript

Matt Rolfe: We’ll see hundreds and hundreds of restaurants across North America close in the next six months because people are holding onto the identity of who they were prior to the pandemic.

Matt Levin: Inspirational stories, actionable business tips, and real-world strategies. Join us as today’s guest shares how you can make your business more resilient in an unpredictable world.

Hi everyone. I’m Matt Levin and you’re listening to The Resilient Restaurant podcast. Today, I’m joined by Matt Rolfe: coach, speaker, best-selling author, and entrepreneur who mentors the top 10% of the hospitality industry. We discussed how he got into hospitality industry, how his new book. “You Can’t Do It Alone,” offers solutions focused on the people behind your company, the secret to successful operators, and post-pandemic predictions.

Journey to Coaching

Matt Levin: Matt, thank you so much for joining us today.

Matt Rolfe: Thanks Matt. Thanks for having me.

Matt Levin: Just to kick us off, can you tell us a little bit around your background and how you got into hospitality originally?

Matt Rolfe: Going through grade school and in high school, I was diagnosed with a learning disability, and at a point in high school, I was told that I wouldn’t make it through, I wouldn’t graduate, and I should find alternative employment.

And I ended up finding the hospitality industry, as I went out and looked for work and found restaurants and working in the back of house of restaurants, cleaning dishes, and cleaning up messes at that stage, and found some people who really invested in me. So they didn’t care about how I was judged in school, but I found hospitality by falling back into it.

The good news is that people had supported me as I got jobs as early as 12. Good news is I passed school and stuck through it, got into college. When I got to college, still loved the restaurant industry, or the campus pub industry at that point. And worked for Bacardi to start, one of the world’s largest spirits companies, and then moved over to a company called Labatt here in Canada that’s owned by Anheuser-Busch, so the world’s largest beer company. And working for Bacardi and Labatt over about an eight-year period, got a chance to work with hundreds of restaurant operators across Canada. Traveled across the US and really fell in love with the operations side.

But then I saw a pain point: saw a lot of operators losing their businesses, saw a lot of people losing their homes, not making the money that they wanted or deserved. So as I ventured through my supplier days, moved over and started really coaching and consulting for the restaurant industry. And 15 years later, I spend all of my days working with leaders in the restaurant industry ranging from independents, but more multi-site restaurant groups and national chains, to get the results that they want through motivating and coaching their people.

Inspiration for ‘You Can’t Do It Alone’

Matt Levin: You have a new book out called “You Can’t Do It Alone.” You don’t come across a lot of things that really focus on the people and leadership at the softer side of the equation. Can you tell me a little bit around what the genesis for the book and a little bit about the background?

Matt Rolfe: I saw the same thing that you did as I went to learn more about the industry, as I grew up in it, but I didn’t necessarily learn finance or cost or people management.

So I went to the same books, and we discussed writing a book 10 years ago, just out of interest, but we put it on the back burner. And the way the book came back to life prior to COVID — we started writing it eight months prior to the shutdown — was I was meeting with leaders, so senior leaders or owners of incredible restaurant groups. And I was recognizing a pattern of them being overwhelmed, overworked, overcapacity, and falling out of love with what they were doing. I think it’s a very common thing that we could all relate to after going through COVID.

So I stepped back and went to a publisher and said, hey, there’s a common theme of a pain point, here, that from when we get a chance to coach somebody, I could interact with them live, we can remove that pain point and we can get them going in a different direction. And it always involved, how do we add more people around them to support them, but also how does the leader get out of their way? So with the pattern that we see through top operators we’re able to coach out, the book really was, “How do we put something in leaders’ hands, where they can go to a chapter —or go through the whole book, should they choose — to help fix a problem that they’re currently stuck on?”

Our goal now is to reach more people and you can’t always do that live. And that’s why we went back to the book and took a different angle. I’m not the best person to write. I can write a book on ops, but really my focus is people, and we felt the time was right to get it out.

Matt Levin: How could someone’s business and the way they style and operate their life, be transformed by some of this methodology?

