So you want to be a GM . . .

Restaurants function best when every person has a specialized job and does that job well. Servers deal with all immediate customer needs, the kitchen staff prepares all dishes in a timely manner and keeps table orders together, and the bar handles all drink orders without error. 

For customers, the general manager isn’t usually visible. At most, they may see the manager pacing the dining area, checking up on the host or hostess, or maybe working out bigger issues with service. 

The general manager of any restaurant has a huge responsibility: to make sure that both employees and customers alike are happy. Happy employees make for impeccable service, and impeccable service makes for big tips, and more importantly, positive reviews on online platforms. 

Today we’ll be talking about the qualities of a good restaurant general manager, from taking a position of authority to communicating effectively with your entire team. 

To guide us along, we invited a professional high-end restaurant GM to comment. Tony Carson is the general manager of The Modern, the restaurant inside New York’s MoMA in Midtown Manhattan. 

Carson runs a tight ship, even heading up some of his own initiatives that have helped employees grow within the company and be compensated fairly, regardless of their role within the restaurant. 

Now let’s move on to the first topic at hand: deciding whether you have the skills to become a GM. 

Knowing your skills, knowing your place (with Tony Carson) 

If you’ve been working as a server or front-of-house staff member, becoming a GM may seem pretty appealing. GMs are generally paid more, and they don’t often need to interact directly with customers. 

But it takes a lot more to be a GM than just wanting a promotion. 

Before pursuing a GM role, take stock of yourself: think about your career goals and your natural leadership skills. 

qualities of a good restaurant general manager

Tony Carson is the General Manager of The Modern restaurant at MoMA.

For example, if you are uncomfortable with confrontations and ASAP problem-solving, you may want to reconsider your decision, or at least confront those tendencies. 

For Carson, he realized early on that working in the kitchen wasn’t making use of his most valuable skill set. 

“I started my culinary career as a cook, but I knew I didn’t want to stay in the kitchen. The owner of the restaurant I worked at was unforgettable, and I wanted to be just like him. He made me realize that I wanted to have a sense of ownership over the place where I worked.”

Following this realization, there was a long road to becoming a GM. It certainly wasn’t an overnight shift, and you shouldn’t expect yours to be, either. But knowing exactly what you want to do can be a huge help. 

Communicate easily and often

General managers of all stripes absolutely need to be able to communicate clearly with their staff and with the owner(s). 

A general manager has to pass down orders from the restaurant’s ownership, as well as sharing any major staff problems with the ownership. 

Even more difficult is the line a GM has to walk, somewhere between friend and boss. A domineering tone can cause mistrust and negativity, while being too friendly and yielding can result in a lack of discipline and consequences. 

Carson explained that different types of communication can be used at different times to serve very different purposes. 

“I find that the communication style that stays with people the most and has the most long term impact is in-person, face-to-face communication. That being said, some things just need to be written down in an email so they can be used as accountability tools if needed. It keeps everyone on the same page.”

As a GM, you’ll need to be able to decide how each message would be best communicated. This can sometimes be a process of trial and error, just remember that you may have to deal with some negative blowback if you make a wrong move. 

Empathy for all 

It should go without saying that, in the workplace, everyone should act professionally at all times. Countless workplace ethics guides have tried to hammer this home for many years. 

However, people are people, and that means sometimes employees aren’t as professional as they could be. 

When at work, no one can completely detach themselves from other aspects of their lives. Maybe a server has been having a hard time making rent lately. Maybe the pastry chef just lost a parent. 

qualities of a good restaurant general manager

Despite our best efforts, these external influences can sometimes get in the way, and as a general manager, you need to have a sense of empathy and compassion. 

“Empathy is crucial to being a great leader. You are responsible for other people and everything that comes with that, including parts of their lives that might find their way into the workplace. If you have genuine empathy for others, you will build trust, and trust helps you retain good people.” 

This doesn’t mean that you need to have a heart-to-heart with every struggling employee, but it can be advisable to ease up on someone who’s having a tough time. 

We’ve all been there, so don’t be afraid to give a bit of extra slack. 

Your very own initiatives 

Any good general manager will always be looking for ways to improve the restaurant, both for customers and employees. 

One of Carson’s major initiatives came as the result of frequent communication with employees. They presented a problem, and in response, Carson and the ownership of The Modern worked to fix that problem. 

“We began a program at The Modern called Growth[at]TheModern. This was designed in response to our people letting us know they didn’t feel there were clear and transparent paths for growth. This program was our answer to that. We have a guaranteed response time that we commit to and it is a completely digital application process for the convenience and privacy of the employee.” 

Rather than requiring special testing outside of a normal workday, the program involves a period of observation, during which the applicant employee must do their best to show their leadership skills. 

Keeping these growth requests private also cuts down on office politics, jealousy, and envy, all of which have the ability to disrupt a workplace’s normal functioning. 

Maintaining the restaurant’s mission

A general manager’s vision for a restaurant is crucial, but by its very nature, it’s also internal. It’s a concept for the manager to keep in mind when making decisions big and small. 

A restaurant’s mission is a bit different. Rather than being internal, a restaurant’s mission should be external. Both employees and the general public should know exactly what that mission is as soon as they step inside. 

General managers like Carson may not be heavily involved with culinary decisions, but they do need to act as a safeguard. If a creative decision made by the chef doesn’t quite jive with how the restaurant wants to be perceived, then a manager can step in to help course correct. 

qualities of a good restaurant general manager

“My responsibility is to ensure that any creative changes we make fit with our image and our service model. Is there a way to enhance the experience through the way we decide to bring it to the guest? Are we trying too hard to make something creative when maybe it just wants to be simple? These are questions we ask ourselves when making these decisions.” 

Let’s think of restaurant professionals as members of a big Hollywood movie production. The chef is more like a director, making purely creative decisions. A general manager needs to be more like a producer, making sure creative decisions don’t get out of hand and interfere with the budget or an end product that audiences will enjoy.  

Reaping the rewards

Both success and failure in the restaurant world can be pretty dramatic. A successful general manager can guide a restaurant into a new age of service and unique offerings. 

The resulting positive word of mouth can bring more people through the door, or even get the restaurant noticed in major publications or on television programs. 

A GM should always have their sites set on enduring success, rather than temporary popularity and a gimmicky appeal. 

For Carson, a truly successful restaurant is one that lasts for years and years, providing a consistently enjoyable dining experience today and ten years from now. 

“A really great restaurant can stand the test of time, through eras, generations, and trends. It manages to stay current while also remaining consistent. That to me is an art, a never-ending pursuit. Accolades are a great way to help us to keep setting goals, as well as support our continual pursuit for world-class excellence. Nothing can beat being iconic, though.” 

Should you become a GM yourself, your goals for a restaurant may differ, but there’s tremendous value in putting service at the top of your list at all times. 

Treating people well, from restaurant staff to customers of all kinds, is perhaps the most important goal that a successful restaurant general manager can have.