Dave Strauss is the Director of Operations at the Goodman Restaurant group. Dave has been instrumental in not only creating arguably the country's best steak house with Goodman, but also in launching Burger & Lobster, a dining phenomenom. He also oversees Zelman Meats. It's a huge achievement and Dave commands massive respect across the industry. My thanks to Dave for spending time with me to discuss how he did it.
* * * * *
You don’t have to chat with Dave Strauss for very long to understand that the Goodman Group is not like other restaurant groups. Often, Goodman seem to break most of the traditional rules of management, but that’s not a problem, because behind the willingness to let some things go, things like EBITDA targets, there’s an unparalleled desire to make their customers happy. Great food served with genuine passion is the very DNA of Goodman and the idea is ever-present throughout our discussion.
In management speak, even if Dave might not say it in these terms, pleasing customers can be considered Goodman’s objective, and the strategy to achieve this is to serve the best possible food and combine this with the best possible service. Few would doubt that they do both especially well. Dave even suggests that he, and his front of house colleagues, are ‘addicted to pleasing people’.
I ask Dave whether it was the Day 1 goal to be the best steak restaurant in London:
Not at the beginning, at the beginning, I don’t think we really did, but I was working with John [Cadieux, Goodman Exec Chef]… so it was that combination of the right people in the right time… and the more John got into the meat part, the more I realised that if I could keep up with him with the front of house, there was an opportunity to open up something that on its day is as good as anywhere.
From my perspective, most important thing here is that John’s love of food and Dave’s desire to deliver service are heartfelt, not manufactured, not a marketing ploy. Customers can sense when it’s genuine and mostly respond in kind.
Dave recalls how in the early days, pre-shift meetings allowed him to push that enthusiasm to the rest of the front of house team, maybe centred around a great piece of Belted Galloway they had in that day which their customers might enjoy. Dave says:
At Goodman, when we opened up, we genuinely cared that people came in and had a better time at Goodman than any other restaurant, that they really liked us… we had a lot of personality
What is also fascinating is to compare the management approach to Goodman (top end, exclusive) with that of Burger & Lobster (mass market). The approach is the same for both because the vision remains the same at both: if the customer feels that you care, they will come back. Dave Strauss:
When we did Burger & Lobster, it was just simply that yes, we’re going to do something for 20 quid, but we really care that it’s good and when you come in we really care that you have a good time and that you feel as if... all of us care. I find it easier to focus on that [caring about the customer] than [pristine staff] uniforms.
But this in turn leads on to another key question: how do you hire the right people who share your values? Hiring, as all restaurants know, has become more difficult but Dave notes that in the early days:
We used to put an ad on Gumtree, we’d get 200 responses and get one good person out of it
But how do you know among the 200 who that one good person is, how do you decide? This is not so easy to answer, with Dave suggesting ‘you’ve got an idea of what you are looking for’ and an element of, you know it when you see it. Being a manager is, after all, to be a people person.
But being a customer of Goodman, having known Dave for some time and talking to him that day, I can’t help but feel that hiring the right people is about finding good enough people who have potential and knowing that the Goodman culture will significantly influence their development over time. Don’t then underestimate the culture, and of course, the culture comes from where? The owners and the senior managers.
One of my enduring impressions of Dave as a leader is a visit I made to Zelman Meats in Soho back in January 2016, and on walking through the door, discovering that Dave was taking customer orders and serving food. Remarkable. It’s part of his philosophy on what leadership is:
It's a good example, you don’t ask people to do something that they either can’t imagine you doing or you couldn’t do really well yourself.
And when I met him for this interview, he was due to pull a shift on the floor of Burger & Lobster that evening. It is central to my thinking on leadership that people in organisations look to those in charge to understand how to behave, and that leaders, through their behaviours rather than their words underwrite the code of ethics which permeates down through the organisation. Spending time on the floor then for Dave carries at least three major benefits i) allowing him a genuine insight into what is happening with the customers of the business, ii) allowing him to understand the challenges faced by his staff on a day to day basis in delivering the product, and iii) setting an example, with staff seeing that he is neither remote nor above pitching in with the hard work of dealing with customers.
And that Dave loves the business becomes a force multiplier across the group. In turn, when I speak to Goodman staff about Dave, there’s respect, and even love, a reflection of the respect that Dave has in turn shown them. Dave’s values have become his staff’s values. I ask Dave about this and specifically how he trains the next generation of managers. Getting to know Goodman’s quirks, I’m unsurprised that there is no specific training for the individual restaurant managers, after all, they’ve grown up with the Goodman values, they have become the people they need to be, and Dave’s door is always open should they need his guidance.
A further outcome of these values and the culture within Goodman is that the staff turnover is lower than elsewhere. Again, multiple benefits accrue, and as Dave says, you really don’t want to hit the busy Christmas period with an all new team. And with staff hiring becoming more difficult, it’s one less headache.
As a director of the group, Dave in turn is accountable to ‘the boss’, being the restaurant owner Mikhail ‘Mischa’ Zelman and it is Mischa that allows Dave the latitude to run the business in this unique fashion. Mischa as owner of course sets the tone that drives Goodman's core values and central to that is the importance of the customer experience which Mischa cares deeply about. Whereas one might reasonably expect there to be financial targets, year on year growth and actual versus budget discussions, these do not appear to be part of the Goodman mindset, so the vision (or mission of pleasing the customer) is never compromised by the financials.
But with no targets, how do they know if they’ve had a good year, and hitting targets can often bring with it a sense of achievement for staff? The achievement comes through their market position:
We set ourselves kind of targets, but it’s really more about, we’re very proud to be thought of with Hawksmoor as the best steakhouse in London and we’d be really upset if we weren’t.
Without doubt then, Goodman is a remarkable organisation and copying its formula would be next to impossible for 99.9% of rivals. What has made it successful it seems are core values centred around the importance of the customer experience, shared between Mischa the owner, Dave as Director of Operations, and now the whole staff, with financials playing second fiddle. It’s a rare concession from an owner, and contrasts with so many other eateries that are now owned by Private Equity firms focussed on ROE and an exit strategy. And to find a director of Dave Strauss’ managerial ability and ‘addiction to pleasing people’ to run the group is equally rare.
From a leadership perspective, Dave’s integrity and passion have long since made him a hospitality icon. He acknowledges great managers that he’s worked for in the past, the lessons he’s learned from them and the desire and hope that he’s made them proud, which I am sure he has. Those ideas seem to be passing down to his protégés too, and as seen with all great managers, Dave has gifted a legacy to those who have grown under his wing. It’s worth noting that he shares this ideal with another industry icon, Thomas Keller who lists on his website ‘Legacy’ as a core value for him and his staff and describes the ambition to:
Establish a benefit to the guest, the restaurant or the company that outlives us.
Dave considers himself lucky in his job and he exemplifies the idea that each of us should find something we love doing. Giving the last words to Dave:
The thought that it’s just a job to someone, well you can’t think about it, otherwise you’d just, you know, you would…