Matt Rolfe: Yeah, I think the way that we look back as a coach is when you enter somebody’s life. So usually there’s a pain point or an intersection. So the business had a certain amount of growth or there’s a pain point where they can’t do things the way that they have, or more common than not, we’re referred into a group.

And what’s usually the stories that come up common for me is, we get introduced to somebody from a referral and my question to them is, “Does it feel harder than it should be?” Because if we want to create change, what we coach people on is you either move away from pain or you move towards pleasure. And most of us in the restaurant industry, unfortunately, have a pattern of moving away from pain. So something gets hard enough where it’s time to make a change.

So how we meet somebody and create change, so they can cross that chasm, so they can make that change, so they can implement some of the strategies in the book is just looking an operator in the face. I mean most of my clients are highly successful, but I say how sustainable is it? Is it scalable? Are you happy? Or is it harder than it seems to be?

And as the first couple of chapters of the book have four or five examples of meeting with an owner in a boardroom overlooking a city and you could see water nearby because you’re in a high skyscraper and I look at a leader who’s running a $2 million or $200 million restaurant group, and when they look up from their laptop, they’ve got tears in their eyes. It’s just not manageable or sustainable anymore.

So once we can get somebody and they’re at that point and ready to change, then we can start to take them through the opportunities in the book. And these aren’t my ideas. These come from practice, and we’ve tried a lot in my other stage. We failed a lot. But I feel over the last six, seven years, we’ve really got a great recipe that’s helping a lot of leaders make the change.

And we all know, everybody listening to this podcast, at some point in your life you’re over capacity. And the only way through that traditionally is to get more clear on what do you do that best serves yourself and the team that you work for? And then how do you inspire the people around you and get out of their way?

Characteristics of a Coachable Operator

Matt Levin: If you were to say, here’s the bucket of people who just couldn’t break through, couldn’t get past it, couldn’t improve, couldn’t make those changes — versus the people that were able to make those changes. What are the differences in those characteristics or behaviors?

Matt Rolfe: I feel change, and change being supported by a coach or not, all comes down to timing. And when I find somebody who gets to a point of failure is when they’re not ready for change, there’s still an emotional connection to where they are, even if it’s not producing the result that they want. They’re connected to a feeling, an identity of where they are.

So somebody’s run a business 10 years prior to COVID and it’s been successful. We’ll see hundreds and hundreds of restaurants across North America close in the next six months because people are holding onto the identity of who they were prior to the pandemic. And the reality is what led you to success prior to COVID isn’t going to lead you to success afterwards.

Matt Rolfe Quote from The Resilient Restaurant Podcast

So the challenges that I see are where people, they’re not ready to make a shift, they haven’t found that point to push them in a new direction. So they’re holding onto an old identity. And from my side, that’s without judgment, everyone changes when they choose to change. But when I see people fail, it’s usually their inability to see the requirement for change. Most importantly, if you want to funnel that down a bit, their inability to say no.

I meet with operators and the ones that are failing are the ones that say, how many priorities do we have right now? And hyper-focused on 12 things, 16 things. We have a lot going on. They’re focused on activity over results. So we get an addiction to doing stuff and things. And I say this respectfully as somebody who struggled with it for my whole career, somebody who has diagnosed ADD that I always want to be doing stuff, but operators need to be focused now and the inability to focus leads to failure.

And I think the inability to see the requirements of people. We’re in the largest staff shortage we’ll ever experience in our generation, I hope. And I think the idea of getting through the pandemic based on force, meaning, “Let’s just work harder.” If we’ve all been out to restaurants in the last month, you’ll see staff with pain on their face. And if we can’t see and identify and work on change for them, they unfortunately won’t be there for us. And in my experience will lead to failure.

Post-Pandemic Industry Predictions

Matt Levin: So are you implying that there’s going to be like a wave of post-pandemic closings that we didn’t see in the pandemic?

Matt Rolfe: I do believe that we were able to get a little bit of support, I hope you did as an operator, to fund your operation. And then we got into a relatively healthy period: summer, fall. And as we head into winter, this being October when we’re recording this, and New York City is reporting a decline, a significant decline in restaurant indoor-dining numbers. Although we’re open and have the ability to do so, the numbers are sharply declining. I think it was around 7% was reported last week.

