No matter where you’re dining in the world, the sound of glass shattering as it hits the floor creates a universal reaction. A mistake happened, a staff member cleans up the mess, and life goes on.
However, most fails in hospitality happen without the guest ever knowing. Sometimes, it’s because there aren’t even guests there to begin with. No matter the type of accident or oversight, hospitality professionals are better off failing in the end.
So, what are some of the common themes chefs and owners share when it comes to failure? As I learned from a few chefs with thick skin, it’s rarely ever related to just the food on the plate.
Right Idea, Wrong Location
Neal Bodenheimer’s efforts to add sophisticated cocktail destinations to New Orleans like Cure and Cane & Table have been well rewarded, with accolades like the 2018 James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program forever linked to his name. However, it’s the restaurant he closed that we’re talking about today. “We opened a place called Cafe Henri and named it after my father,” explains Bodenheimer, who used his dad’s nickname to give the space a homey touch. What Bodenheimer didn’t realize until months into Cafe Henri’s opening was that the neighborhood he chose never turned into the neighborhood he envisioned.
Taking over the space from another ownership group, Bodenheimer originally thought that company had overextended themselves. After all, closing a brand new restaurant in New Orleans’ Bywater district within five months did seem a bit strange.
However, what Bodenheimer discovered was that the surrounding apartment buildings and houses were actually short term rentals, and the only traffic businesses were getting was on the weekends, typically by marketing themselves as destination spots.
“It was a perfect storm of a real estate location issue,” notes Bodenheimer, the changing demographics of a post-Katrina New Orleans continuing to devastate local businesses.
To make matters worse, the name on the door was a constant reminder of Bodenheimer’s family and how the best of intentions can turn into a personal nightmare. “You do it to honor somebody and you feel like you are dishonoring them,” Bodenheimer says.
Yet after making the decision to close Cafe Henri, Bodenheimer’s luck would change as it forced him to seek advice from New Orleans entrepreneur Gary Solomon Jr. “We went from closing a restaurant to less than a year later winning a James Beard,” Bodenheimer says.
When You Get Slammed on Day One, It Makes You Rethink Everything—Forever
Adam Biderman of The Company Burger’s experience in fine dining—and blocking for Eli Manning at Isidore Newman School—taught the chef how to handle an oncoming rush of human beings.
But his foray into fast casual service provided him a moment his staff still teases him about eight years later. The disaster? The positioning of a seasoning tray in the kitchen. From grinding his own meat to slicing his own American cheese, Biderman avoided incorporating traditional fast food systems in a quest to give his hometown a ridiculously tasty burger. And when he officially opened his doors to the public, the crowd showed up.
“We could never predicted to do 800 people when we opened,” says Biderman. What he couldn’t predict was that putting the seasoning tray down the line from where his grill man would expedite the food would cause havoc.
“After the first 45 minute ticket times, we knew this was an immense tactical error,” Biderman recalls. “It was the only moment of true panic I’ve experienced in this particular restaurant,” Biderman adds.
Needing to simplify his workspace, the chef went out and bought a three foot high cart which he could stack trays on right next to the griddle. The one move changed his entire operation. “Once we could see all the tickets that were priority, the expo and the grill guy could communicate on a higher level,” Biderman says. “It was simple ignorance not knowing what it was going to be like.”
Biderman later added a second location of The Company Burger in 2015. Over time, the chef has learned to ease up on some of his fine dining habits in order to ensure a smoother operation. “You have to be okay with failing,” Biderman advises for any young chef thinking of branching out on their own.
Shortcuts Are the Quickest Way to the Most Memorable Disasters
Kitchen fails happen every day. But for Henk Drakulich, the executive chef at La Brea Bakery Cafés, the opportunity to fail in front of 75 chefs from five star hotel properties comes once in a lifetime.
After being asked to cook sweet potatoes and then puree them for a soup, Drakulich learned the hard way that short cuts in the kitchen are rarely if ever a good idea.
“I thought I would save myself a step and just add the cream to the blender while I was pureeing the sweet potatoes. What I hadn’t learned at that point is that if you put heavy cream in a blender, the high speed breaks up the fat in the cream,” Drakulich recalls about the inedible disaster that was supposed to be the first course. The memory of having to delay the dinner, go out shopping for more ingredients, and remake the soup from scratch is a lesson Drakulich hasn’t forgotten in the 20 years since it happened.
If People Don’t Trust What You’re Trying to Do, They Won’t Eat Anything
Chef John Currence has experienced plenty fails in his storied career. From a disastrous attempt at foie gras powder during a Viking Cooking School dinner to closing his well received restaurants Lamar Lounge and Fat Eddie’s, the James Beard winner isn’t shy about discussing why things go wrong. “You need to be listening to what they want,” Currence advises young chefs looking to leave a lasting impression.
Building trust with an audience takes years, but breaking that trust can take a matter of months. From poor management to trying to establish whole hog barbecue in a city that doesn’t have a strong barbecue culture, Currence experienced the taste of failure in many different forms. “Parmesan, arugula, Kobe beef, I literally couldn’t give it away,” Currence recalls during his early days at City Grocery in Oxford, Miss. The chef couldn’t even get guests to eat vegetables that came from his own garden.
However, by putting the food guests crave on a plate year after year, Currence has been able to authentically build Oxford’s culinary reputation across America while expanding his restaurant empire. “I went from not being able to give away carpaccio to selling lamb testicles,” Currence says. “That’s the arc of success.”
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