How San Francisco’s Most Successful Restaurant Owners Run Their Business
In 1998, Craig and Annie Stoll took out an SBA loan, maxed out their credit cards, and opened Delfina Restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District.
“We kinda started with nothing,” says Annie. “There were nights we slept on the banquettes, we were so tired.”
Their Italian eatery not only survived in one of the most cut-throat foodie cities—it turned into a Bay Area gem. The duo has since launched a business empire, opening up six more restaurants under the Delfina Restaurant Group.
In a recent interview with Bob Sutton on Stanford University’s FRICTION podcast, the couple revealed their surprising secret to building such an incredibly successful business—they know the exact details to stay dialed into as they scale.
You can’t do everything as a business owner. Some things will play a huge role in your success, while others might be better managed by someone else.
Here’s their advice on how to decide what you should stay involved in and what you should delegate as you grow.
First, figure out where you make a positive impact (and where you don’t)
There’s a difference between staying involved in your business and micromanaging to the point that it hurts your team. The latter can make your employees feel like they lack autonomy and aren’t trusted. Annie learned that lesson the hard way.
The Stolls recently lost Delfina’s general manager and assistant general manager, so Annie stepped in to manage the restaurant. But it wasn’t a good idea. The staff kept coming to her for help instead of the new manager. “Once I left, they were still coming to me, and my new general manager said, ‘You undermined me by answering this person when I’m the manager now,’” Annie explains.
“I can’t step in on that level anymore, whereas I used to when we opened Delfina; I would often host or always manage. And now, years later, for me to fill in at that level—first of all, I don’t know how to do anything.”
Annie realized the actual restaurant management is where she and Craig need to stay 100 percent hands off.
How to figure out what you should really work on
Ask yourself this:
- What tasks can you safely outsource, and what is too important or risky to give up at your stage? For
exampleif you’re just starting out, generating revenue may be way more important than working on your logo design.
- Create a two-part list of the things you’re ready to stop doing and the things that are too critical for you to let go of. Then have a neutral reviewer give you feedback on your list.
Ask your team this:
- If you’re still not sure which areas you can delegate, ask your employees straight up: “Do you feel like I’m too hands-on or too hands-off with this area? What would you want to change about the areas I’m involved in?”
Then, nail down the functions you just can’t give up
The Stolls make sure they have a clear reason behind each area they still check in on, even as their roles evolve.
|What the Stolls still manage||What they don’t|
|Hiring and new hire orientations||Every single HR task|
|Sourcing ingredients/working with farmers||Managing the day-to-day at the restaurants|
|Perfecting the customer experience||Meal prep|
|Owning their company email account||Taking reservations|
Based on Craig and Annie’s experiences, here are four areas of your business you might want to consider “micromanaging.”
1. New hire orientations (and some HR duties)
Back Office Apps to Boost Your ProductivityHiring and Growth
The most important task the Stolls are still involved with (after nearly two decades) is giving new hire orientations, even though it means doing the same thing again and again.
“Every six weeks, it’s the Annie and Craig show,” says Annie. “It’s very important that everybody knows and understands our culture and values—so in the orientations, we go through the mission statement, our core values, how we started, and who we are. That can never change.”
Despite having an HR director, Annie says it’s vital she stays more involved with HR duties like onboarding and enforcing values as they grow. “It’s so important that the owner be really involved with what’s going on in HR, because that’s something that cannot break in any way,” she says. “So I’m spending, I’d say, 50 percent of my time with my HR director building that up.”
Resources to help you out:
2. Setting hiring standards
“The only thing that I really get compliments on for the last 20 years is I know how to hire,” says Annie.
That’s because the Stolls developed their own hiring rubric for what makes candidates successful in a service-based role.
“We look for people who are excited and passionate about the business,” says Craig, “because if they’re not, there’s no way in hell they’re going to continue to do it. There are way too many hours, way too much stress.”
They also make sure to keep an eye out for red flags that could put their restaurants at risk. For Annie and Craig, the biggest red flag is underlying anger issues, a clear sign that someone will have trouble working in a customer-focused role. “Ever since we opened, I can tell right away when I meet somebody whether they have anger issues,” says Annie. “You can’t give good hospitality if you’re an angry person, and with that pressure, anger will come out, and it might even come out in a passive-aggressive way.”
As a business owner, you already know the most problematic trait you could have in one of your employees. Flesh out what that is and then craft your job description and interview questions to help you screen those candidates out. Then teach your hiring managers how to do the same thing.
Resources to help you out:
3. Perfecting the product and customer experience
“I don’t call it micromanaging; I call it managing,” says Craig. “Sometimes I feel that if I let go of something and come back to it later, it’s spiraled out of control or it’s degenerated.”
Because food is their product, Craig values remaining involved in acquiring ingredients and working with farmers. He also still pays attention to the overall experience at each restaurant; whenever he walks into one of their restaurants, he checks for cleanliness, adjusts lights and music, and makes sure food isn’t being wasted.
“One of the first things I do when I walk into one our kitchens is I go straight to the trash bins,” says Craig, “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? Sounds like money. That’s money, that’s olive oil.’”
Wait a second. Isn’t focusing on that level of detail a waste of time for a business owner who has to deal with bigger picture things?
Not quite, if it can teach your team how you want the product or experience to be executed. Those “little things” help set the tone for how everything should be run even when you’re not there.
Resources to help you out:
4. Staying plugged into your company’s daily schedule and communications
Emails and schedules can seem like the most obvious tasks to outsource. But not for Annie.
“I see the emails that come through from every single restaurant, and I also see everything that’s uploaded to Box to keep my finger on the pulse,” she says.
Even as your business grows, carving out time to check in on what’s happening day-to-day is critical. It allows you to spot problematic trends before they get worse. For example, if customers or shipments or employees aren’t coming in, you need to know about it right away.
“Last night, I looked at the reservation books right before opening, and I noticed that we scheduled a [six-person table] when we’re not supposed to,” says Annie. “We open at 5:00. They scheduled a [table for six] at 6:30, which means that table has to sit open for an hour and a half.”
Annie spotted the reservation issue immediately, which signaled a glaring problem about their training and the reservation system. Then, she and Craig talked to their staff to figure out an action plan for fixing those deeper, but solvable, issues.
Resources to help you out:
Annie and Craig’s roles were a little different when they first opened Delfina. “I was in the kitchen every day, cooking and working,” Craig remembers, “and Annie was running the front of the house.”
Today, not so much.
Their success hasn’t come from one recipe or rave review. It’s a result of continually refining their roles as they’ve grown into successful business owners—without judging themselves for the details they still obsess over.
“First thing in the morning, with my coffee, I go through the reservation books,” says Annie. “And I’ll never stop doing that.”
Listen to the full interview with Annie and Craig Stoll here on the FRICTION Podcast.