“They are not just taking food to a table.  They understand that when a guest walks in the door, this night needs to really matter.  They are bringing to us their most precious asset, their time.  Their first date.  Their only proposal.  Their anniversary.  Their celebration.  They are offering us this precious fragile memory and trusting us to take care of it.  They are coming to eat and drink but they are coming to make sure that tonight will matter.”

Mark and Brian Canlis took over the family restaurant from their parents.  Bucking the statistic that 70% of second generation businesses fail and many of the remaining ones really struggle, the Canlis brothers have actually helped the restaurant thrive in even greater measure.

Canlis restaurant is one of the most celebrated and decorated restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.  They built their success by focusing on their most valuable asset, their employees.  Interesting that the owners focus is not primarily on the food (which is world class), their clients (which wait months to get reservations) or the restaurant’s reputation (which is stellar) as you might imagine.  They focus all their energy on serving those who serve…hosts, waiters, valets, and kitchen staff.

“They are bringing us a treasure and asking us to hold it…to take care of it for a few hours.”

The owners of the restaurant have a high bar and commitment to this kind of experience, but how do you get your staff to feel the same way?  First of all, they don’t hire the kind of people you would expect:

  • They often don’t have any restaurant experience (they typically think they know how to serve, and they don’t)
  • “We hire people whose parents did a great job on them when they were kids, who have comfort in their own skin.”
  • “We’re hiring people that don’t think the world revolves around them.”
  • “We’re hiring people of character.”
  • “We’re hiring people you would want to take a road trip with.” (people you actually enjoy spending time around)
  • People who get excited about serving other people.

They say that the technical part of good service is pretty simple to teach if they come into the restaurant with the right heart and character.  They consider those filters above to be “step 1”.  Step 2 is asking:

“You may be an amazing person, but prove to me that working at Canlis will help you become who you are trying to become.”


They say that if they aren’t interested in the staff, their life desires and dreams, they think they might as well just tell them that they are just interested in using them to get what they desire.  If they view their team as something they use to get what they want, their team will treat their customers as something they use to get what they want.

If we use them, they will use our guests.  They’ll bring your food to you (what you want) to get what they want (a tip).  A simple transaction.

But, if they prove to their team that they are most interested in their lives, hopes, and dreams (and they are the right kind of people), they will treat each customer with great interest in their lives, hopes, and dreams.  If we teach them that our primary objective is to serve them (and serving was first our intellectual property as Christians), they will, in kind, serve.  

And if each employee sees that working for their restaurant is helping them become the kind of person they want to be, I bet you can guess what turnover looks like and how nearly impossible it is to get a job there.  There is a long line to get in and no one wants to leave.

  • Is your primary focus on your employees?
  • Are you serving them in such a way that makes them want to serve?
  • Do you think your employees would say that you are using them?
  • Do your employees see your organization as the place that is helping them become who they ultimately want to be?