The Roots of Restaurant Success

Choose a form of human expression such as architecture, music, sculpture and yes, food. How is it that some forms of creation can stand the “the test of time” and capture our interest generation after generation? Why is it that some inspire us years after they’re gone while others just come and go?  Why do we still listen to Bach or The Beetles when there’s seemingly limitless other musicians to displace their time in the limelight? How is it such artists transcend their own art form and represent an era, and become iconic.

Anybody can tap into this same power

This may be an audacious thought to some. But we cannot become something which we cannot imagine. So at some level, we’ve got to question our own beliefs. The beliefs that “we’re not good enough” to be a da Vinci are the very kind that limit what we can be– even if the ultimate outcome seems unclear. For most, many roads of those we hold in high regard are full of limitations, rejections, obstacles or set backs. Nevertheless, such icons find their way within the same scope of limitations we all share.

We can wish to be the next Sirio Maccioni, Alice Waters, Tilman Fertitta or J. Willard Marriott. But why not put our own name in the space between these commas? Such lists are added to every day. The space is free and it’s always growing for those who choose to be there.

So while we may imagine our name high up amongst the greats, we must also look to our feet and think about what’s beneath. What do we build our dreams upon?

Build upon the timeless, universal and dependable

Whether defining hospitality itself, creating a new cuisine, building a restaurant empire, or turning a soda stand into a global restaurant & hotel brand, the shift from ordinary to extraordinary happens in our ability to serve each other at the instinctual level. Humility, persistance, greatfulness, sacrifice and passion are often shared traits of those we aspire to emulate.

The reason these traits are important is because through these traits we reach a state that connects us to our core human needs. Here, perceived limitations such as educational background, finances, geography, influence, resources- you name it- they don’t matter. Here, we’re all the same.

With this approach, we can do away with that “fluff” which we too often believe restricts us. If we organize priorities based first on human needs and emotions, we begin to focus on the things that transcend time and circumstance. Then, we layer in the “triggers” that meet our core needs in a positive way. This is done by mapping the customer experience to each of the core six human needs.

Below is example mapping for each instinct described in further detail from the link above. Be sure to attach the word “pleasure” to see these instincts in their positive form. In the following examples, negatively charged outcomes are included. Watch how fast things can go right or wrong- and involuntarily activate the other more powerful instincts:


The foundation of reputation and all other following instincts in their positive form. Without certainty, all others fall short of their potential power. Certainty is experienced when staff is well-trained, knows the menu, and consistently makes good recommendations to those who may be uncertain. Food preparation follows recipes and cooks are well trained to deliver consistant food. The ability to adapt, to compromise and to go the extra mile enables staff member empowerement. Meaningful action happen without the restrictions of a micro-managed environment.

Alternatively, when something such as the hours of operation are incorrect on the website and the guest arrives, the wrong kind of uncertainty over-rides certainty. All other positively-charged instincts become dead in the water. The same goes for inconsistent food preparation, or menu items described differently from what is served, incorrect prices, long wait times (for anything), unclean bathrooms (if this is messy, what’s the kitchen look like!) and other parts of the guest experience where expectations are not met.


Food specials, live music, beautiful sunsets, a thriving bar scene, can all appeal to our need for adventure and balance out the need for certainty. It’s the antidote to boredom or predictability. Certainty and variety work together like the high notes and low notes in music. A busy dining room creates an electric atmosphere that isn’t experienced in the certainty of everyday environments like home or work. Unexpected gestures of appreciation also trigger the significance instinct.

On the flip side, when receiving incorrect food, waiting too long to be seated, encountering a hoity toity hostess or an indifferent server, a negatively charged form of variety triggers a negative form of certainty. Guests can shift into an “on guard” state – slipping closer to survival mode ready to instinctually warn the tribe. In scenarios like this, what should be relationship building quickly turns into damage control.


High on this list is something as simple as using a guest’s name. Visits to the table by ownership, management or the chef. Remembering an important date such as birthday or anniversary. Giving something in return for loyalty. It’s the level of personal interaction that says to each guest “you’re not just a number to us“. When we feel important in a place, we want to be in that place and will go out of our way to return to that place. Combined with certainty, we’ll want those we love to feel significant, too, which triggers contribution.

When we wish to feel significant, and it doesn’t happen, it’s humiliating. Usually the bigger the ego, the bigger this need. And reasonable or not, a humiliated customer is highly unlikely to return.

Love & Connection

Consistent, empathetic, authentic engagment by all team members. Responding to guest’s social media posts, reviews and other forms of communication. Creating a healthy environment to enjoy the company of others at the table. Combined with sustenance, with the stimulation of the senses, and emotional engagement of being alive and in the moment, it is here where the magic happens, where memories are created for a lifetime. This becomes possible when the other instincts have been positive, and it’s here where new and repeat business begins. Master this state for your guests, and what happens next is business acceleration.

However, this dream we try to create is easily disrupted. Take a dining room that can’t absorb sound. Without the ability to converse in a relaxed way, this instinctual desire could quickly become unfullfiled (should we go somewhere else to talk?). What if the food is prepared inappropriately and needs to be sent back. What was supposed to be a blossoming part of a relationship is disrupted by a literal change in dialogue. When that happens, uncertainty takes the wrong form, and leads to the wrong expression of instinctual needs: For example, the contribution instinct will express itself in the form of a negative review.


