Brad Presents “Lessons From Kitchen Nightmares”

Rack of Lamb Photo by Scott Kelby // Camera Photo by Brad Moore

[Note: This is a slightly edited recent post from my blog. Scott liked it and suggested I share it here as well!]

If you’ve been in the photography business very long, you know it’s about way more than just being able to work behind the camera. There are tons of moving parts that you have to maintain in order to be successful.

Lately I’ve been watching Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. In this show, Chef Gordon Ramsay (also of Hell’s Kitchen fame) goes into failing restaurants and helps turn them around. After watching a few episodes, it’s easy to pick up on the key things that make for a successful restaurant.

But these things aren’t just what make restaurants successful, they’re what make businesses successful.

And many of these things can easily apply to the photo business, so here we go…


Six Things I’ve Learned from Kitchen Nightmares:

1) Product Quality Is King
99% of the time, the food in these failing restaurants is terrible. No amount of ambiance and decor will bring back returning customers if the product sucks. Some of these restaurants even cut back on the quality of the food when they struggle, yet still charge the same prices they’ve always charged.

As photographers, we need to provide the best quality product we possibly can and charge accordingly. People are willing to pay for a quality product. If they’re not, they may not be the customers you want. But if they’re happy with their experience, they’ll keep coming back. They’ll also tell their friends and family about you.

2) Be Unique
Sometimes Chef Ramsay will completely transform the restaurant if it’s in the middle of an over-saturated market. He’ll look at the competition in the surrounding area determine what isn’t there that could thrive in the town. Maybe it’s an affluent town without a steakhouse, so the restaurant become a steakhouse. Or maybe they just need to be known for a specialty, like fresh homemade pasta or mozzarella, family-style dining, or a great raw bar.

Look at your market. Who are your competitors? What can you do that they’re not doing? What holes are in the market that you could fill? What’s the one thing that could make you stand out from everyone else? Don’t be afraid to be different. Think outside of the box. Be a trendsetter. Just be careful… There’s a fine line between unique and weird. ;-)

3) Don’t Be All Things To All People
Bloated menus are a common problem in these failing restaurants. They try to appeal to a wide variety of people by offering a wide variety of dishes. The result is an unfocused chef who is trying to juggle too many types of food in the kitchen, which slows them down. This leaves customers waiting far too long for food they end up being unsatisfied with because of its diminished quality.

In cases like these, Chef Ramsay will simplify the menu so that it focuses on a certain type of food and streamlines the process in the kitchen. This decreases prep time in the kitchen and helps the chef focus on fewer dishes. Customers receive their food more quickly and are much more satisfied in the end.

Do you know any photographers who shoot baby portraits, engagement portraits, weddings, concerts, football games, food, products, and still life? How stressed are they most of the time? Is it because they’re always super busy? Because they’re struggling to pay the rent? Could it be because they’re unable to focus on doing one thing really well?

Pick the type of photography you enjoy doing most and focus on that. If you enjoy it, it will show in the end product and your clients will be happier.  Otherwise you’ll always be pulled in fifteen different directions, and all of your endeavors will suffer.

4) Décor and Ambiance
I’ve only seen one episode in which a struggling restaurant didn’t get a complete interior makeover. And even that one had other minor updates. Common problems range from being outdated to uninviting to just plain ugly.  No one wants to spend hours eating dinner in a place where they feel uncomfortable.

If you have an office or storefront, make it an inviting place that people enjoy visiting. If you only have a website, make sure it’s designed with relevance to your audience in mind. Don’t ask yourself who your audience is, but who you want your audience to be.

A perfect example of this is He explains in depth on his blog why he made every single design and functionality choice when undergoing a redesign. Some people would say he made a bad choice in building a Flash-based website, but those aren’t the people he cares about. He’s going after art directors who are sitting at their desks in front of their 30″ Cinema Displays, so that’s who he made the site for – people who potentially will be signing checks, not online forum-dwellers sitting in their parents’ basements.

5) Here’s Your Sign
Along with the décor makeover, Chef Ramsay often replaces the sign outside the restaurant.  Why?

