Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Not all Nightmares are in the Kitchen

I’ve just watched an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Rotary. 

If you’re not familiar with the show, each episode sees British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay troubleshooting a failing restaurant with a view to turning around the establishment in just one week. I used to watch the show a lot, but hadn’t seen it for a while. As a former owner-operator of a catering business, the show holds a special interest to me, as I can relate to some of the challenges these restaurateurs are faced with.

Ramsay owns dozens of award winning restaurants and clearly knows his stuff, but he is a volatile and somewhat polarising character who calls it as he sees it, usually with a barrage of F-bombs thrown in. He inevitably manages to implement considerable changes and turns these restaurants around.

By now some of my regular readers will have worked out where I’m going with this blog, but I’ll persevere with the Kitchen Nightmares script for a few more paragraphs.

The episode I just watched followed a familiar pattern where a couple with no hospitality experience had bought a pub and before they knew it they were drowning in debt and stress. They had lost their house and were living in the hotel where they worked seven days a week. They employed knowledgeable chefs but wouldn’t allow them to alter the menu. They made customers wait for horrible food and wondered why the dining room was never full. One of the statistics Ramsay quoted was that 20 rural pubs were closing every month in the UK.

Ramsay faced stiff opposition from the owner, whose pride wouldn’t let him admit the errors of his ways. The staff were all ready to leave. Eventually Ramsay is able to take over the kitchen, comes up with a new menu, has the staff venturing into the surrounding neighbourhood promoting the new menu, fills the dining room, has an extremely successful night, and is able to show a profitable path forward for the establishment. 

In some episodes Ramsay also arranges for a makeover of the d├ęcor, changes signage or even the name of the establishment in an effort to make it more attractive. But despite seeing indisputable evidence of the success that change can bring, the stubborn owner wants to revert back to his old ways. It would appear failure is often a more comfortable option than change. Yes, that sentence will be repeated later on. It’s basically the same plot for every episode.

So, what does unattractive, regularly failing/closing organisations, bad food, empty rooms, poor promotion, disenchanted workers ready to leave, an inability to take on new ideas, poor leadership and a stubborn resistance to change have to do with Rotary, you may ask? OK, I’m kidding. No-one is asking that.

I’ll tell you another story, of a former club president and good friend of mine, the late John Angus. One of the things that in my mind made John a great leader was his capacity to ask why we did things the way we did. He wasn’t afraid to look for a better way. John had never been a fan of the top table in Rotary meetings. As president, he didn’t want to be separated from the rest of the members for the year, so he instructed the hotel to do away with the top table, and he sat at one of the tables with the rest of us. This didn’t go down well with some of our members who had watched their president sit at a head table for over 50 years. It wasn’t “the way we had always done it”. There were numerous vocal objections. Did it affect our capacity to raise funds or serve our community? Of course not, but it upset the status quo. John was battling cancer during his presidential year, and some weeks was unable to attend the meeting because of his illness or ongoing treatment. We could always tell upon arriving at the venue that John wasn’t there, because that head table was back. And of course ever since John’s presidential year concluded, the head table has been present.

Rotarians are by and large creatures of habit. It’s very much a human trait. We don’t like to be removed from our comfort zone. And that’s fine provided everything is going well. But when things start going pear shaped, we need to react. There are many very strong and successful restaurants that have a winning formula and you wouldn’t dream of changing them. Likewise many Rotary clubs are thriving and don’t need to change either. But this is not always the case, with many clubs teetering on extinction. I have always been critical of Rotarians’ general reluctance to change, but I feel it has become more than that in some cases. Bizarrely, it would appear for some that failure is a more comfortable option than change. I wonder if some of us really understand what “Service Above Self” means. Our obsession with maintaining the status quo even at the expense of our very survival is not putting service above self. It is the opposite, which is selfishness. 

My experience in chartering the Rotary Club of Seaford has taught me many things, but the most valuable lesson is this one: In most cases there are plenty of potential members out there, but we have to offer them a different version of Rotary. It is true that some of our rural clubs have ceased to exist largely due to external factors such as the local economy and population decline, and the potential members just aren't there, but this is not the main reason clubs are closing. A different version of Rotary is not just possible, but necessary if we want the organisation to last for another 20 years. 

So the episode finished, and it looked like the pub in question would survive, provided the staff could keep the owner from reverting back to his old habits. It then hit me that there was a glaring difference between the struggling establishments featured on Kitchen Nightmares and the struggling Rotary clubs I know of. The establishments on the show had asked for help.