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The Simple (and Free) Tool that Can Help Your Restaurant Run More Smoothly

Posted by Mike Errecart | May 4, 2022


I think we can all agree that it’s a Good Thing TM that commercial airline pilots use checklists.

Sure, they’re well-trained and have a ton of flight experience before captaining you on your way to some tropical island. But flying an airplane is complex. Tons of knobs, dials, and switches! And the cost of a mistake is life or death.

Better not miss something!

But what if I told you that it’s just as important for restaurants to use checklists?

Well, it turns out that checklists aren’t just for highly complex, life-or-death situations, like surgery, flying airplanes, and construction.

Restaurants are fast-paced, semi-chaotic environments, with a lot of on-the-fly decisions being made. This all places a high mental load on staff.

And it doesn’t even matter how well-trained or highly paid your staff is. (Pilots and surgeons do pretty well, right?) Human memory and attentiveness are just plain fallible under these conditions.

But restaurants need to make sure certain things get done. Food allergies and special requests. Proper food handling. Safety. Opening. Closing. Ordering. Cleaning.

Not only do checklists help to make sure you get the “stupid stuff” right, but they also free up your staff’s mental energy to concentrate on the higher-order tasks, like service and artisanship.

Atul Gawande, in his book The Checklist Manifesto, covered all this and more. It’s a great read, but we’ll help you learn what matters most for restaurants in just a few minutes.

Can Checklists Really Make A Big Difference?

Before moving to restaurants, let me try to convince you how effective checklists are, even in situations where you can’t imagine silly mistakes happening very often.

In 2001, an ICU doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospita l decided to try using a checklist. He wanted it to address a single situation: avoiding infections when putting in a central line.

The checklist for doctors was really quite simple:

  1. Wash hands with soap
  2. Clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic
  3. Put sterile drapes over the entire patient
  4. Wear a mask, hat, sterile gown, and gloves
  5. Put a sterile dressing over the insertion site once the line is in

The results of using this checklist were dramatic:

  • The 10 day line infection rate dropped from 11% to 0% in the first year
  • Only two line infections occurred during the next 15 month period
  • The checklist prevented 43 infections, 8 deaths, and saved $2 million

If doctors are missing these kinds of simple steps, imagine how implementing checklists with your team can improve your service consistency.

Using Checklists in a Restaurant

The author details a case study of chef Jody Adams, co-owner of Rialto, an award-winning restaurant in Boston.

Adams uses checklists everywhere to ensure her staff consistently operate at a high level of excellence every night while serving 150 people in 5 hours.

At Rialto, you’ll find checklists everywhere.

Recipes are typed and inserted in clear plastic sleeves, with copies at each kitchen station. Line cooks must consult them because recipes are modified from time to time.

She uses the recipes even when she’s the one doing the cooking, because “following the recipe is essential to making food of consistent quality over time.”

When a dish is ready to be served, it gets a final check by Adams or the sous chef. They review the dishes ordered by the party, the table number, the seat number for each dish, any preferences specified by the customer, food allergies, special occasions, and more.

In addition, Adams gathers her team in the kitchen an hour before opening for a quick meeting. Her agenda is a checklist where they review the reservation count, menu changes, unexpected issues and concerns, large parties, and more. The main point is to ensure everyone is prepared to handle unanticipated problems as a team. Whatever the issue, everyone gets a chance to speak and they plan how to handle it.

Types of Checklists

Gawande described 2 types of checklist: a “do, confirm” or a “read, do” checklist.

  • The “do, confirm” checklist is one in which staff performs jobs from memory then stop to run the checklist and confirm everything was done.
  • The “read, do” checklist is one where staff reads then performs each task as you check them off. Like a recipe.

For each checklist, you must choose which type you want.

Kitchen staff, especially your chef and sous chef, may want a “do, confirm” checklist for getting ready for service. They probably mostly know what they need to do to be ready, but having a checklist as a memory backup is helpful.

Your opening and closing checklists for front-of-house staff may be a “read, do” checklist. Take each step one at a time until complete.

Tips for Creating a Restaurant Checklist

Here are his tips for creating a checklist:

  • Bad checklists are vague, imprecise, too long, hard to use, and impractical.
  • Good checklists are precise, efficient, to the point, and easy to use. They provide reminders of only the most important and critical steps. Above all, good checklists are practical.
  • A good rule of thumb is to keep your checklist between 5-9 items. In order to keep it to a manageable size, you shouldn’t have a single checklist for opening or closing. Make one for your manager, host, bussers, and any other key roles.
  • Try to fit the checklist on one page. Make it free of clutter and unnecessary colors.

You must also define a clear pause point at which the checklist is to be used.

For a “read, do” front of house checklist to open the restaurant, it should happen pretty much right after the host or manager clocks in.

For a “do, confirm” checklist for your head chef, a good time would be a kitchen staff huddle up right before service.

Get Started on Your Own Restaurant Checklist

Now that you know why you should use checklists in your restaurant and have seen both examples and gotten tips on getting started, go forth and create your own!

You can also download our own sample front of house closing checklist!