The sign is a potential customer’s first encounter with the restaurant. It could either draw them in or make them decide to drive on by.

As photographers, our brand is our sign. Our branding defines who we are, and vice versa. It makes clients say, “Oh he’s that kind of photographer!” as soon as they see it. This includes our logo, the style or look of our photography, the feel of our website, our business cards, and even our interactions with clients.

Know who you are as a photographer, and let that dictate your branding. Otherwise we’re trying to be something we’re not.

6) Denial Is A Killer
[This one wasn’t in my original post, but was pointed out by Jon Diener in the comments (thanks Jon!).]

Almost every single one of the restaurant owners on this show is in denial about something. They don’t think their food is bad, there’s nothing wrong with the way they’re managing things, their kitchen isn’t dirty, people love the oversized portions, New Jerseyans love to eat in the middle of a tropical jungle… Any number of things.

[By the way, this is the part of the show that always dumbfounds me. Your restaurant is failing, so you call someone who obviously knows what they’re doing for help. When he shows up and tells you how to fix things, you tell him he’s wrong. It boggles the mind…]

Anyway, what are you in denial about? What is it that’s keeping you from being a successful photographer? Do your photos suck but you won’t admit it because your family tells you they’re great? Are you overcharging for the quality of work you’re doing? Are you undercharging because you’re afraid of losing what little business you have? Do think that if you can just get the right equipment or a ticket to Italy (where the light is sooo much better!), you could get that one image that could put you on the map…?

There’s a scene in the documentary It Might Get Loud where Jack White builds a guitar out of a couple pieces of wood, some nails, a bottle and a wire. He plays it for a few seconds then asks, “Who says you need to buy a guitar?” This is the same guy who took a $200 plastic guitar and made a signature sound out of it.

You are the only thing standing in the way of your own success. Everyone has obstacles they have to overcome; you’re not special (sorry). Figure out how to overcome them and, here’s the key… DO IT! Get off your butt and make it happen. No one else is going to do it for you.

The difference between success and failure can often be humility. As there is a fine line between unique and weird, there is also a fine line between confidence and ego. Careful that you don’t cross it, because as soon as you do the path could easily lead to failure.


I hope these insights have been helpful. You can catch all episodes of Kitchen Nightmares on if you want to look for other tidbits of business savvy from the master chef/businessman!

  1. Oops, Scott’s in big trouble for leaving you guys running his blog. This is just such a great post Brad! You can stay! :) Sorry Scott. Some great obvious ‘smack-the-forehead’ tips here that need serious thought. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. Great post Brad.
    I too am a big fan of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares here in the UK. I never ceased to be amazed how at first the restaurant owners are resistant to accept the suggestions that Gordon gives them. I mean, he’s one of the best in the world at what he does and still people resist!!

    Surely that would be like resisting advice from someone like Joe McNally; complete madness!!!

    Great post Brad,
    All the best to you,

  3. If you have the chance, watch the BBC version of kitchen nightmares. It is less formulaic and often offers more constructive criticism than the standard ranting in the US version.

  4. Great article Brad, it makes me think about my own audience and I’ll be the first to admit there’s been a few times when I slacked on quality. This article reminds me of my favorite restaurant that use to serve the best chicken wings in town. Eventually they got greedy and started serving awfully cheap wings. They even had the nerve to raise the price!

  5. Thanks for this one, Brad. I love Kitchen Nightmares and often think of how i need to take lessons from it. Sometimes it’s not that you don’t know, it’s just that you need to see/hear it from someone who breaks it down into six great, bite-sized chunks!

