Restaurateur Kevin Boehm says that when you work in hospitality, your words are your mise en place.

By Stacey Ballis
October 04, 2019
Courtesy of The Welcome Conference

Using language with care and precision is the hospitality equivalent of setting up your mise en place. A line cook is more successful when they have all of their tools and ingredients at their fingertips. A kitchen works better if everyone is operating with efficiency of movement and effort. A server, manager, sommelier, and host all have to recognize the way their words impact guest experience, corporate culture, and the restaurant's bottom line.

At previous editions of The Welcome Conference—a gathering of hospitality pros that operates on the TED Talk model—BOKA Restaurant Group co-founder Kevin Boehm picked up on phrases and sayings that became part of his working vocabulary.

The pursuit of unreasonable hospitality

Whatever it takes. 

The nobility of service

The opportunity and responsibility to create magical experiences in a world that needs more magic. 

Find the yes. 

I could be doing better.

The entire experience made such an impression on Boehm that he and One Off Hospitality's founder and co-owner Donnie Madia implored the conference's founders, Will Guidara and Anthony Rudolf, to transport the event from New York to Chicago for the first time so that the local restaurant community could benefit from the shared knowledge. In his address to the sold-out crowd at the historic Steppenwolf Theater, Boehm expounded on how language is so essential to his work, and how that intersects with everyday life.

“People use words in various frequencies and degrees of success,” Boehm said. “Some people use tons of words but end up saying nothing, while others can take complex subject matter and nail its essence with minimum wasted effort.”

Boehm shared some of the phrases that have become integral to the BOKA's hospitality language—so much so that the team writes them out each year, defining their guiding principles.

Positivity is contagious, be a carrier of happiness.

Happiness is an active pursuit, will it to happen.

Every difficult conversation needs a countermeasure. Balance the negative with the positive.

Don’t just give guests a great experience, develop a relationship.

Don’t ask people how they are doing with a period, ask it with a question mark.

Execution eats strategy for breakfast.

Inspect what you expect.

Remember that it’s all of the small pixels that make the big beautiful picture.

See the problem. Solve the problem. Teach the solution.

Believe in magic.

Look for soul and character in others, build things that are soulful, be a character.

Constantly take stock in where you have been, where you are, and where you want to be.

Boehm explained that he and partner Rob Katz find that with the scope of their empire—currently 19 restaurants—it's paramount to establish a common language to keep everyone on the same path. “It’s these words that we carry with us, try to live by, and look back on when we get lost. It’s easy to get lost these days.”

The question he presented to the rapt crowd brought the message home in a more personal and tangible way. “How powerful are your words? Words have saved lives, started wars, stirred great comebacks, made people fall in love, and inspired people to greatness. The power of a set of perfectly placed words, to someone that desperately needs them, is immeasurable in its impact," he said. "You are doing an amazing job. I know things have been challenging lately, I see how hard you are working. I just wanted to tell you that you are amazing, and I appreciate you.”

The implication was clear. These are phrases that are as relevant to your personal life as they are in business, and they're not exclusive to restaurants. Many attendees of the conference are not actually in the hospitality industry, but rather are coming in from other sectors to learn these principles. Boehm exhorted that we should be saying these things to any employee in any workplace, and to our children, spouses, colleagues, and friends.

Boehm ended with challenge anchored in a story about a dinner party he'd recently attended where the host asked each guest to use three words that described them at their best. Boehm first selected "unreasonable," noting that he didn't mean it in the sense of a teenager, but rather in the manner of George Bernard Shaw. "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself."

His next was "restless," explaining that without constant change or new things on the horizon, he gets itchy. "I like restless 'cause it beats the hell out of complacency," Boehm said, and then finished with "doer"—the person who actually does something.

"I’ve always despised idle chatter," he said. "I’ve always believed that toiling until you come up with the perfect idea and then not executing it, is like spending years restoring an old car, finishing it, and never driving it."

Boehm mused about the legacy of words we each leave behind. If you died 100 years ago, likely only a few letters might remain. Now in an age where most of us have a public footprint in the form of our social media posts, the question becomes what story each of us will leave behind. "Do you choose words carefully? Do your words reflect the person you want to be? I hope they do, because it is part of the legacy you will leave."

"What are those three words that describe you, that describe your company?" he asked. "Are you OK with those three words? I heard a great line the other day: I need to control the narrative, so I don’t get written out of it.”

Acknowledging the permanence and expansiveness of social media communication was important to bring home to the audience. Not because of the minutiae of dealing with Yelpers trying to be squeaky wheels, or influencers attempting to finagle freebies, but in a deeper and more important way, how our words and language define not only who we are in the moment, but how we will be remembered.

“If you don’t like the words, you can change the script," Boehm said. "Maybe the beginning of the story wasn’t perfect, maybe right now you are stuck in the middle, you can still write a great ending.”

Rethinking and reframing language in your business and your life can change everything, for better or worse. In restaurants, so much is beyond anyone's control. There is weather, city "improvements" to utilities that are going to take as long as they take, the vagaries of staff's personal lives that impact their ability to show up or call, despite your best efforts to create a supportive working environment. But how we handle the circumstances that are outside our control with those who are there can make all the difference, Boehm says. "The words are what can save the night."

You are doing an amazing job.

I know things have been challenging lately, I see how hard you are working.

I just wanted to tell you that you are amazing, and I appreciate you.

“Your words matter,” Boehm concluded. “The success or failure of our hospitable intentions rely on us to frame our words in a way that makes guests feel loved, that make our employees feel appreciated, that give our spaces a positive energy.”

In a world where so many words are rhetoric specifically designed to alienate, enflame, and expose our distance and difference from each other, it was a very powerful thing to be reminded of the ability of language to bring us together, to connect, to empower, to heal.

Ask yourself, what do your words say about you? Which ones would you change?

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