So what I’m fearful of heading into the holidays is that people are operating, there’s guests in their restaurant, but we’re running out of cash. So 80% of businesses go cashflow broke. They’re actually profitable at the stage of when they need to close their doors or they’re at a breakeven. But I don’t think that operators are going to not have guests inside their restaurants. My concern in Q1 and Q2, based on capacity restrictions, vaccination passports, and just guests not comfortable and fully returning back or staff not being available, that we’re not going to have the Q3 or Q4 that we need to set us up for the first three to six months of 2022.

Cash is king and gets us through the next 18 months. I do feel, unfortunately, there is a significant wave of closures coming Q1 and Q2 of next year. And I do feel there’s operators right now that their doors are open today, but they’re technically broke right now.

Matt Rolfe Quote from The Resilient Restaurant Podcast about cash is king

The average operator in North America may make less than 5% net profit. If our food costs just went up 5% and our labor costs went up 8%, whatever your numbers are, but if you look at them and we’re not making strategic menu pricing decisions or offerings or operating hours, unfortunately I know pennies don’t exist anymore, but we’re still in a game of pennies, you know what I mean?

So I feel for operators. I don’t want to be cheesy, but we’re in this together and we need to really work towards a sustainable business to get on the other side of this.

Matt Levin: Are there other psychological aspects that you’re seeing, obviously within leadership, employees, other characteristics like that?

Matt Rolfe: I think the first thing is an owner or leadership team need to sit together before they have conversations or have conversations with themselves about their team and where they’re going. But I think one of the biggest opportunities for any operator right now for the next three months, or I definitely recommend for the next 12 months, is defining how do you win?

So we think about somebody grinding, crawling out of bed at 5:00 a.m., drinking coffee, going into the operation knowing it’s going to be a slugfest, knowing they’re going to be short staffed, knowing they’re going to be short shipped, knowing their costs are going to go up. But if you don’t have a definition for how we win, if we don’t see something out of us, that slug, that grind gets really, really dark.

So if we look at the psychology of this, I sit with operators and say, “What is the one goal that we could achieve, and that could be for Q4 or 2022, that we would stop, recognize, and celebrate with everybody around us?” So we have something that we’re going towards, and I know it sounds cheesy, but if we don’t know the destination that we want, then we’re unclear on the effort that we’re putting in.

And the other concern is if we’re not clear on where we want to get to, then we can get into weekly arguments about, “Hey, sales are down, profit’s down, our costs are up,” because we’re unclear on the destination. So if we surrender — and a lot of leaders I’m talking to, we might surrender that we still need to dip into cashflow for the next six months so that we know the back half of 2022 we’re going to rebound and we’re going to be in a healthy position. But if we don’t have that, an intentional conversation talking about the psychology, the mindset of how we’re going to get to where we want to go to.

Matt Rolfe Quote from The Resilient Restaurant Podcast about destination

So for me, it’s reshaping the psychology. I said, there’s no right or wrong, there’s no judgment, but this is a big opportunity. Because if you don’t know how you win, your leaders and managers don’t know what they’re running towards, and your staff are going to have the risk of getting discouraged and jumping to your competitors.

Defining Success

Matt Levin: When you coach operators to think about their definition of winning, what should go in there? Is it totally unique to each operator?

Matt Rolfe: It can be, but there’s usually themes. The conversation I’ve had most recently, so a couple of weeks ago, we started with a great new emerging multi-site restaurant group. And the owner called me, we’ve crossed paths. And they just said, I’ve got cash, I’ve got a decent team, our businesses are healthy, but I’ve, in my words, fallen out of love with what I’m doing right now. What I’m forced to do every day, the grind I just went through: COVID, the impact on the team, the impact on family, and everything else.

There was the weight of that. So the how we win side, when I’m looking for is the emotional motivator, the cost, the profitability, the sales increase are the measurable results. Simon Sinek says profit is a result of human behavior. Profit is a result. It’s not the action.

