The restaurant industry, and particularly the beverage sector, can be a small world, defined by its own philosophies, practices and paths to professional success. For those new to the industry, learning to navigate these idiosyncrasies would be nearly impossible without the skillful guidance of mentors along the way.
Sometimes a formal relationship, but more often a series of informal ones, mentorship in the restaurant industry is one of the most powerful forces behind one’s success. For restaurant operators, understanding how to identify mentorship opportunities, as well as how to incorporate approaches to their daily business operations that support employee growth, can yield huge dividends. These can range from improved staff morale and a sharper focus on professionalism, and can also ensure that the most talented team members are being developed and moved up the ladder. For mentorship is truly a two-way street, and often the more effort one puts in, the more returns that can be gained.
“Mentors have really guided me in my wine career,” said Amber Rill, assistant beverage director at Corkbuzz Wine Studio in New York City. “The value of mentorship cannot be overstated. It’s shaped where I’ve worked, how I’ve pursued knowledge, and how I’ve conducted myself, both professionally and personally.”
After moving from Washington State to New York City, Rill was fortunate to have been assisted early on by a friend who had been working successfully in the restaurant scene there already. “She was really one of my first mentors in the hospitality industry,” Rill said. “She really made me consider the art of hospitality, food, and wine, which I had always loved myself, but had never really been in an environment that fostered education and discipline. She really opened me up to the experiences the career could provide, and through her I met other amazing women who just dazzled me with their knowledge, grace, and hustle.”
Early mentorship experiences are often profound, and lay the groundwork for years to come. And while some come via personal relationships, others are formed on the job while working side-by-side with more experienced counterparts.
“My first job in a restaurant was as a host,” said Tonya Pitts, wine director at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. “And at the end of the evening, I experienced a family meal with the staff and there was wine on the table. I couldn’t drink, as I wasn’t old enough, but I could listen to others discuss the wine and I would swirl and smell. That was the beginning of my education. Over time, the bar manager/sommelier took me under his wing to show me what hospitality work was all about, and nurtured my curiosity about food and wine. It was a very organic process.” Those early experiences formed the core of her long career in hospitality.
Today, Pitts gives back to others at the start of their careers, and has now spent many years as a mentor, often working with multiple students each year. In fact, her long-time internship work for the University of San Francisco Hospitality Department earned her the title of honorary professor. More recently, she has been doing mentorship work with Wine Unify, an organization created during the COVID pandemic to address the needs of underrepresented minorities who are looking to make a career in the wine industry.
Pitts’ advice to operators is simple: “Pay attention to who asks questions, and who is interested in learning. Invest in your employees, start a serious wine and beverage education program to benefit your front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house employees. Those who are interested will participate.”
Jeff Taylor, senior fine wine consultant for Morrell Wine & Company in New York City, spent the majority of his career on the restaurant floor. For him, the learning came from being under the guidance of skilled managers who understood the power of creating a culture of learning and growth. Nowhere was this more profound than during his seven years working at New York fine-dining landmark Eleven Madison Park.
Photo: Jeff Taylor
“EMP really encapsulated my learning in so many areas,” Taylor said. “We were very fortunate to have amazing leadership during that time that encouraged an ‘all for one, one for all’ mentality. And quite simply, it was cool to care — we all wanted our service, hospitality, professionalism, empathy and teamwork to be at 110% from the entire dining and kitchen teams.”
Additionally, Eleven Madison Park had a more formal mentor program, where every new hire was paired with a senior staff member, and weekly check-ins were scheduled to allow one-on-one time to connect on whatever matters were most important in the mentee’s growth.
As Taylor himself became a more experienced member of the team, he often found ways to informally interact with newer staff. “I always tried to use ‘family meal’ as a time to check in with people,” Taylor said. “I'd try to make a point not to sit with the same people each time, and also try to find out a little bit more about co-workers that I didn’t know as well.” These simple gestures can go a long way toward forming stronger staff unity.
Augusto Ferrarese, now a partner at Sete, a small Italian import and distribution company, spent seven years working for the Urban Kitchen Group in San Diego, eventually serving as the corporate beverage director for four years. From his mentors, he learned not only the ins and outs of service and hospitality, but also how to find his footing as a beverage professional.
Photo: Augusto Ferrarese
“From those I admire and call my mentors, I’ve learned about being more consistent in my work, and how to recognize talent and work discipline in others,” Ferrarese said. “They taught me humility and passion, and how to believe in my abilities, never to give up, and how to take risks.”
One notable recommendation that Ferrarese advises is for operators to bring in guest speakers to present to their staff, or to partner on events.
“If you own a business in the hospitality industry, I think it is imperative to do some outreach to the best professionals in the country,” Ferrarese said. “Creating events in which your staff members get a chance to work side-by-side with these individuals is priceless, or simply having them give focused classes and inspirational speeches. I remember those experiences were really powerful, and they served as a really effective way to ignite a big spark in our staff.”
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, management needs to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.
“Always conduct yourself as a role model,” Rill said. “If you want your employees to be excited, then be excited! And share passion and knowledge freely. Be prepared to put in the work, and when the time comes, give of yourself freely. Everyone’s path is truly different and unique, and in my experience the best mentors have acted more like ‘bumpers’ along the way -- not driving the car, but there on the side in case I got a little off track.”
David Flaherty has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.