Fulfilling the certainty instinct helps stimulate the growth instinct. When conducting business during lunch, celebrating a birthday or anniversary,  a retirement or a first date, we frequently choose restaurants to express the most important periods of growth in our life. Add to that, the transformative nature of sensory exploration, the power of growth is experienced in a dynamic and fulfilling way through new textures, flavor combinations, ingredients, cultural discovery, history and so much more.

On the other hand, if we shell out a few hundred dollars on a rare French burgundy (an act of seeking growth) and the sommelier mishandles the wine or the wine itself is corked, the opposite of growth happens. Now the negative forms of uncertainty, significance, certainty, and contribution.

A good exercise is to image what our guest’s internal narrative may sound like. Let’s take this wine example. Nothing technically wrong with the wine ordered, but it’s clearly not connecting with the guests at the table. Here’s the host’s thoughts while she glances around the table at her friends:

  • What’s going to happen now?
  • Is this how it’s supposed to be?
  • It’s not as good as I thought, I talked this wine up to everybody and they don’t look happy about it, do I have to pay for this?
  • Made a bad choice, not good at choosing wine.
  • Should have stayed with what I know and not spent the extra money.
  • Thought I’d share something special with my new wine-loving friends.

When we take the time to hear our guests most intimate thoughts, when things go right or things go wrong, we can better evaluate operations, proceedures and empowerment necessary to ensure all team members are inspiring positive thoughts- even when the unexpected happens.

So in the example above, a sharp sommelier immediately notices the group at the table doesn’t seem to be enjoying the selection. The sommelier takes responsibility of the situation by bringing another wine to taste as a suggested alternative at a slightly better price:

  • Can’t believe how fast the somelier replaced that wine for me. (certainty)
  • This one’s even better. (growth)
  • Would have never thought to try this one. (variety)
  • Can’t wait to recommend this wine to everybody on my Facebook page.  (love & connection, contribution)
  • How is this wine less expensive than the other? (variety)
  • All my new wine-loving friends can’t stop talking about this hidden gem. (significance)

Sure, the sommelier could have done nothing and such a response would be acceptable – but the real opportunity for growth would be lost.

To take control of the guest experience, and re-route it in an unexpected, positive way, is what creates a brand people are passionate about. The value of this moment far exceeds the cost of the wine. This is about true ownership of the guest’s experience.

It is in these kinds of unscripted moments where the great restaurants emerge.


Our need to grow, no matter what our path in life, will reach a pinnacle evolutionary instinct which is to give back. Restaurants provide an outlet to express this need when we pick up the check for our friends or family. It’s an expression of the love & connection instinct. For the big tippers, there’s pleasure in contributing to the well-being of another person who enriched our experience at the restaurant. As we seek to contribute to those in our life, it’s important that we see them receiving something special along the way. As we contribute, we in return seek to fulfill other instincts such as significance, certainty and growth.

If these other needs are unmet, then the desire to contribute will be redirected by the certainty instinct which means a person takes their business elsewhere. When the needs are met, however, the power of those who can influence the most contribution, results in the positive expression of love & connection. The cycle repeats in a healthy way that brings more contributors towards areas of certainty.

These aspects of human behaviour are programmed. They’re not learned behaviors. They’re a part of us that’s immutably encoded into our DNA.

Let this get personal

The potency in all of this is how we ourselves, as operators, understand and apply these very same instincts to our own daily life. They control us in the same way as they control our guests.

Once we become certain of a possiblity, the power of certainty itself puts us in a position of real power. To be certain there’s a way to influence our guest’s behaviour opens doorways to our own instincts. This in turn affects our behaviour and choices as it relates to running the restaurant.

As our own instincts are experienced in their positive form, the restaurant and the experience it can provide naturally becomes a better place to be- for everybody. Go through the list above and see how each instinct grows from certainty into the other instincts. Knowledge and control of each instinct adds more power to an ability that directs the restaurant’s success.

The more instincts a restaurant appeals to, and the more staff and ownership experiences the fulfillment of these instincts, the greater the positive pre-programmed response a guest will have.

Envision the results happing throughout your guest’s journey

Imagine each guest’s instincts and map them to the ideal customer journey that you wish to offer. Embrace the natural ability to serve with purpose, with love, and a balance of responsible generosity which ensures what’s paid for is never felt as stingy.

See your guests coming to the restaurant knowing, that at that moment, they’re being reuinited with their missed loved ones. Feel their joy while they dine, smile, laugh, and savor each bite. Recognize the contribution when somebody picks up the tab for all, or buys a new friend a round of drinks at the bar. Be there in heart as uncertainty becomes certainty when she says “yes” along side a spontaneus glass of champagne and a sparkling new ring. Feel the power of significance when your guests hear their name spoken each time they come to visit. Know with certainty they’ll take this with them wherever they go next. Then know with certainty what made it possible for something special to happen in these people’s lives.

Map the important moments to your guests’ lives, make them matter, and they’ll find you without even understanding why.