So what I’m trying to do is create a new, what’s the day in the life, the week in the life, the team look like for the leader or where we have the whole leadership team? If you want something softer, I’d go to an owner and say, what’s your legacy? We often talk about legacy at the end of our careers, but I would go to, if there’s a 22-year-old operator in Brooklyn right now that’s just got a fire idea that they’re pumped up about. Say, “What’s the imprint you’re trying to leave because this game is bigger than yourself?” He or she. If it’s about you, you’re going to bottleneck your own business.

So what we try to do is look at, what’s the definition, the feeling of where we’re at? The definition of our brand, of our company, of our team? Where are we 12 months ago? The measurables. So how we win would be one to three sentences. The measurables would be, what are the three drivers that get us to that measurable result? That might be menu engineering, that might be cost control, average check increase. But the definition of success could be staff culture, a score. And I know that’s a big fuzzy word, but we define it, make it scrappy, make it yours. What’s our, “Why should we give a shit?” Excuse my language, but what our goals are. Every time I sat down with a leader, it’s like, “If I can’t get your 27-year-old, 30, 50-year-old leader or 18-year-old host to care about your goals, then we’re lost “

Obstacles When Coaching Operators

Matt Levin: If you’re listening to this and you’re going like, “You know what? This is pretty good. I figured it out. I’ve survived independently. I didn’t take outside investment, blah, blah, blah.” But there might be some things that they could use help with. How do you get people out of that mindset? How do you change their point of view and learn how to seek out help or opportunities for improvement?

Matt Rolfe: The biggest thing that I share with people, because one thing that I know, and I say this respectfully to all the coaches and consultants, say nobody wants a coach or consultant.

You know what they want is a result. You might get sold the idea of if we’re buying a coach or consultant, we’re buying somebody to come in and fix my problem, because I don’t want to give it the energy or time, or I don’t have the energy or time to fix it. And those usually aren’t sustainable changes. I did consulting in the first five years of this, where we did a lot of great work.

I’d go back into restaurants; say how did it go? And they’d say, oh yeah, we got busy. We forgot about all that stuff. We can unpack that later, but the idea is it has to be about you. Like the coach can solve their technology, is there to support your goals. So it’s not a sign of weakness or something you have the inability to do. But if you’re clear on what you want to get to, a coach or consultant or asking for help from a peer or asking for help from somebody on your team and not wanting to feel that you have to have all the answers is just the ability, the strength to see I’m going to use people around me, on my team or outside my team to get to my results or my desired goal quicker, faster, better, stronger.

And people should be inspired. Sometimes a coach might help you better to find that. But I can share as a young entrepreneur, just running 80-hour workweeks, unsustainable working around the clock, constantly stressed every time my phone rang, wondered what the problem was.

And the only way I shifted was by hiring a coach. And at the time, a coach I couldn’t afford. A coach that I questioned. A coach I had huge resistance towards every time I went because they were going to push me in uncomfortable spaces. But my personal journey was making those investments and seeing the impact and change that somebody who cared about me and was invested in me could help me get my results.

And my coach is a mentor of mine and that’s why we started this company, was to help leaders get to where they want to go with less friction and resistance. Less pain. And coaching is relatively new to our industry, but we’re getting better at asking for help because we’re seeing the results.

Future of Coaching in Industry

Matt Levin: So you hit upon, you said the restaurant industry has been late to this. Do you think that the industry’s on the cusp of really accepting this broadly? Do you think it’s a transition in place? And what’s going to really make that transition take hold throughout the industry where people go, “Yes, I know I need coaching. I need to find a peer group. And that’s the thing I got to do,” really early on?

Matt Rolfe: If we go back to Malcolm Gladwell’s work on the tipping point, right? So when he talks about how do we get ideas to tip, the TED Talks idea, how do we get ideas to spread?

And I think it’ll be a slow climb. I don’t think the industry is going to tip and coaches are going to be commonplace in the average restaurant. I do think there’s a place and a time for them to be open for coaching and support.

But Malcolm Gladwell talks about the early adopters. If you get two and a half percent of the industry trying it, which I think is happening now, but the ultimate goal is when 17, 18% of the industry starts to look for outside support and whatever that looks like, then it will become commonplace.

