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How Did We Get Here? Life as a Restaurant Manager

Updated on February 10, 2018
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Mike Hughes is a restaurant manager with 25 years experience. The stories are real. The lessons are a riot.

How did we get here?

How did we get here…What happened along the way for us to choose being a Restaurant Manager?

Are we being punished or did we actually plan this?

If your path was anything like mine, it went something like this:

You landed a kitchen position at a very young age, and more than likely it was in the dish room. You endured the abuse for a little while, but when you saw all the “fun” the line cooks were having, you started helping on the line. You caught on quickly and the chef took notice and was your first mentor and groomed you to move up. You gladly accepted. After a little while, you saw the servers cashing out stacks of 20’s and realized that the .45 cents over minimum you were getting on the line were a fraction of the servers take. So after convincing the Service manager, the GM and the Chef, you were granted a chance to leave the kitchen and train as wait staff. You really took to the position and after a few months you were training new staff. Then came the extra responsibilities that are inevitable on your way up. You thought about the bar for a bit but there was an 8 year wait for that primo role. So you continued excelling in your tasks while the GM got very used to getting you to do anything they asked, including the thankless job of shift supervisor… You’re now running shifts, comping long tickets, visiting mad tables, making cuts when the servers told you and earning your keep under the careful mentorship of the General Manager. Eventually all your childhood dreams come true when your GM recommends you to the district manager for an MIT spot. You can barely contain your excitement because you see that sweet Corolla the GM parks out front every day , so you jump at the chance.

You are now sitting in your very first restaurant manager interview…If the District Manager (DM) was honest, they may say; “Here is a fantastic opportunity to work five 12-hour shifts a week, work ‘til 2:00 AM, never have the weekend off again, and you get to babysit dozens of wild and insane employees. Oh, I need to also mention that your significant other will grow to despise your existence and EVERYTHING that goes wrong in the unit is your fault. And if all of this hasn’t sold you, your staff will criticize every decision you make and they will tell you how to do your job… and by the way, see Chris over in section 3? She will make more on Friday and Saturday than you make all week. But hey - you can finally tell your parents that you have a real job now!”

Sound maybe just a little far-fetched? Absolutely!!! Nobody makes money in section 3…

Now at this point you are still an hourly rock star and fully understand the abuse the operations managers take on a daily basis. Knowing that this will never happen to you, you nail the interview and get the job. (Cue the music… Theme from Rocky plays while a montage plays of you perfectly performing every restaurant role with a big goofy-ass grin on your face)

While there are dozens of paths that can transport you from your very first restaurant job to the magical ranks of management, .one common element that is typically a key turning point for most of us on this journey is when we find a mentor.

So what is a mentor?

The dictionary defines one as “An experienced or trusted advisor”. Fair enough, but a good one can shape your destination for the rest of your career. It is important to identify and embrace these people. It can be too easy to not recognize or even care who they are. Trust me, not everyone is going to look you in the eyes and tell you that they want to help you grow your future and make you successful.

I have been fortunate enough in my long-ass career to have a handful of remarkable mentors to guide me and many of them I am thankful to still have in my ‘circle of trust’.

One of my first mentors, who I count as one of my best friends to this day, gave me a shot in his local bar and grille. My entire 20’s was spent at his tavern, a local favorite - and unlike some of my high school buddies, I was actually paid to be there every day! He allowed me to grow, operate his kitchen, tend his bar and offered me plenty of opportunities to “run the show”. When he finally sold it and joined the corporate restaurant world himself, I had proven my capabilities to him, so he pulled me into the world of corporate chain restaurant management…I was an M.I.T. He trusted me and I embraced his guidance.

As a quick side note, after 15 years in the business and lots of hourly roles, I thought I should try something completely different with normal hours – so I opted out of restaurants and jumped into Mortgage sales. But here is a fun-fact…Once you dedicate your life to this business for 15 years, it’s pretty damn tough to do anything else…ever. Go ahead and try. Oh, I suppose a few of us end up becoming a Sysco salesman, but by and large, when the restaurant business grabs you, it holds you like a cook holds onto the kitchen’s last clean towel.

OK, now back to our riveting story and the wonderful world of Mid-Sized Corporate Chain Restaurant Management! After 5 years mastering KM and Ops roles in upstate NY, he then “dragged” me to Myrtle Beach for what I can only describe as the largest and one of the most successful themed restaurants in history. Suffice it to say that going from a $30,000 a week unit to being a KM/M.I.T in a $400,000 a week location was TERRIFYING. “What do you mean we have an MOD on just to count money at the end of the night?” I had seriously doubted the 1,000 mile move, which required me to leave my wife and kids in NY to finish school and sell our house before joining me, but I have to admit that despite getting my ass kicked every day that summer in our high-volume Myrtle Beach resort location, I was able to suffer through it as a bachelor with a little help from my amazing restaurant ‘family’ There were at least 6 people down there and 1 amazing corporate rock star, who were instrumental to my development…They were typically other units’ GM’s that they shipped in to help this seasonal shit-storm when it hit. Several of these GM’s took me under their wings and I developed leadership skills to be promoted. Mentors are tiers above managers. A mentor leads by example, and demonstrates not only how to treat people, but how to engage in productive conversations and coach people to bring out their best. They help you understand and embrace the culture, mission, and values of the company. They also fill your tool box with some intangible things, which are often the MOST important things that you can’t see or touch. A mentor can absolutely be a change agent that helps you outside of the work place, too. Most run-of-the-mill managers, the ones that are not TRUE mentors, can help you along with inventories, how to count the safe, restaurant systems like line-checks, facility check lists, open and closing check lists…Hell, just lots of damn check lists! Mentors focus on the person, while managers focus on the process.

As I look back on the leaders who helped shape me, there are very few who were interested in not only my development, but me, as a person. I feel that’s important. When someone takes an interest in you, embrace it. They are probably where they are because someone took an interest in them.

When I transferred to St Louis as a newly promoted AGM, we had a villainous GM who they had ironically put in place to “fix us”. This guy stole shit loads of cash as he apparently thought the safe was his own piggybank…(why a guy would jeopardize an $80k a year job, in 2001 no less, for a few bucks (~$3k) still boggles my mind). He wrecked an already damaged unit and when he was terminated for theft, I was offered the GM job and my D.O. looked at me and said” You can’t fuck this place up any worse than it is right now” (RIP Cliff)…And with those words of encouragement, I took the promotion. The tools I learned from my mentors along the way literally allowed me to create a great culture and better Restaurant. I was able to confidently teach the mission, culture and values to others and I was able to help several along the way get promoted. It was also during this time when I was asked to mentor others (from MY mentor, no less!) and be a sensei at a corporate training function. It was an honor and a valuable experience. It also allowed me to go through the 7 habits course for a 2nd time... Love me some Covey.

So whether you are new in the game (Frank K called it a game, and I believe he is correct), or a seasoned GM (or higher) that is now mentoring others, keep in mind that every move you make, every decision, your work ethic, how you treat others, etc., is either being watched by someone you are mentoring or someone who may want to mentor you…

Don’t mess it up. Don’t take it for granted.

So next time you are getting yelled at for ‘ruining’ a customer’s life by tragically allowing an over-cooked steak to be served, and start to entertain an offer selling tractor parts or candles...Just save yourself the time...

We are where we belong.

© 2018 Mike Hughes

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