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The Art of Shift Management

It is a busier than usual Saturday night at your restaurant. The sauté cook who called in sick at the last minute has created a huge void that the other line cooks cannot fill because the chit machine keeps churning out orders. The hostess just triple-sat one of your weaker servers and the dishwasher walked off the job. At least three guest requests to “see the manger” have come in over the past five minutes. As you try to prioritize the tasks that require immediate attention, you lament your decision to allow the swing manager to go home early.

Welcome to the art of shift management.

Your restaurant most likely utilizes a number of financial benchmarks to measure operation success. You have same-store sales, turnover rates, guest counts, and inventory costs to help you decide what area of the restaurant demands your focus. While the financial tools are great ways to manage your restaurant, you control the financial tools not by analyzing the reports, but by running successful shifts. No amount of marketing, from telelvisons advertisements to email campaigns, can disguise poorly run shifts. How well unit managers direct the experience of both guests and team members determines a restaurant’s success.

Here are some tips that define the art of shift management:

Pre Shift

The most important five minutes of your shift is when you gather the team together for a pre shift meeting. This gives managers the opportunity to touch on one, possibly two topics that require immediate attention. Managers can either motivate team members with a short, clear presentation or bore them to tears as their sections fill up. Remember that information is not power; the ability to communicate information is where true power lies. Pre shift topics can include discussing new menu items, sharing best service practices, or simply telling some funny anecdotes.

Energy, Enthusiasm, Excitement

Your team should see the three E’s in action during the pre shift and throughout the rest of the shift. Managers who bring authentic energy and enthusiasm to running a shift generate real team member excitement. Some managers demonstrate their enthusiasm by working in the trenches, while other managers prefer to keep their teams pumped up by making them smile. Restaurant managers should be the most vocal cheerleaders for their service and culinary.

The Four Corners

One of the biggest sins committed by restaurant managers during a shift is spending too much time in one place. Corporate restaurant management training programs were the first to introduce trainees to the concept of the four corners. The training programs encourage managers to move about the restaurant during each shift and thus, touch every corner of the restaurant. Managers should spend time greeting guests at the front door, as well as at tables. They should work the expo area during a rush and check on the dish station when the dishes begin to stack high. Above all, restaurant managers should not deal with paperwork until the end of the shift. Visible restaurant managers tend to run efficient shifts.

Spread Knowledge

Restaurant managers should view their service and culinary teams the way farmers view barren land. They should cultivate knowledge growth. Teach something new to as many team members as possible during each shift. Spreading knowledge can include reminding the host team to remember guest names and demonstrating to new servers how to save steps on the floor. Restaurant managers who mentor are influential than managers who are simply the boss.

The Rule of Two

How restaurant managers run their shifts determines how successful they are at acquiring and retaining guests. Most operators understand the financial value of developing a loyal guest base. One of the best ways to win over guests is handling complaints in a timely and proper manner. Restaurant managers have numerous options for handling guest complaints, so the point here is to remember the rule of two. Guests should never have to talk to more than two people to resolve an issue or complaint.


In the opening paragraph of this article, we described a typical scenario that unfolds inside of most restaurants. Maybe the exact circumstances do not correspond, but there are times during restaurant shifts when managers become overwhelmed. This is when delegation saves a shift from irrevocably falling into chaos. Corporate chains run programs that delegate decision making to qualified hourly team members. Some restaurants utilize the leadership skills of responsible hourly team members by making them to work as swing shift supervisors.

Lessons Learned

Running restaurant shifts involves some level of unpredictability, from the sprinkler system inadvertently turning on to a team member slipping and falling on the kitchen floor. Restaurant managers cannot afford to play the “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” game, but they can play a game called “What lessons did I learn.” Lessons learned also involves managers sharing that knowledge with other team members, either during a short post shift meeting or the next day during one of the two pre shifts.


Restaurant managers can fall into the trap of negativity, a place where everything that comes out of their mouths denigrates other team members. The best way to generate and maintain enthusiasm is to recognize the high achievers during each shift and/or after a shift. Recognize the servers who received outstanding guest feedback. Recognize the busser who stepped into the dish station to help bail out a dishwasher. Recognize the cook who “wowed” a guest with her culinary expertise.

One of the first general mangers I worked for described restaurant shift management as “managing chaos.” She mention the team of 40 service and culinary team members and the over 400 guests that walked through the door on a typical Saturday night. No training manual or three-month training program can properly train someone to manage the level of chaos that occurs inside of a restaurant. Experience is a good guide for learning the art of shift management, but experience gives the test before it presents the lesson. Restaurant managers who add energy, recognize accomplishments, and delegate decision-making learn the lesson before they receive the test.