I think what needs to happen is those that are out coaching, we need to do work to the level to support the leaders we’re working with that they want to go out and talk about it. So the challenge isn’t on the operator to accept coaching, it’s for us that have the privilege of going out and coaching. I take this responsibility seriously when I’m away from my wife and my kids and on airplanes and traveling around. We’ve got to take our work seriously. And if we do great work, the word will spread.

And to be honest, I would say most people I talk to about coaching or support feel that they’ve been let down by a consultant in the past. And we’ve got to rebuild trust to overcome that. And I say that respectfully, I don’t know who was before me or before them, but I think the sign now is if we want this, if I want to work with my own clients, the only way to do that isn’t marketing. The only way to do that is to really go deep in the people I get exposure to and word of mouth will spread.

And the idea, the book is I can’t work with all people. The book or online courses, if we could reach more people at a distance at a lower cost, then we have more scalability. Because coaching at a high price point doesn’t work for the average restaurant.

Secrets of Surviving Today’s Environment

Matt Levin: Those that aren’t struggling, those are that are really grooving, and business is operating in a really healthy way right now, in today’s environment, what’s their secret? Are there any, first of all, given the incredible existential challenges, and if there are, what are they doing that can be replicated? Is it luck? Is it skill? Is it the coaching? Is it technology? What’s the secret?

Matt Rolfe: I think when we look to the success indicators that I see, the patterns that I see in leaders and operators of restaurants or restaurant groups, there’s a few things.

The one thing is just absolutely clarity. So they know from me, they’ve spent the time with themselves, with their team, with outside support. It’s again, the coach is just someone who adds on that helps. It couldn’t and shouldn’t be a result of just working with a coach or consultant, but they’re clear as to where they want to go and why anybody would buy in, get behind it.

In our industry, we spend more time working than we do with our friends and family. So why will people rally around this? And we all know this. Common sense but not common practice. We could read all the leadership books, but for your restaurant, are we absolutely clear as to what we’re trying to accomplish, do with our people, with our guests for the next three months? The holiday season, one of the most critical time periods of our year. Are we absolutely clear?

And then the one thing that I think that’s one of the most important parts coming out of the pandemic is a leader or a leadership team’s ability to communicate. So how do we continue to stay connected with our people, show that we care, celebrate success?

So as an industry, we might be used to focusing on, “Here are the five covers that didn’t work tonight, rather than the 200 that did.” How do we see the shift to recognize positive behavior, positive action in the direction of our goals?

But I think if we have clarity and communication, then it gets down to the last point. And it is just relentless focus on execution. So when are you going up? And it’s not every hour of every day, but the right amount of time in your week is focused on the goals that move you forward.

Matt Rolfe Quote from The Resilient Restaurant Podcast about clarity and communication

Matt Levin: If you were to give a task to somebody, people listening and say, look, here’s something you can do, one or two or three things you can do in the next 24 hours that’s totally achievable. That will set you on a path to change or improvement, however small it is. Some sort of positive step. What would those things be if anything?

Matt Rolfe: The number one thing, if any operator out there right now is having a challenge hiring people, I really encourage you to revisit how you’re filtering your resumes.

I know this sounds tactical. It doesn’t sound impactful. The game changed. So if we change our filtering process, look at how we’re reviewing resumes. Once we have somebody, we think that’ll fit, I encourage you to follow up with them three to five times to make sure that we are actually connecting with people and giving them a reason to join our interview.

Change your filtering process. I promise you, you’ll change the attendance in your interviews. You will hire more people next week. We have more information. If you go on my LinkedIn page, we’ve got recorded video content goes up every day and it is the easiest thing to change your hiring results next week.

The next thing that I would do, if you’re looking to make change in your organization, I would change your communication rhythm. So I would have a leadership team meeting once a week, and a team meeting once a week. I encourage you to an agenda. Give yourself permission to focus on and work on what matters most, and you’ll change your results. Again, common thing, but not common practice.

