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Lessons Learned from Legendary Leaders

They say that art imitates life. In some instances, though, life could be better served by imitating art. In this thought-provoking piece, consultant Matthew Mabel outlines five key lessons members of the foodservice industry, including operators, consultants and other members of the supply chain, can learn from the legendary David Bowie.

When David Bowie released his 25th album, Blackstar, seemingly out of the blue, he surprised fans and critics alike with his first chart-topping work. When he died two days later from a cancer that, as it turned out, he had been fighting for a year and a half, he shocked the nation yet again.

Bowie’s exit proved just as dramatic as his entrance to the pop world decades earlier, and it was all pre-planned, in typical Bowie fashion. Matthew Mabel, founder and president of Surrender, Inc., a Dallas-based hospitality and restaurant consultancy, was especially moved, not just by Bowie’s passing, but also in looking back at his life’s work.

In fact, Mabel came to realize that one can draw many parallels between Bowie as a master artist and brand builder and independent restaurateurs looking to forge their own path and create a name for themselves. “David Bowie was a trailblazer in all respects — from music, to fashion, to business and finance — leading an exemplary life from which we can all learn,” Mabel says.

Here, in his own words, Mabel outlines the key lessons restaurant owners — and consultants, too — can take away from Bowie’s life and career.

1. Be Yourself

David Bowie was not bound by tradition, expectations, or the way things had been done before. As his longtime producer Tony Visconti said upon Bowie’s death, “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way.” Don’t be bound by constraints that are real or imagined. As an independent restaurant company owner, you are the master of your own destiny. Don’t be afraid to do things your way, and in the best way for you. A lot of my clients think that if they own a restaurant, their life has to be a certain way and that it has to be really hard — some people want to work six or seven days a week and comb over every detail, but some are not rewarded by a lot of work and want more balance in their lives. I once had a client who bought a vacation home but never got the chance to use it. He said to me, “your job is to make my company work so I can finally use my vacation home.” Don’t be afraid to take breaks that will stretch your creativity to the max.

2. Maintain a Close and Trusted Set of Advisors

That said, most of us need an editor. Bowie was an artist so he can really do anything he wants, but as a restaurateur it’s important to have people around you that can give you that gut check you need, or warn you when you might be taking things too far. Bowie kept a small and supportive group of people he trusted around him – he had one manager, the same assistant he had for years, his wife and two kids. He didn’t have a huge entourage or rely heavily on record companies. This is good for restaurants, too. It’s important to have a small group of people who can guide you, like a board of directors. But there’s a risk with having too big of a decision-making team: you may end up with too many people with their own agendas at heart, not yours. You want the energy around you to be about making things better for you and your business.

3. Constantly Innovate

Don’t be content doing what you have always done. Update constantly. Bowie was commonly known for “shape-shifting,” but the truth is he adapted different styles to a foundation of constant themes. As a lyricist, for instance, he was always commenting on loneliness, alienation, and abandonment, and seldom wavered from those topics. Know your constant themes, but provide guests and associates with improvement and new ways to showcase them. Some won’t work. Others will. Don’t stand still. For example, one of my clients opened a restaurant last week in a small, blue-collar area outside of Dallas but we looked at modern restaurants in the city to forecast design trends. We wanted a look that would be relevant for the next seven to 10 years. We ended up with something very forward-looking, with greens and whites and filament light bulbs and a very open and airy design. Most of the restaurants in that area are all brown on the inside. It turned out that the guests love it. That was part of David Bowie’s genius; he could take the avant-garde and make it mainstream.

4. Don’t Underestimate the Public

And, when you do step outside your own box and keep ahead of trends, don’t assume it will be too much for the guests; they are ready for more than you think they are. It is smart to steal or borrow or adapt the latest ideas and fold them into the mainstream. That is how Bowie created his biggest commercial successes. If you don’t believe that, think about what is on your menu today compared to 10 years ago. Think about QSRs with chefs and exotic flavor profiles. Don’t get left behind in food, service, or atmosphere. And, definitely don’t be afraid to constantly come out with new dishes, new drinks, and new designs; thanks to social media and the Food Network and TV, your guests can keep up with you.

5. Become Your Own Advocate

Bowie was a master of self-promotion. He played the media as well as he played any instrument. Once, he was an outright carnival barker for his art. Later on, he played the anti-star. The more secrecy that surrounded him, the more people wanted to know about him. It is not enough to have talent — you have got to find a way to motivate people to want to experience your talent. Be strategic and don’t be shy. Restaurateurs can be notoriously poor marketers, with many not understanding how to build a brand, even though they are in the brand-building business. If there is no strategy behind building your brand, even if you’re experiencing steady guest counts you’re still leaving a lot of networking opportunities and dollars on the table. Don’t be afraid to show off a new restaurant but build up the excitement with some secrecy just like Bowie did. He was incredibly gifted at drawing people to him and then in the end, disappearing and having everyone ask what happened to him before coming out with a number one album.