Patrick J. McDonnell: Does VOP Apply to Restaurants?

The following is an interview with restaurateur, Patrick J. McDonnell, from Ethix magazine, used by permission of Ethix and Seattle Pacific University, January 2020. This interview was conducted in Pittsburgh in 2009 by Albert Erisman. The original online article can be viewed here.

Patrick J. McDonnell is CEO and owner of Restaurant Holdings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Restaurant Holdings owns and operates seven Atria’s restaurants and three Juniper Grill restaurants in and around Pittsburgh.

McDonnell earned his bachelor of science with distinction in food service and housing administration from Penn State in 1974. He started with Steak and Ale restaurants as a general manager, and has been with Chi-Chi’s, Chili’s, and Boston Market in various capacities.

He is the son-in-law of the late Wayne Alderson and has been implementing the principles of the “Value of the Person” that continue to be developed by Alderson and Patrick’s wife, Nancy McDonnell.

Ethix: What is the number-one priority in the restaurant business?

Patrick J. McDonnell: Most people would think it is the food, but that is not the case. In any new restaurant I have managed, I do an employee orientation. I will ask for three or four volunteers to share with the group their most memorable restaurant experience, and I know the answer as I am asking the question. It is rare that anyone would ever say it was because of the food. It was rather about their experience. They might have been recognized when they walked through the door, or they had great service, or the restaurant knew about an anniversary or birthday and did something special. They usually did mention the food was good, but what made it most memorable was their experience. People are coming to us for an hour or an hour-and-a-half of comfort, freedom, and peace of mind. What our guests are looking for is for us to provide that time of safety, comfort, and experience.

Don’t get me wrong, you must have good food to be in the business. I’m not a chef, but I am very culinary, and I tend to migrate toward food. I put a lot into the menus and preparation at each of my restaurants. We are always evolving our menus.

But you will never have a chance to have raving fans as guests unless your employees are raving fans. This means we have to pay a great deal of attention to our employees, and that’s where the “Value of the Person” comes into play in our business. If you value your employees, your employees will value the guests. In return, valued guests become loyal and raving fans.

Valuing People

How does the “Value of the Person” get implemented in your restaurants?

Of course it starts with love, dignity, and respect, but you have to be careful how you interpret those words. If you say, “I love you,” nowadays you might get caught for sexual harassment! It is not a love fest, where you say, “I am going to treat you the best you have ever been treated. I am going to pat you on the back for everything, and we all live happily ever after.” Rather, it is about demonstrating value with very high standards, high expectations, and involvement. It is about developing a culture and leadership standard for your managers and employees that is based on valuing the person.

We hire in our restaurants for hospitality and personality, not restaurant experience. The food business can always be taught. Before we hire any individual, we explain the standards by which we operate. People will be held accountable to these standards. They need to know and understand the menu. Their uniform is going to be a professionally laundered white shirt, pressed, pants that have a crease, shoes that are polished. They will be well groomed and act professionally. Part of the value of the person is to hire strong, conscientious employees. Strong employees seek strong leadership that cares about the employee. They don’t want a free-for-all. When you have these disciplines along with a management style that requires you to build relationships, your employees will work together as a team.

Having said this, I will commit to never berate an employee. I say, “I will always treat you with dignity; I will speak to you in a very professional way; and you will be treated fairly.” That is valuing an employee, I believe. For many in business, it is much easier to get rid of someone than it is to work with them and develop them. Employees must be given the dignity to know where they stand and how they are doing. If we must fire somebody and it comes as a surprise to them, then we have not done our job.

Every employee needs to know where they stand and what they need to do to be successful. It is not easy to sit down and give a poor performance review. It’s unpleasant, but it’s valuing the person when it is done respectfully, clearly, and with a plan for development. 

Gaining Employee Involvement                                                                       

Why don’t more organizations get the idea of valuing people? It seems so obvious.

Most organizations understand the need to value employees. It is just that they don’t know what to do. It is really hard to make it part of your culture. Wayne Alderson was the best at training the Value of the Person and living it. He was always the least busy of any busy guy I know because he always made time for people. I’d say, “Wayne, I need to get together for lunch some time.” He would say, “When? Let’s set it up right now.” This is what I mean by dealing with the little things and always following up. He was relentless, and that’s what it takes.

After Wayne passed, the Value of the Person team, led by my wife, Nancy, has continued to train, encourage and develop people and organizations like ours to take the steps needed to not just create a great culture rooted in relationships, but to sustain it by engaging people at all levels of the organization to adopt the principles and leadership style – making it a “way of life.”

The words, value of the person, sound easy, but to manage with this style is difficult. It is a more hands-on style of leadership. Some people resort to email and texting today, but that is so impersonal. It saves time and that’s why people do it. But if you are going to value people, you have to take time for people.

We have just instituted a very purposeful focus on developing a Value of the Person culture at our newest upscale casual restaurant, Juniper Grill, training at all levels from the GM to the dishwasher.  It has shown what can happen when the words are not only heard but backed by a commitment.  A commitment to apply the leadership style and make the tough changes needed throughout the organization.  We measure our decisions against the Value of the Person-Theory R principles of leading and managing.

Since we moved in this direction, the spirit and enthusiasm within our restaurants is remarkable, employee to employee, with our guests and in the community.  The by-product of “doing what is Right” has been experienced through better retention, happier employees and as a by-product a dramatic increase in sales. I am committed to developing the brand to be known not just for great food and atmosphere but for the Value of the Person.  That is what everyone wants and desires, the motivating factor that makes an organization work.