And the next thing I’d encourage you to do walk through your restaurant, recognize three people today for something positive they did in your restaurant. Go up to them and say, “The way you interacted with that guest was incredible. I really appreciate you. And I saw that.” People aren’t being seen right now. We’ve got trouble at home. We’ve got challenge at home. We’ve got challenge in our communities. We got challenge at work.

Just recognize three people. And it’s not about how they react. See how you feel when you do that. Because when you recognize the feeling you have, you will go and do that more. So if we filter, if we have a real intentional focus meeting outcome, and we have free assets in our website, if you want to download to show you how to run a meeting, and then just recognize three people today.

No bullshit. Just try to do that. Sorry for swearing. But it is one of the most impactful, lowest cost things we can do to change our culture and also make us feel better in our days. Because we’re all going through it right now.

Permanent Changes Post-Pandemic

Matt Levin: If you were just to put your binoculars on, Peer over the horizon a little bit more and you look three to five years down the road. What do you think has changed in the hospitality industry? Are there going to be permanent landscape changes? Is there something that you think that we’re going to look back and go, this is where the path of how hospitality and how the restaurant industry works? Or are we going to more revert back to pre-COVID times and the before times and say, we’re actually just really going back and once everything settles down, we’re going to do it the way we’ve always been. Like, what’s your point of view?

Matt Rolfe: What we’re going to look back on is this pandemic, there has been such an advancement in technology to support, whether it be our marketing outreach, whether it be cost analysis, POS integration, we’re going to look back, inventory management, and go, “Okay. That really was the time where the industry adopted those solutions and they started to become common practice.” Because we can’t lose those pennies or nickels anymore.

And I find that there’s this flow, right? We’re getting away on the technology side from hardware costs and these huge expenses in tech is becoming very cost-effective, although we still need hardware, to pennies on the dollar from where it was three years ago.

I think the other thing we’re going to look back at is there’ll be a fundamental shift on people. And I’ll start with leadership. What we expect from our managers, what the path to leadership or how we communicate, how we compensate our people, I think that’s still a little bit undefined, and I don’t think all operators have the ability just to increase salary and perks. So I think we’re going to be creative in this next 6, 12, 18 months.

And it is proven. I want everybody listening to know that it is proven, what people want in their positions is the ability to learn and grow after their base financial needs are met. So just cash isn’t going to get us through. It’s about how do we grow and develop our people inside of our restaurants to keep them so they don’t jump ship to other industries, as we’ve just seen through the pandemic?

And then I think one of the things that’s going to change is what is the guest experience? Prior to the pandemic, human connection, human interaction was going away. So I think what we’re going to realize is there still is this demand, this desire from guests to go out and have an experience created for them that they can’t do without interacting with the people that care about their product, their menu, their wine, whatever it is.

So I just don’t think the human connection side or the guest experience will ever go away. Every guest matters. And I know it always has, but it matters more than ever to everybody involved in the transaction.

Matt Levin: Thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a lifetime of wisdom condensed into less than an hour. I really appreciate it. So if people want to continue the conversation with you and get in touch, how should they find you and reach out?

Matt Rolfe: Yeah, if you go on LinkedIn and look up Matt Rolfe, you’ll also find MattRolfe.com. We’ll have all of our social threads, all the information on our different programs. And our goal is to give away a lot of content. You can find “You Can’t Do It Alone” on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca.

And if you go to West Shore Hospitality, we’ve just launched a program, it’s only $37, to help you with your attract strategy and a restaurant leadership mastery program for $197. It’s two hours of my best content. Go to WestShoreHospitality.com. It’ll take you through.

So if you just want to learn more about us, check us out on social feeds and you’ll get lots of updates on a weekly basis, should you choose to take a look?

Matt Levin: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Matt Rolfe: Awesome. Thanks, Matt. Thanks for the opportunity. I appreciate it.

Thanks for listening to The Resilient Restaurant. Sign up for our podcast newsletter at marketman.com/podcast to receive bonus content and exclusive podcast announcements. You can also find articles on marketman.com/blog for more content related to the restaurant industry and restaurant management.

This podcast was produced and edited by MarketMan. Music by Joseph McDade.