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I was at a strip mall getting ice cream with my 13-year-old son this week, when I walked past a restaurant with signs covering the door.

You could barely see in. What was this restaurant operator thinking?

"Don't stand by the door? Don't look in? Don't use the bathroom?" The only sign missing was the "No Shoes, No Service" sign. How uninviting.

This got me thinking about what operators think and how it can make customers feel. Clearly, restaurant operators need policies and rules to protect themselves, the public and to give guidelines to frontline employees. We live in a litigious society where an operator can have a lawsuit brought for the smallest infraction or perceived sleight. So it is prudent to have policies BUT ON THE FRONT DOOR, where the message says, "STAY OUT?"

Please Don't Stand by the Door

What could this management team have been thinking? "Don't watch us cook or wait on happy guests." The trend to display kitchens serves several purposes. It invites customers in, like coming into a friend's home. It also conveys that the operation is clean, organized and proud of what they do.

This particular restaurant does its cooking right up front, and people like to watch. The sign was probably provided to offer easy access for guests. This is reasonable but there is a better way to do it. Just to the left of the door is a big display window, why not paint a window frame with a curtain pulled back to encourage people to look from the side? This would invite people to stop, look and get excited about going in.

From this point of view, do you have policies, signs or other customer facing messages meant to convey information that push people away? Go walk your restaurant. Do you have signs that say one thing, but might mean something else? Are they inviting or off-putting?

Size Matters

It is reasonable to have a $10 minimum purchase policy for credit cards. A small, file-card sized, statement at the register makes your point. An 8 ½ by 11-inch sign taped on the wall above the register might convey to customers, "Don't come here unless you plan to spend a lot," which is not very appetizing. If you have a school nearby, the students could easily be offended and make your competitor the new "hot spot."

Look at the rest room policy above – does it really have to be that big? This purpose of this sign is to keep people out that you don't want. It is OK if that is your policy, but a small, tasteful sign still gives you the right to watch and decide whether to enforce the policy. There is no need to offend regular customers or make patrons think you have a problem with unsafe or unwashed people traipsing through your place. A timid mom with young kids might decide they want to eat somewhere else.

Care & Feeding

Old-looking signs convey a lack of care. Has the sign been up for a few years and the tape yellowed? Is the sign needed, or did it address an issue that has resolved itself? Is the sign hand-written or neatly printed? Think again about your restaurant being your home where you invite guests. Tastefully convey to visitors your rules and expectations.

Turn Negatives Around

Negative                                                                      Softer

  • Charge cards must have a $10 min.     Cash only for purchases under $10.
  • Put umbrellas here.                            Umbrella stand for convenience.
  • Wipe feet at door.                               Please use mat to keep floors safe.
  • See host upon arrival.                         Please let host know you have arrived.
  • Go to front if you have reservatons.      Please allow space for guests with reservations.

Help Wanted Signs

The ubiquitous "Help Wanted" sign on the front door is typical of inside out thinking. The sign is an advertisement to fill an operational need. Might customers think it means, "Cleaner bathrooms wanted"? It's your job to run your operation silently and uncluttered, so guests may relax. Patrons may see the sign as a distraction, or worse, a statement that the restaurant does not have enough help TONIGHT!

I once asked an operator about his perpetual "Help Wanted" sign on the door. He commented," I always need help because you can't find good employees." Really? then why I am eating here? Where does he lack good help, in the kitchen or the front on the house?

The word restaurant comes from the root rest or restive, a place to relax and enjoy. Make your guests feel welcomed, not intimated with your policies. I hope you gained something from this article, now, "TAKE YOUR FEET OFF THE COUCH."


Ed Zimmerman is a pizza industry veteran and President of The Food Connector. His almost four decades of foodservice experience includes food manufacturing and distribution leadership, food industry technology, marketing services and restaurant and grocery operations management.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Melissa Moore
    That is a great point. Sometimes because we are in the store everyday we are not thinking about what our storefront conveys to our customer. Brand image is so important and signage is a main method of communication - make sure its a welcoming message.

    Melissa Moore
  • Carmen Vogel-McCombie
    Excellent article, and one I referred to in my own post @ On Point { }.

    It's definitely a fine line for restaurant operators to protect their own business with policies in direct relation to the message that sends to your customers. Your suggestions for turning the negatives into positives are excellent.

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Ed Zimmerman
Ed Zimmerman is a pizza industry veteran and President of The Food Connector. His almost four decades of foodservice experience includes food manufacturing and distribution leadership, food industry technology, marketing services and restaurant and grocery operations management.
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