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Innovation in the Restaurant Industry with GM Tony Carson

There are several industries that are inherently open to emerging technologies and innovation. For example, the tech sector is naturally inclined to seek out and utilize cutting-edge technologies to enhance their offerings.

Similarly, music producers and filmmakers are often willing to use new gadgets and gear to help execute their artistic vision.

In contrast, there are many industries that tend to do just the opposite: defaulting to more traditional tools and methods.

There are plenty of small businesses that prefer using word-of-mouth to increase their client base, rather than resorting to online advertising and marketing.

The restaurant and hospitality industry, however, falls somewhere in between. While there are countless chefs around the globe who use age-old methods to create incredible cuisine, there are also many leading chefs and managers who welcome new tools and processes.

It’s these forward-thinking restaurants and foodies that ultimately attract forward-thinking customers.

Appreciation of fine food is at an all-time high, and culinary professionals finding new ways to please guests have a greater chance of nudging out the competition.

Tony Carson, GM

Tony Carson, General Manager of The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, falls on the innovative side of the restaurant and hospitality industry.

The Modern currently holds two Michelin Stars, attracting NYC natives and international tourists alike.

Carson helped implement a gratuity model called Hospitality Included, which we’ll be discussing in detail later in the article. Ideas like these have helped set The Modern apart as one of the most welcoming restaurant environments in the city.

Hospitality included also sets high expectations for service and quality, expectations that Carson ensures by running a very tight ship.

Our brief visit with Carson was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. We learned a great deal about the intricacies of running a high-end restaurant, and we confirmed the importance of striving toward constant improvement.

Getting Started

Originally from the UK, Carson got his start at the most fundamental level of the culinary industry.

“I worked as a cook for the first 3 years of my career. In hindsight, it was probably the most enjoyable part of my career.”

It was an opportunity to explore the basis of the culinary arts, from a strictly practical perspective, hands-on learning at its finest.

“Cooking and working with ingredients and on the other side of the pass has been invaluable for me in my career. It has given me a far deeper understanding of restaurants as a whole and empathy for each culinary team I work with.”

It’s a sense of empathy that he’s since applied to several different teams at restaurants around the world, balancing the needs of the staff with the desires of the customers.

Many modern management growth programs across industries and business sectors remove potential management training candidates from their coworkers. While this does allow candidates to focus on management techniques and priorities, it also creates distance between the individual and their team.

Carson, on the other hand, spent time in the trenches, and to this day that experience has informed his management style, a concept we’ll elaborate on a bit later in the article.

A Positive Environment

It’s no secret that restaurants can be extremely demanding environments, and as a result, restaurant employees, no matter their role, can feel an incredible amount of pressure in the course of their workday.

So how can managers make sure their staff performs well while helping to relieve work-related pressure at the same time?

It’s a difficult question to answer. For decades, negative reinforcement has been used as a means of motivating employees to improve performance, i.e. ‘Stop making mistakes, or you’ll be penalized.’

While this approach may improve results for a short time, it can also create a hostile work environment where employees don’t truly feel invested in their work.

At The Modern, Carson has created a very different atmosphere. He takes pride in his work, plain and simple, and he encourages his staff to do the same.

Soon enough, employees start to hold themselves to incredibly high standards, rather than coasting and putting in the minimum amount of effort.

“Working intentionally to create an environment where our people can feel good is a virtuous cycle that we constantly invest in. Seeing a team work together without needing to be asked to exceed a guest’s expectations is incredibly satisfying.”

Instead of talking down to employees, Carson’s approach often involves letting specific individuals catch themselves in moments of subpar performance. Since the staff at The Modern cares deeply about their work, there’s little need for negative reinforcement, resulting in a mutually beneficial work environment.

An Ongoing Challenge

Motivation is a major component in just about any creative pursuit, but for many different reasons, this can become difficult, especially when someone, or an entire team, falls into a routine.

Carson made it clear that maintaining the status quo at The Modern isn’t enough. Instead, the real goal is to challenge himself and his colleagues to perform better every single day.

This method involves much more than simply improving the execution of dishes and customer service, it’s also about changing the menu on a regular basis, which requires the entire staff to adjust.

“I work every day with our Executive Chef to ensure we are always questioning our menu and the dishes we serve. Being inventive and creative with dishes is important as it allows you to remain relevant and interesting to your guests.”

At first, it may seem like the possibilities are endless. Recreating a menu from scratch every so often surely seems like an opportunity for the Chef to experiment and create wholly original dishes.

After all, the myriad of cooking competition shows often focus on the most outlandish dishes possible.

Changing the menu of a top-tier restaurant is indeed a creative opportunity, but Carson mentioned that it’s also important to make sure that new dishes are immediately enjoyable.

“It’s crucial to ensure that creativity does not substitute for quality and flavor. It can be equally as impactful to create a classic that is delicious and well balanced than to create something that is new or different that doesn’t satisfy the guest.”

Forward-Thinking

Now we’ve come to one of the most significant innovations that Carson helped bring to the table at The Modern: an employee compensation program called Hospitality included.

We’ll let Carson explain what the program offers to the restaurant’s team.

“Hospitality Included is designed to compensate the entire team, from the kitchen to the dining room, more equitably, competitively, and professionally. It’s all part of putting our employees first.”

Instead of relying on guests to tip well (which can be affected by many different factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the food or overall service), gratuity is simply included in the cost of the meal.

It guarantees staff members fair pay, and, perhaps more importantly, it benefits back-of-house employees as well (prep cooks and kitchen staff).

In most restaurants, servers and hosts/hostesses tend to make more money, since they usually receive most if not all of the customers’ tips.

The Modern’s program, in contrast, is a form of profit-sharing. Everyone, no matter their role, gets to benefit from the restaurant’s success.

“A long term goal for Hospitality Included is also to close the gap between the compensation discrepancy of the front-of-house and back-of-house, through centralized compensation management.”

Other restaurants around the country are considering implementing similar payment models, keeping hopes high for restaurant workers of all stripes to be treated, and paid, fairly.

The Unspoken Virtues

Carson had some valuable advice that applies not only to those in the culinary arts but to just about everyone who is currently seeking upward mobility in their area of expertise.

Here in the States, there’s a huge emphasis on constant growth. Many employees are afraid to stand still, lest they be caught up in the machine, destined to stagnate in the same role for the rest of their career.

While growth is indeed important to success, Carson lauded the importance of appreciating where you are right now, and everything that you can learn from your current role.

This appreciation isn’t just a coping mechanism; it’s a way to invite personal improvement.

“Learn to be patient and enjoy success and growth in the role you have. If you employ some patience and always do your best work, opportunities will find you. Focus on the journey just as much as the destination.”

Sometimes, slow and steady really does win the race, even in the case of career advancement. Years from now, when you’ve climbed the corporate ladder, you may even miss the days when your work was more immediate, more tangible.

Above all else, Carson reiterated the importance of maintaining your focus on human beings, from your staff to your customers.

Profits, company growth, and positive metrics are all well and good, but investing in the human element of any business will help yield even greater results.

“Put people first. How you make people feel is a very powerful tool in business. It’s also just the right thing to do. When you help others, they’re more likely to do the same for you.”

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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