Rhythms and red flags: How two restauranteurs prevent friction and frustration for employees

They show why many small problems are essential to prevent early — especially those that are linked to other essential and interconnected tasks.

Craig and Annie Stoll opened Delfina restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1998. The husband and wife team borrowed money and maxed out their credit cards to make it happen. Delfina has been a hit with locals and critics ever since. In 2008, Craig won the James Beard Award Award for the best Chef in the Pacific region (California and Hawaii). Delfina is renowned for its seasonal Italian dishes, rustic pastas and pleasures ranging from roasted whole baby cauliflower, to grilled Monterey Bay Calamari, to a huge steak — a “dry-aged bistecca alla fiorentina.” Craig and Annie have built a mini-empire, the Delfina Resturant Group, which comprises the original “fine-dining” Delfina, Laconda (inspired by casual “osterias” in Rome), and four Pizza Delfina restaurants (with a fifth on the way) that serve wonderful pizza (below is one of my favorites, “Salsiccia”) along with diverse “Cal-Italian” dishes ranging from stone fruit salad, to meatballs to mussels.

Craig and Annie are the co-stars of the new episode of our FRICTION podcast, “Can’t stand the heat? Get out rid of the friction.” Roughly speaking, Craig focuses on the managing the food and chefs and Annie focuses on servers and other the “front of the house” issues — and is deep into management details ranging from hiring and firing, to daily crises, to dealing with upset customers. That said, they talk about and work on all things Delfina together — and there is a healthy, and loving, tension between the two, as their styles, focus, and skills are so different and so complimentary.

They view their challenge at Delfina, Laconda, and Delfina Pizza as akin to putting on a Broadway play every day. Or more precisely, six (soon seven) different plays each day. I was taken by how much they rely on rhythms to constrain and coordinate action (much as professor Kathy Eisenhardt suggested in her FRICTION episode on simple rules). They watch for missed handoffs, delays screw-ups, and other subtle hints that things have gone off the rails, or are about to do so. All of us at Stanford eCorner who work on the FRICTION podcast believe this is among the most engaging and instructive episodes in the (now) two-season series. I suggest you listen to it. This written piece (or the transcript) can’t replace the grit, good humor, mutual affection conveyed by Craig and Annie’s voices.

To whet your appetite for the podcast, consider a few of my favorite quotes (some lightly edited for clarity and length) and some light analysis. Their focus rhythm and red flags starts bright and early with Annie’s daily routine:

Annie: I see the emails that come through from every single restaurant, and I also see everything that’s uploaded to Box in our Cloud to keep my finger on the pulse. Also, first thing in the morning, at 6:00 in the morning, with my coffee, I go through the reservation books, and I’ll never stop doing that.

This habit enables Annie to link the daily rhythm of her actions to the daily rhythm of life in each restaurant. And consistent with what Huggy Rao and I discussed in “Bad to Great,” this duo is especially focused on averting and repairing problems. As piles of research demonstrate, bad is stronger than good, so eliminating the negative is essential for sustaining and spreading excellence in any organization. Annie and Craig know that things will go wrong, that things can always be a little better, and thus look for red flags at every turn. As they said:

Annie: I mean, it’s off the rails every minute.

Craig: Every day. It’s not will something go wrong today? It’s what will go wrong today?

I was taken with the ripple effects that Craig described in the quote below — a compelling illustration of why many small problems are essential to nip in the bud — especially those that are linked to other essential and interconnected tasks. He explains how a few missing spoons can trigger systemic friction and frustration for servers and customers:

Craig: There’s just so many moving parts, that if one of them is out of sync, or out of rhythm, it messes everything up. If the dishwasher is not doing their job, and washing things, and then bringing them out to the dining room, putting them where they’re needed, then the servers don’t have any spoons to go and set the table with. It slows them down, and they’re not there for the guest who didn’t like their soup, so the guest is upset, ’cause they’re flagging down the waiter, and the waiter’s off trying to get a spoon. This simple spoon that he needs, because the dishwasher wasn’t trained, or is too slow, or didn’t show up that night, or whatever, so there’s this domino effect.

Craig and Annie also use predictable rhythms to help their employees and themselves plan and coordinate predictable and necessary, but less frequent, activities:

Craig: We still personally do the new hire orientations. Every six weeks, it’s the Annie and Craig show.

Annie: It’s very important that everybody knows and understands our culture and values — that we live by, that everyone needs to live by. So in those orientations, we go through the mission statement and the core values, and how we started and who we are. So that can never change.

Finally, returning to the “bad to great” theme, Craig talks about constantly making small changes that improve the customers’ experience, save money, and are opportunities to teach his staff skills and accountability.

Craig: Every restaurant I walk into, I immediately adjust the lights and music. Cleanliness, I mean, I look for smudges in mirrors, I look for recycling, composting, and trash. So one of the first things I do when I walk into one of our kitchens is I go straight to their composting bin, and the trash bins, and the recycling. I’ll pick up a can of olive oil, and I’ll shake it, and I’ll say, “Do you know what that sounds like in there? It sounds like money. That’s money, that’s olive oil.”

There is much more in the podcast. They talk about what they look for when hiring people — the standards are a bit different than in other industries (Annie looks for candidates who are on time and don’t smell of alcohol). Craig talks about red flags that indicate people need more training. Annie talks about the importance of starting meetings on time, They both talk about the joys of great regular customers and challenges of dealing with rude, impatient, and overly demanding customers (including the satisfaction that comes with doing it well). I hope you enjoy the conversation.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Bob Sutton|is a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life.