MEMPHIS— I am up here on a blow-in-race-out trip for business. After arriving at my hotel late on a Sunday evening, I was looking for something quick and close so I could get back to my room and watch “Mad Men.” I was also hoping to stay in the Italian genre.
My first two choices were local independents. They were closed. There was another independent open, but it was far away. So I went rogue, and traveled way outside of my typical dining focus, and walked through the doors of Carraba’s, an Italian chain restaurant.
The place was packed. The hostess asked me if I minded sitting at the food bar with a view of the kitchen, “Mind?” I said. “I prefer it.” I would always rather watch the kitchen work than stare at a wall in the dining room.
They were jamming busy. The cooks were scrambling, expediters were barking orders, skillets were being slung, and the buzz of the kitchen was in full-press mode.
When the tickets in the window began to stack up, one of the floor managers threw on an apron and got behind the line to help cook, not because he was sick of working the floor, not because he wanted to show off in front of the guests at the food bar, but because that is what is done in good restaurants. A good manager does what he or she has to do to make that evenings service a success.
I began to think about all of the restaurant employees all over the country, who might be working right then. The single-mom servers who had a hard time arranging for a babysitter but came in for their shift anyway, the college student who worked two suicide doubles Friday and Saturday, but was back on Sunday pulling another double because a fellow employee wanted to stay an extra day on vacation without notice and got fired.
I began to think of all of the cooks who were still slinging skillets on a late Sunday night, after a busy, busy two-day weekend that had already seemed like five days had passed in two. Everyone works hard in a restaurant operation; it’s one of the most stressful jobs out there. But for those who have the passion burning in their belly, it’s the only way to make a living.
And I began to think about my operations in Hattiesburg and Meridian— each of which are facing unique challenges. In Hattiesburg we are blessed with so much business, we feel as if every shift is graduation Friday. I am not complaining. It is a blessing. But it’s also a daily challenge keeping all of the balls in the air while focusing on the 1,000 details that have to be focused on to operate a successful restaurant.
In Meridian, the problems are different. Our GM and KM took an offer at an across-town restaurant, and many of the staff followed. The manager that was left then lost another assistant manager while already low on staff. Did she quit? No way. She started working night and day and hired a new crew within weeks. She motivated her staff to keep working through the long hours. She hired and trained more staff. Today we are actually doing slightly more sales than we were before. It wasn’t easy, but there are no “easy” buttons in the restaurant business.
It’s fairly simple to run a crappy restaurant. People do it all of the time. What’s is hard is maintaining consistency while doing volume. In management classes in college they teach “Location, location, location.” When in all reality, the solution is “Management, management, management.” A good manager can help a restaurant overcome a poor location, but a bad manager will kill a good location every time.
I salute all restaurant managers and employees out there tonight, especially the ones in Hattiesburg and Meridian who make it possible for me to be here furthering the business in a different way. They are the reason we are hitting on all cylinders. I take NO credit. They are the ones— not me— who were manning the stoves when we won our second AAA Four-Diamond Award. They— not me— were the ones working seven and eight shifts in a row on many occasions. It was thier strategy, knowledge, and ordering that gave us our “Best Of” wine list award with “Wine Spectator.” It certainly wasn’t me.
Granted, 22 years ago I was working 90 hours a week for $12,000.00 a year after I opened the first restaurant. But, truth be told— if I would have had the money— I would have paid someone to just let me do it. I love it.
So, in conclusion, I want to thank all of the restaurant managers and employees out there, not just mine, but those all over the country who are getting up early, working late, and working hard.
Alas the hotel didn’t have AMC in their lineup—no “Mad Men”— so I watched “Top Chef” instead. What can I say? It’s in my blood.