  6. Very thought provoking article, Brad. You summed it up well at the end with “There is a fine line between unique and weird; there is also a fine line between confidence and ego. Careful that you don’t cross it…”

    You made me laugh when you said, “Do you know any photographers who shoot baby portraits, engagement portraits, weddings, concerts, football games, food, products, and still life?” because it made me think of Scott. Not that he does wedding and such… but we could make a similar list of everything he’s into… and he rarely seems stressed. Maybe it’s all the behind the scenes people that keep him sane… so maybe you add another recommendation to hire and promote the success of strong support people. I’d also add networking and teaching others as important items to focus on. Scott is the expert at this. He helps people and they help him. Its integral to his success and he demonstrates it weekly on this blog. For some it comes natural others need to consciously cultivate it. Last suggestion to add…. never sell old cameras… give them to a student… one of the guest bloggers said this and its made a big impact. Sparking the interest of the young brings innovation and grows spirit for the industry as a whole.

    This article would be a good thing put on your calendar to reread and ponder every quarter.

    1. Hey Beth – I actually hesitated a little bit on that part of one person doing so many different things because I know that Scott does. But it’s a little different with him because he’s not necessarily doing photography for a living; he’s doing photography training. For that, you almost have to do all those different things because that’s who his audience is.

      Good suggestions! Thanks for the feedback. Always appreciated :)

  7. Hi Brad, excellent post. As photographers we can learn a lot about success by looking at other businesses. If we’re to succeed we need to be business people first and photographers second.

  8. Excellent post. We just updated our office and the interior really does make a difference— to clients and staff. After working with a graphics artist on new print advertising, I realized the office too needed updated colors after 10 years. Now I just need to frame some of my black and white photography.

      1. Brad, your photo is freaking out my 10 year old grandson (yes he’s into photography and reads Scott’s blog with me). I told him you are now in constant “duck” mode.

  9. Nicely done Brad. Way to hit one out of the park!! Usually when I’m watching cooking shows I’m only thinking of how to get my wife to cook the recipes they’re featuring. Guess I should open my eyes a bit eh? I’m looking forward to your next post!

  10. Great post Brad. I’ll be re-reading this one when I get to work today and thinking about how to improve my business model. Hope to see more of your posts showing up here regularly! Just in case, also just subscribed to the RSS Feed over on your site!

    I’m sure Scott won’t worry too much about being away for a bit……. :)

  11. Cool as anything and so right. When do we see a photo version of Gordon Ramsey and a studio. I to am always amazed when he tells them that this is wrong and that needs changing and they stand there and disagree. Mind you how boring if they all went yes Gordon, what next Gordon three bags full Gordon. Its television and most of us with an ounce of sense would love him to come along to our studios, I bet he would do all of us some good. Great post and i bet Scott’s writing ‘note to self don’t get anyone this good again’

  12. Thanks Brad very insightful post, I really enjoyed your thoughts on the owners.
    While watching try and keep in mind that it is US Tv and alot of what your seeing is somewhat scripted for drama.

  13. WOW! What a great start. Brad, as someone mention, you hit it out of the ball park with the first swing! Great reference of business and really like your closing remarks;

    “You are the only thing standing in the way of your own success. Everyone has obstacles they have to overcome; you’re not special (sorry). Figure out how to overcome them and, here’s the key… DO IT! Get off your butt and make it happen. No one else is going to do it for you.”

    Thanks for the AWESOME blog post today and now you got me hook for your blog and awaiting for your next one!!


    PS: Now I know how Scott is so good because he his a Genius! By surrounding himself with such talented people!

  14. Great Post Brad! I really don’t like Ramsey, or his show, because, having a background in the restaurant business, everything he does just seams like common sense to me. But, maybe sometimes we all just need a wake up call.

    Can’t wait to see how you relate American Idol to photography!

    1. Hmm… Let’s see what I can do with that one ;)

      ACTUally…. You know the number one thing the judges tell the contestants? “You need to figure out who you are as an artist.” That can relate quite easily to photographers, yes? Goes right along with what I already said about branding.

      See, that wasn’t too much of a stretch!

  15. Brad – excellent post – great example of basic concepts being applied in different businesses.

    An alternative title for point 6 (and my personal favorite) is “Denial is not just a river in Egypt”.

  16. I really enjoyed reading this post. Partly because I’m a fan of Kitchen Nightmares, but mostly because it was well written. BTW Kitchen Nightmares is hilarious!

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