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What the Healthcare System Could Learn from a Steakhouse

This past weekend, my husband and I went to Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa, FL.

Since we trusted the colleagues from whom the recommendations came, I remained hopeful that this establishment would live up to the hype. I was expecting to walk up to a Taj Mahal-type structure with a fancy sign. However, we were instead greeted by an older building with no windows and an aged sign that leaned ever so slightly, possibly from the effect of strong Florida winds over the years. As we walked inside, the restaurant had a strong velvet, antique vibe with dim lights and countless customers waiting for their names to be called.

We were seated and soon after greeted by a middle-aged gentleman in a well-pressed suit and tie. He made sure we were comfortable and understood the menu before ordering, which was important given the 60 steak options and wine list that rivaled the length of the novel War and Peace. With between 500-1000 customers served every evening and the complexity with which the food is prepared, one would expect and possibly even welcome long delays in food delivery. However, we were pleasantly surprised to receive our drinks and food relatively quickly after ordering. The French Onion soup was served in individual ramekins topped with multiple types of cheese, including the soft caramelized cheese from Norway, Gjetost. The salad dressings are all house-made and the produce is grown on their local farm. The steak is served exactly as you wish, including your choice of cut, weight, thickness, and final touches.

The experience didn't end there. We were asked if we would like a tour of the kitchen, wine cellar, and finally the dessert room upstairs, to which of course we answered a resounding yes. After we finished our delicious meal, we were taken to the kitchen and shown the various prep stations, which are all run like a well-oiled machine. Following the kitchen tour, we were taken to the wine cellar, which is the largest in the world and holds bottles from California to Australia. We ended the evening in the upstairs dessert room, the menu for which contained sensory-exploding sweets that were perfected over many years.

While I was in awe walking out of Bern's, that was just the beginning of my understanding of this amazing establishment. In our hotel room was a book outlining the history of Bern's, so of course I dug in. I have never been so inspired by a story in my life. I won't share the entire story here, but I do want to point out some highlights for the purposes of this blog.

Bern and Gert Laxer, the Founders of Bern's Steakhouse, came from humble beginnings. From the beginning, they were committed to their customers and serving them the ultimate restaurant experience. Every part of Bern's Steakhouse is intentional, from the locally-sourced and farmed produce, to the coffee beans purchased from around the world and roasted in-house, to the chocolate imported from the Rhone River valley. And while the food is extraordinary, their staff culture is second-to-none. New waiters must wait one full year before serving in the main dining room. During their training year, they work in various parts of the restaurant, including the off-site farm, to ensure they are knowledgable about every aspect of the business. When new hires were on-boarded, Bern made it a point to know everyone by their first name. If a waiter joined the team and his or her name was already in use, he would assign them a restaurant name to ensure no one felt unheard or unknown. Bern was seen everywhere in the restaurant, preferring to work in the kitchen toiling away at the grill, salad station or saute line alongside his employees.

So, what does this have to do with healthcare, you might ask? The lessons learned from this iconic restaurant can help shed light on what I believe are some of the issues with our modern healthcare system.

First, many hospital systems utilize monetary resources to beautify their lobbies and reception desk areas, while largely neglecting the patient care areas, nurse stations, and physician call rooms. It is apparent from the first visit that the owners of Bern's Steakhouse are more concerned with the customer experience and quality of food than with outside appearances. What if our hospitals spent less on appearance and more on patient care? Less on the finest travertine tile and more on adequate staff and resources to support them so they can in turn support the patients?

Second, many hospital systems remain more focused on employee recruitment than retention. What if, like Bern Laxer showed us, more attention was spent on adequately training the staff and equipping them to handle the various issues that arise in a hospital environment? What if managers and supervisors treated each staff member as an individual who played an important role in the ultimate purpose of the organization--excellence in patient care? While a full year of training may not be possible or necessary, I believe there is value in knowing that the hospital is just as invested in the staff member as the staff member is in the hospital. This mutual respect and shared vision is partly what keeps the employees at Bern's staying on board for multiple decades. I believe the lack of this is what, in part, contributes to the attrition seen at many healthcare institutions.

Finally, the transparency at Bern's results in a level of trust that is largely lacking in our society as a whole, but definitely our medical system. Customers at Bern's know where their food is sourced from, how long their waiters have trained, and even are provided a tour of the inner workings of the kitchen. While I am not suggesting that patients be given a tour of the hospital cafeteria kitchen, I am suggesting that more transparency would increase the level of trust among patients and their family members. This may include sourcing details on the food items included on the menus, bios on the supervisors for each department with their contact information if there was an issue, and a TV channel dedicated to the stories of the team members who are serving them. These may seem trivial and unimportant to some, but to the patients and family members who oftentimes feel helpless and without answers, it would provide a feeling of collective, oneness--a feeling that the staff at the hospital is their second family, a home away from home.

Thank you, Bern and Gert Laxer, for your example. It is timeless and provides endless learning opportunities for those wanting to provide excellent service in any industry.

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