Restaurant Checklist: The Key to Excellence + Consistency

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Checklist Manifesto" by Atul Gawande. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What are the benefits of a restaurant checklist? Is it really necessary for chefs, managers, and servers to work together?

We’ll look at how the restaurant Rialto, in Boston, uses restaurant checklists to provide excellent food and service, and we’ll cover how checklists can be used in other environments as well.

Benefits of a Restaurant Checklist

Rialto restaurant, Boston: Jody Adams, chef and owner of the popular restaurant focusing on regional Italian cuisine, uses restaurant checklists to achieve excellence and consistency.

A recipe for each dish is placed in clear plastic sleeves at each station — line cooks need to consult them because recipes are revised at times. Also, there’s a restaurant checklist for every customer. When an order is placed at the front of the restaurant, it’s printed out in the kitchen, with customer details and preferences noted in a database from previous visits. The sous chef reads the orders aloud, and line cooks are expected to repeat the items to confirm they heard them correctly. 

Adams also has a communication checklist to ensure that her staff recognizes and handles unexpected problems as a team. An hour before opening, she has a quick team meeting to discuss any unexpected issues or concerns — for example, a delay in a birthday party of 20 girls, which meant they’d arrive during the dinner rush. Whatever the issue, everyone gets a chance to speak and they plan how to handle it.

As a final check of the restaurant checklist, Adams or her sous chef reviews every plate before it leaves the kitchen to make sure it looks good and matches the order. About 5 percent are sent back.

Even in a profession like cooking, which is more art than science, checklists are helpful. 

Concert Checklists

Restaurant checklists aren’t the only useful checklists. As he explored the capabilities of checklists, author Atul Gawande began finding them in use in unexpected places.

Van Halen concerts: Many people have heard the story about rocker David Lee Roth’s insistence that Van Halen contracts with local concert promoters contain an unusual clause. It requires that a bowl of M&Ms be provided backstage, but with all of the brown candies removed or the show would be canceled. In at least one case, the band canceled a show for that reason.

Roth later explained in his memoir, Crazy from the Heat, that the clause actually was a test to see whether the promoter had read the details of the contract. Reading the “fine print” was important because the contract was, in effect, a checklist of steps that needed to be taken to set up the stage safely. Like the restaurant checklist, these steps are important. If the directions weren’t followed exactly, people could be injured. Roth added the M&Ms clause when the group started performing in smaller regional venues where local crews might make technical errors with the set-up. It paid off because in Colorado the local promoter had failed to read weight requirements, and the equipment would have fallen through the arena floor.

Medicine Checklists

Even more crucial to follow than restaurant checklists are medical checklists. In 2007 as soon as the Safe Surgery Checklist took shape, Gawande began using it in his surgeries. Hardly a week went by without the checklist enabling the team to catch something they would have otherwise missed.

For instance, in one week, there were catches in five cases, including:

  • A patient hadn’t gotten the antibiotic she should have.
  • The surgeon learned of a breathing risk at the last minute.
  • The team discovered drug allergies, equipment problems, confusion about medications, and labeling mistakes.

In another case, the checklist saved the patient’s life. Gawande was performing surgery to remove a man’s adrenal gland because of a tumor. He made a catastrophic tear, resulting in massive bleeding and cardiac arrest. But due to the checklist, four units of the right blood were available and ready to go — this step saved the patient’s life. In addition, staff members were prepared to work as a team and everyone stayed calm and did what was needed. Although he had a long recovery, the patient survived.

Restaurant Checklist: The Key to Excellence + Consistency

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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