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An honest take on work-life balance in the restaurant business

I’ve worked 80-100 hours a week for the last 20 years. I took four days off when I got married. I took five days off when my daughter was born. My top priority has always been exceeding the expectations of our guests. Meeting the expectations of my family fell below that. Meeting my own expectations for my mental, emotional, and physical well-being ranked a distant third.

There was never a moment where I questioned the choice to put my career first. Not one.

The results spoke for themselves: I was financially stable, Michelin-rated, and my restaurant ranked on every “listacle” out there. I was featured in ELLE Belgium—that’s how far reaching our success had become. 

Then, when the pandemic hit a few months ago, a 20-year career went up in smoke. The five years I had put into Preux & Proper amounted to dust. The company was broke. I was unemployed and quarantined with two people and a dog that were used to me never being around. Over the course of the next two months I learned three lessons that would forever change my life.

1. I’m the one who loses, not my family

I felt a profound sense of guilt for not being around for my daughter. I felt like she was missing out on an experience every child should have: quality time with both parents every day. We rarely shared meals together. I spent most of our time together on my phone putting out fires. Even when physically present, I wasn’t really there. I vividly remember a moment when we were at the zoo and I kept ducking around corners to call the chef to check on the floor drains, which had backed up and were flooding the dining room. 

It only took a few days of being undistracted at home to realize that I was the one getting short-changed, not the other way around. My daughter is two years old—she’ll never remember these days, but I will. I missed out on two years of first words, new discoveries, and big adventures. 

I was the sucker. Never again. I’ve created a new workflow for myself. One that guarantees at least two meals a day with my family. I’ve committed to taking two days off every week and those days off must be back to back. I refuse to work more than 10 hours a day. I’m committing all of my time to empowering my employees and reducing their reliance on me. I’m building the life I’ve always wanted for myself and my family. Instead of brick by brick, it’s choice by choice.

2. If you want something done right, have the right person do it

What’s the point of having a world-class team if you micromanage everything they do, then take over the project you had initially delegated, only to ultimately postpone the project entirely because you’re too busy to handle it yourself?

This was my life. I had always dreamed of being a restaurateur, but what does that really mean? My day-to-day consisted of social media management, crafting employee schedules, bookkeeping, inventory and ordering, food and beverage research and development, meeting with vendors, floor management, event planning, hiring, interviewing, firing, disciplinary action reports—the list goes on and on.

Is that the most important and fulfilling part of being a restaurateur? Not for me. My greatest joys come from these three things: being on the floor, training and inspiring the staff, and forming strategic alliances with like-minded brands. Everything else I now delegate to other members of our leadership team. The truth is, outside of my top three, I wasn’t great at the rest. We’re reopening with the right people doing the right jobs, and that’s dropped my workload by half while doubling my level of satisfaction. What are you the best in the world at? THAT should be your job.

3. Bigger isn’t better

For most of us, opening a restaurant is like buying yourself a job. Want two restaurants? You now have two jobs. Three? Three jobs! 

My partners and I had spent the past 12 months conceptualizing what our next venture would be while overspending on our current business, which was underperforming. 

I’ve now adopted the mindset of focusing on growing what we already have instead of taking on new projects—saving myself a ton of bandwidth. I’m not advocating that we never start another venture, but I am committing to ensuring that Preux & Proper is the best it can be before turning our attention elsewhere. 

Where do these lessons leave me? I’m working 50 hours a week and never from home. I leave my phone at the front door and refuse to carry it around the house. I don’t have an email app on my phone. My text messages are silenced at all times. If the team needs me, they know to call. I take Saturday and Sundays off. I work out five times per week. My wife and I go out on a date night once a week. My family and I share two meals together per day. My business is on stable footing, and I feel like I’m living the best version of my life so far. 

It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t part of a master plan. My life took shape choice by choice, day by day, moment by moment. 

The pandemic gave us all a fresh start. What new choices are you going to make today?

About the author: Josh Kopel is an entrepreneur, restaurateur, and host of Full Comp, a new podcast for the hospitality industry.

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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