Learning to fail, failing to learn

In an industry where failure happens on a daily basis all around the world, few people speak about it. How is it possible to learn to fail better and, importantly, stop failing to learn?

There is no failure, except in no longer trying. Failure is a delay, not a defeat. Every failure is a step to success. Our language is full of clichés about failures; motivational quotes about getting something wrong, making mistakes – about failing – and the fact that it is not fatal but, in fact, an inevitable part of reality for human beings across the world and in every industry.

Yet, there’s a sense of shame attached to failure. Few like to talk about it when something goes wrong, but once they are on the other side there is more openness to talk about using failure in a positive way.

The Oxford dictionary’s definition of failure is simple: it’s a lack of success. Samuel West, director of the Museum of Failure, has a more elaborate description. “I like the organizational science definition, which is that failure is a deviation from expected or desired outcomes or results,” he says. “When you invest in an initiative or something, you have less money, resources, prestige. And you expect something to come out of it – that can be commercially, you make money from it, or prestige, or whatever you want, whatever the results are expected. And if that doesn’t happen, then it’s a failure.”

Anybody who has experience of working in the foodservice sector, knows that the restaurant business is inherently risky and notoriously hard to succeed in – a much quoted study by Ohio State University found that 60% of restaurants don’t make it past their first year and 80% shut their doors for good within five years of opening.

In a more recent publication the US-based National Restaurant Association estimated a 30% failure rate in the restaurant industry, meaning one in three restaurants won’t survive their first year. 

The situation was challenging enough before 2020 but the Covid-19 pandemic super charged those numbers of closures. In the UK alone restaurant closures was up 64% on the previous 12 months one year into the pandemic in 2021. To this day operators close overnight, giving in to pressures on many fronts, including staffing, rising rents and energy prices as well as inflationary pressures that force restaurants to charge more for the food or run a loss-making business.

As an aside, on the other hand, the stigma of not coping with a job in hospitality was turned on its head during Covid-19 as time away from the kitchen and dining room gave workers a chance to consider what they wanted from their lives and many walked away. Their ‘failure to cope’ with the industry was a way of taking charge of their own destiny.

Fear of failure

Many can’t bring themselves to publicize the ways in which they have got things wrong, but Noma chef Rene Redzepi routinely shares Instagram photos of dishes from the test kitchen that haven’t made it on to the menu, in what he calls “dispatches from the bin of failed ideas.” By openly posting photos of his frustrated efforts in the kitchen, he sends a message that everybody probably already knows: failure is an integral part of innovation.

However, in many organizations, it’s the fear of failure, that’s a major obstacle to innovation. They’d rather continue doing whatever works rather than test new things.

According to West, Redzepi is in a position to be so open about failure precisely because he is so successful. “Somebody as successful as him can talk about failure because he knows he’s the king. He’s the top, so he doesn’t care. The other people lower down in the hierarchy, they feel more fear about failure,” he says.

West opened the Museum of Failure ten years ago. A clinical psychologist with an interest in failure, he started collecting items to document failures as a hobby and now travels with the collection of 150-200 items, including Colgate frozen foods, a misjudged product line that never took off when launched in the 1950s, and the short-lived Crystal Pepsi.

He says, as a general rule, we are no good at failing – and learning from it. “I’d say no, we’re not very good at learning from failure. It’s painful, we would rather not have those thoughts and feelings. So, we tend to avoid them,” he says. “And you can’t learn from your failures as an organization or individual if you’re not willing to at least temporarily, experience those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings,” he explains. “Organizations are particularly bad at this because they find it so uncomfortable, and they just move on to the next project.”

Failing productively

There’s a paradox in this because company leaders often send a message, they don’t follow up on themselves. “Leaders are quick to say, ‘we must move forward, we must embrace failure’. There’s a lot of quotes by big business leaders about this, but the reality is that to feel better, we have to fail and learn from those failures.” This goes for both large and small businesses. “How many restaurants fail for reasons that if they could just learn from it, they could actually fix it and be successful. They’re just not mindful about it. And they’re not failing in a productive way.”

