How and Why to Document SOPs for Your Restaurant

Whoever came up with the phrase “common sense” was either overreaching or having a laugh. Whatever sense people have tends to be something a bit rarer, after all, and what people commonly do have isn’t much sense. Even if you hire a lineup of true pros at your restaurant — people who instinctively clean up after themselves, who label and date any food they’re refrigerating, who treat open flames and blades and raw chicken juice with utmost care — they cannot read your mind. Out of fairness to them, to yourself, and to your customers, you should endeavor to keep a proper set of written SOPs, or standard operating procedures.

Writing is hard work; anyone who tells you differently is doing it wrong. The reasons why have less to do with the physical act of hammering out words than they do with the need to imagine clearly what you want. The upshot, though, is that when you document your expectations for your managers and staff as a set of SOPs, you’ll have workers who know how to execute the ideas you have in your head. It’s wild, actually. No coincidence that in English we use the phrase “on the same page” to mean alignment of purpose.

Writing out a set of SOPs makes you the author of the experiences that customers and your staff will have at your restaurant. Those could involve matters of safety, cleanliness, or food quality. They might involve the ways your workers communicate with customers, managers, and one another. They could detail opening, closing, and shift changes. In short, anything you care about everyone doing well, and doing consistently, are fair game for inclusion in your SOPs.

If it’s well-conceived, a written handbook of SOPs will guide your restaurant’s overall flow just as surely as a script guides a play. By having SOPs in place, employees know what is expected of them, customers receive a more predictable experience, and if anyone on your staff isn’t sure of what a situation calls for, they have an authority they can consult. How many days till the fish should be used for stock? Which locksmith should a manager call in a pinch? How do you want the bartender to take inventory after a shift? Answer these questions in writing and no one can come back to you later and say they didn’t know what to do.

Yes, this is a lot. No, it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. You can use the process of creating your SOPs to better-define how you want your restaurant to run, and look forward to having it finished. Think of the time you’ll save, when everyone on your staff can download your brain in one manual! It will remain a work in progress, of course. But here’s how to get started.

Why you should create an SOP restaurant checklist

Slowing down to examine why you need an SOP will help you prepare a smart, effective document for your workers and managers. No sense in banging out a stack of checklists without first considering who will use them, and for what. Here are your goals for this document.

You’ll increase your overall efficiency. Written instructions make a bustling kitchen hum. Having recipes and guidelines at hand will ensure that in the heat of a hectic shift junior staffers aren’t pulling aside your top cooks and servers to double-check on what you expect of the food or the service. Answering questions becomes the book’s job.

Having an SOP makes communication clearer. From the front of house to the back of house, an SOP helps everyone speak the same language. Setting the standard via an SOP ensures that, no matter who’s on shift, your staff knows how to do things the right way.

A detailed SOP makes training faster. When you onboard a new staffer, have them read the manual. Whether they arrive as a blank slate or as a restaurant veteran who has particular ways of doing things, you can get them doing things your way. You also can spend less time getting them acquainted with tools such as your POS system. A little bit of homework goes a long way.

You need an SOP for quality control. Food safety and overall consistency benefit from your having internal procedures. How you prepare, handle, and store food are paramount for an SOP checklist. When should kitchen workers wear gloves? How often and after which tasks should they wash hands? And how should a dish be prepared and served? Keep your customers safe, of course, and make sure your staff meets their expectations no matter who’s covering a day’s shift.

What categories should your SOP include 

Every restaurant should write standard operating procedures to suit their specific needs. Generally, though, you’ll start by thinking through the following categories.

Food flow. This includes storing, serving, and presenting food and drinks. You think about this all the time, or else you wouldn’t be in this business. Write your expectations clearly and watch how your staff starts following your model.

Cleanliness and personal hygiene. Your restaurant won’t be shut down for missing the mark on the flavor of béarnaise sauce. But the city could close you down if your eggs benny make people ill. Make sure your SOP covers all things sanitary: cleaning dishes, cutting and prep surfaces, floors, hoods, vents, dining areas, freezers, ice machines — the works. Consider, too, how often your workers need to scrub up, and what they may need to wear for their jobs, whether that’s non-slip shoes, hair nets, gloves, aprons, or neckties.

Customer service. How should your hostess greet customers as they arrive? How do you handle complaints? What are your reservation policies? What should a hostess do with a supposed party of six whose fifth and sixth members are running late but will be here in just a minute, swear? Sort out the basics of how you want customers to be treated, or else risk your staff winging it.

Equipment upkeep. Out of all your SOP lists, equipment maintenance may be the most detailed. You want to keep your machines and tools working smoothly and safely, for as long as you can. Anything with wheels, gears, or blades, you’ll want to make sure staff understand and care for.

Safety policies. Burns, cuts, slips. Break-ins, hold-ups. Fires, flooding, fights. Creeps outside the building, animals stalking your trash. Restaurants are going to throw everything at you eventually, so all the better to have a plan for the inevitable.

How to create an SOP checklist

Now that you’re imagining this document’s purposes and audience, let’s figure out how to actually create it. As you organize the various components of your SOPs, write along these lines.

Decide who needs to know what. The sections on health, attire, HR policies, and professional conduct might be accessible to all. But it’s unlikely the dishwashers need to know how to do hosting duties, or the hosts need to know the intricacies of the sous chef’s checklists. Block off sections in such a way people can find what they need. 

Detail each step of what you want done. Get into the weeds here. Break down each list item into small, actionable steps. You’ve written recipes, right? Think of each task or procedure as a recipe that has ingredients, measurements, and directions. (Your recipes included!)

Decide who needs to do what. Knowledge is one thing; responsibility and accountability are another. Employees and supervisors alike need to know which tasks are theirs. Do this right and you’ll have actual checklists your staff can maintain (and initial) once they follow through on their duties during each shift.

Explain when you need everything. What good are lists, sublists, and assignees without deadlines? Timelines for each task, even if it’s just “one a week” or daily” add structure and urgency — all the better for things to actually get done.

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