Debbie Marquez detests the tedium of creating an employee policy manual. As owner of Fiesta's Café and Cantina in Edwards, Colo., she wants to manage her staff and care for customers, not spend hours at the computer typing out house policies.
Thanks to a growing volume of Internet training and education resources for restaurant operators, Marquez and others like her can do a lot less of that.
Marquez is a member of RestaurantOwner.com, a site based in Sugar Land, Texas, and developed by restaurant consultant and speaker Jim Laube. For a one-time $99 membership fee, plus a $9.99 monthly fee, she and more than 800 other members of the site get access to an expansive cache of how-to articles on managing every aspect of a restaurant, streaming audio-video demonstrations on using business management tools, downloadable PDF workbooks -- even templates of every conceivable back-of-the-house management document such as the dreaded employee manual.
"We use the site mostly to make policy manuals, job descriptions and training manuals, all of that," said Marquez. "Having a template of it online makes it so easy to download, and you just add your own logo and phone numbers and whatever else to make it yours. You can get that through the (National Restaurant Association), too, but you have to re-key it."
A 15-year veteran of restaurant management, Laube launched the site in 1998 intending to spread the word about his speaking and consulting business. But when one visitor to RestaurantOwner.com told him the information posted at the Web site was too valuable to give away, he took his advice.
"The guy said he was opening a restaurant and that he'd printed out 150 pages of stuff from my site," Laube said. "I had a lot of content from my seminars on it ... and I eventually thought that getting that material out to people might create another revenue stream for my business."
According to Laube, the most sought-after content on the site is templates for manuals and business management spreadsheets. Many of the latter are available in online training sessions delivered via streaming audio and video, sessions that are especially helpful teachers for operators lacking the accounting skills to best crunch and digest their operations' numbers.
"The whole site is set up to supplement or support what (operators) might feel they're not really good at," Laube said. "Many of them think they're not very educated in the financial management area ... so our restaurant numbers programs really get into the basics."
But not in the stiff or potentially intimidating style of a textbook, Laube said.
" We explain in simple ways, for example, what a balance sheet is all about, how to calculate break even, the differences between profit and cash flow, or how set up P&L and get more info from it."
Marquez, who has "had MBA training," said Laube explains such business management tools in real-world, usable ways.
"I know a lot about financials, but even things like break-even analysis are so often beyond financially trained owners that we don't always look at those," she said. "Even Jim's other basic stuff, like better inventory control procedures, helps make us better owners."
Blending low tech and high tech
While Bill Marvin's RestaurantDoctor.com lacks some of RestaurantOwner.com's high-tech teaching aids, it has an abundance of educational material for managers and owners. Like Laube, Marvin, a resident of Gig Harbor, Wash., compiled decades of restaurant experiences as an owner-operator before becoming an industry consultant and speaker. He has authored numerous books, and by his count, thousands of articles on restaurant operations that are available for free on his Web site.
Where RestaurantOwner.com is an online teaching source, RestaurantDoctor.com is more an information resource through which Marvin sells his books, recorded teaching materials, publishes his articles and arranges for the online exchange of advice between the site's subscribers.
As with most services, the more you get from RestaurantDoctor.com, the more it costs, but even then, the offerings are affordable. Costs range from free "Electronic House Call" articles e-mailed weekly, to recorded "coaching" programs that cost as little as $12.87 a month to $27.87 per month for an all-inclusive "Gold Program." It also includes scheduled conference calls with other operators (a feature also available on RestaurantOwner.com), and some "patient" phone-in time with the self-dubbed Restaurant Doctor himself.
Marvin, who launched the site in 1996, believes operators appreciate not only the easy access of Internet education, they appreciate the ability to pick and choose what they want to know more about.
"You can (read) the information and ... figure out later whether you want to try that idea out or decide whether it will work in your place," said Marvin, whose site has more than 200 monthly subscribers. "In other words, you don't have to ask for help to get it."
Marvin said that providing his insights -- and those of a rotation of featured industry experts -- on cassette tape and CD creates a portable seminar for operators who want to "go to class" while on the road to work. Such recorded information also is easy to share with managers.
"What I give them every month is not this great flood of information that people can't deal with," said Marvin. "Less is more, I really think."
Fad or future?
Both Marvin and Laube believe Internet education has boundless potential. The income both get from their sites now outpaces their speaking and consulting fees, even though those haven't decreased.
Web Site Snapshot
Restaurant Owner's Toolkit: Several dozen topical and in-depth how-to articles focusing on all aspects of running a restaurant; multiple templates for procedural and employee manuals, business worksheets, computer spreadsheets, etc.; video- and audio-streaming training demonstrations and downloadable PDF workbooks.
* Cost: Membership is a one-time $99 registration fee and a subscription of just $9.99 a month. This provides unlimited access to the Restaurant Owner's Toolkit and Training Programs.
* Toolkit Lite: A free, try-before-you-buy sampling of offerings in the Restaurant Owner's Toolkit.
Management Insight Series: Monthly tape or CD featuring industry experts discussing marketing, management, customer service, operations and human resources; monthly conference calls with other operators.
* Cost: $18.75 (plus shipping) per month.
Coaching Program: monthly Home Remedies Newsletter; Electronic House Call weekly e-mail newsletter; Consulting Call-In Days (chance to tell the Doc what ails your operation); and bonus books and tele-seminars.
* Cost: $12.87 per month.
Gold Program: Combination of all of the above.
* Cost: $27.87
The clear dearth of similar products available also convinces them the Internet foodservice education market is wide open.
Laube said a statement made by John Chambers, CEO of networking products giant Cisco Systems, in a 1999 New York Times article, convinced him the opportunity to educate online was a ripe one: "The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education," Chambers said. "Education over the Internet is going to be so big, it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error."
Marvin said that the sheer speed at which Internet and e-mail usage has grown in the past decade is further proof the technology has hardly been tapped.
"It wasn't all that long ago that we used to ask, 'Do you have a fax?' " said Marvin, who, along with pizza consultant "Big Dave" Ostrander, will launch PizzaInsight.com in February. Its offerings will be much like those on RestaurantDoctor.com but be targeted to pizzeria operators. Subscription cost will be $37 per month. "Not too long after, we started to ask people if they had an e-mail address. Well, now we just say, 'What's your e-mail address?'
"If you look at the difference in the period of time it took to go from assuming everyone had a fax to assuming everyone has e-mail, it's clear it's much, much shorter."
Much the same way the restaurant business has evolved to provide a wide variety of food nearly everywhere and at any time, the Internet is doing the same for education, both men said.
"There will always be a place for classroom-type training, but when you consider the cost of everything involved -- travel, hotel, time away from work, the Internet is hard to beat," said Laube. Many RestaurantOwner.com's subscribers, he said, live in remote locations that make it difficult to get to tradeshows. "People get information now more easily in the format they want it and when they want it. That wins hands down every time, and that's what the Internet is all about."