The British chef Tom Kerridge has had a lot of well documented success – he currently holds two Michelin stars at his restaurant The Hand and Flowers in the UK along with several other projects. Yet, not everything he touches has been successful and he has spoken of his failure to keep alive a bar he took on and ran as an additional project. He ended up having to close the restaurant and made a loss of £20,000 but embraced the concept of failing productively.

“It was an uncomfortable space to be in. I learned so much from that experience,” he told the podcast How to Fail. “That £20,000 felt like a lot of money at the time but now I look back and say that it was worth every single penny. It is an investment in learning, we spent £20,000 on a crash course in failure. You can sit back and say, ‘OK, I’m never doing that again’ or ‘if I’m going to do that again then I need to do x, y or z to make it successful.’ I learnt so much from it.” He did learn – today he has a bar with a Michelin star plus several projects that he runs alongside it.

Culture and demographics have much to do with how people react to failure. West believes those countries that deal best with failing include Sweden, The Netherlands, the UK and the US. “Other countries including Germany and Italy are much more sensitive,” he says.

Fueling future success

Failure doesn’t always mean closing the doors for good, but simply getting something wrong and if the US is better than the rest of the world at dealing with this, Thomas Keller, the chef behind The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York showed how to deal with adversity when The New York Times downgraded its rating of Per Se from the top four stars to two in a review that shocked the gastronomy world in 2016. After taking time to reflect Keller addressed the failure openly in a social media post and took positive action to remedy the problems identified in the review. As a result, the restaurant regained its god standing with clients and improved for the better.

Of course, it is best to avoid failure in the first place. Restaurateurs should take heed of the common reasons that a foodservice operation fails. According to William H. Bender FCSI, president of William H. Bender and Associates, it is rarely just one reason.

“There is usually a combination of factors, including a lack of experience and therefore skill set on the owner’s part; poor strategic planning; poor physical design; and inadequate sales reporting,” he explains, adding that it could also be factors as ‘simple’ as a lack of marketing or a wrongly chosen restaurant location.

Working with clients on foodservice projects, he says, honesty is at the core from day one. “Share that everyone fails at some point. Failure is a learning experience for all,” he says. “History shows that many people from all walks of life and careers sometimes fail. If you take a look back or complete an autopsy
of the failure, what you discover may propel a new idea, direction, product, or process that will fuel future success.”

Analyzing mistakes

Facing up to past problems head on, and using it productively, has taken British restaurateur Nick Gilkinson to opening his second restaurant, Maene in London.

He says he could not hope to be successful with a new place without acknowledging all the elements he has got wrong in the past. “I’m pretty critical of myself and I am the first to admit that I make a lot of mistakes. But I think you have to and opening a second place should be an exercise in analyzing what mistakes you made first time around and what you do differently. And then it’s kind of a blank canvas to learn from those mistakes and correct them,” he says.

And the operators who sit back and take stock after a failure are able to come back with a more successful concept, bringing in changes from the lessons they learned.

In the US Bender says a good example is the fast casual Boston Market story, which started as Boston Chicken and experienced rapid growth across the US. “Then came financial problems and management turnover with the company being bought and sold multiple times. In the process, they rebranded as ‘Boston Market.’ They worked on menu additions, closed underperforming units, etc. They are still operating today,” he says.

The key to avoiding failure? According to Bender it is found in organization and people skills. “My recommendation is to partner with people that will ensure your success. Attract talent and retain people that will drive good results,” he says. “Select your partners carefully; you must align with people on values and ethics and choose the right team to work with you – not for you.”

“People fail to learn because they don’t want to,” says Bender. “It is pride. They do not want to accept responsibility for failure. Their experience may be too limited and they may need a complete picture of a well-run restaurant business.”

But, says West, there has been a change in the past ten years. “I think if the Museum of Failure had opened ten years ago, it would not have been so successful. But I think there’s a change going on where people are understanding that we can’t be so harsh on failure, that the stigma associated with failure has decreased and as a society we are better at acknowledging that for innovation to happen we need to allow failures.”

Tina Nielsen

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