As I kick off the new restaurant-business focus of this blog, I started to think back to the early early days of my restaurant career, though I didn't know it would be a career at the time. When I was 12, I enjoyed going into our half restaurant/half market in Leiper's Fork at 5:00am with my Dad to make biscuits for the commuters, opening up the doors early for hunters hungry for a morning burger. Around 7:00am, the locals would start rolling in, pouring themselves a hot cup of coffee and gathering one by one around the big wood table in the back. I would listen to them talk about the week, tell tall tales, just shoot the breeze. I didn't know it then, but I was being bit by the hospitality bug. As I grew into a teenager, I didn't love the early mornings so much, but I worked hard. If it wasn't soccer season, I was working. There were days that I hated it, especially during my moodiest teenage phases. Our store was small, so there were no real positions besides "manager" and "staff." We all cooked, mopped, washed dishes (by hand), took out the trash, cleaned the bathrooms, ran the register, smoked meat, ground and patted the burgers, swept up cigarette butts in the parking lot. We did it all.
Now that the restaurant business is my chosen career, I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. There is no way in hell I would open a restaurant if I didn't know what all it took. Here are some of the things I learned about the restaurant business when I was 15 years old:
1. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty.
Now that I've been a manager, I am so grateful that I can say "I've done that." I've taken the trash out, only to have the bag bust all over me when lifting it into the dumpster. I've had my hands caked in two inches of hamburger fat after patting hundreds of burgers. I've had my fingers prune from greasy dishwater. I've been headfirst into the back of a smoker scraping gunky coals and grease into a bucket (gag). I've done it, and I'd do it again. I wouldn't be comfortable asking someone else to do something I've never done.
2. The art of the smile and nod.
When we moved to Leiper's Fork, I couldn't understand a damn thing any of the locals were saying. They all talked out the side of their mouths, a heavy Southern slur. I'm from Tennessee, but this was beyond an accent. That first year, I mastered the "smile and nod" while learning the new language. I paid close attention to the tone of people's voices and their body language and mirrored my reaction. The key is to look them in the eye and reflect the joy, worry, concern, or joke that they are sharing with you. I'm being a little facetious, but it seriously came in handy. By the time I was 14, I could actually understand most of what they were saying.
3. Treat everyone with dignity.
Our town was a funny mix of people. We had billionaires sitting at the table with local tradesmen, and next to people that had never left the county. In particular, we had a couple of families that only traveled by horse or foot and did not know how to read or write anything but their own name. I learned from my father how important it is to treat each and every person with dignity and respect. After a while, they trusted him enough to come in for groceries and hand him a pile of cash and change so that he could count it out for them. When I took over the register, I would fill out their checks for them while smiling and nodding. These were people that were constantly vulnerable due to the unknown, and we wanted them to feel safe and comfortable.
4. Work harder than everyone else.
I was recently asked what has been one of the hardest challenges to overcome in my career. My answer was being the boss's daughter. I always felt the heat of scrutiny on the back of my neck, and I hated the assumption that I hadn't earned my keep. As a result, I have always been out to prove myself. I would sign up for the dirtiest jobs, stay the extra hour to help close, come in the earliest to open. I didn't always want to do these things, but I knew I had to. My reputation and the reputation of my family is always at stake.
Many people that have been successful in this business grew up in it or a similar environment. Maybe you started as a dishwasher, a busser, or a host. Maybe you were a cashier at the local grocery store. You have a leg up on the competition because you've been there, you've done that. But maybe you are considering the restaurant business as a second career. Don't worry, my friend. While having previous experience is certainly an advantage, everyone has experiences that can contribute to a successful restaurant career. I know a woman that transitioned from 20+ years of being a nurse into the business. There were some ups and downs, but her background of crisis management and being on her feet for hours on end as a charge nurse certainly came in handy. Now I'm proud to call her a colleague and fellow restauranteur.
What about you? What did you learn from your first job(s)?