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Aclean start: Dishwashing jobs can launch careers for workers who soak up these valuable life lessons

It can be a first job, second chance or last resort. It is considered the lowest rung on the development ladder by most foodservice employees. It’s wet, dirty, smelly and repetitive. Many of your team members shudder at the role, but without it, full-service restaurants would be unable to serve, sell or succeed in this business.

Overlooked and under-coached, the dishwasher position is where many great careers begin, and what you learn in the dish room can set you up for a lifetime of success in this great industry.

I read recently that 45 percent of all managers and multiunit managers in the foodservice industry began their careers in entry-level positions. The study didn’t indicate what percentage of those entry-level jobs were dishwashers, but I’m willing to bet it was pretty high. I often reflect on my own time spent in the dish room and what I learned there.

My first real job was at the Home Dairy Cafeteria in Williamsport, Pa. I was 15 years old and had recently graduated from selling ice cream sandwiches in the stands at the Little League World Series to washing dishes in a 10-foot-by-10-foot sweatbox on weekends and after school. The pay was low—our owner was tighter than Wayne Newton’s face—and the clientele cranky. Still, I liked the job.

When I began college I applied for and got a dishwashing job at Steak and Ale in Wichita, Kan., where I worked for a year before discovering Colorado on a weekend junket. I immediately transferred schools and majors—in: forestry; out: business—and found a new job washing dishes at a brand new restaurant called the Out of Bounds in Fort Collins. Everyone working there seemed to be under 25, including the managers, and the crew was as lively as a New Orleans funeral procession.

This job laid the pivotal groundwork for my eventual transformation from forestry major to foodservice maven all because of design: The dish area was open and situated perfectly so that everyone had to pass me to get to the walk-in, kitchen, grill, office or back door. From that sodden vantage point, in a panorama framed by stainless steel, soaking silverware, suds, garbage disposal and bus tub racks, I began to see the possibilities of the industry in a whole new light.

First, I was now able to interact with every employee, and second, the owner told the entire staff one day that the dishwasher was the most important person working there. At one meeting, he told the servers and cooks that if both he and I promised to be there during the Friday night rush and then neither of us showed up, who would the staff miss more? Suddenly I felt and found pride in my position. The owner had taught me a lifelong lesson that all work is teamwork.

Since that time, I’ve held nearly every other position possible in our industry. Along the way I’ve come to realize that there’s a whole lot you can learn about running successful restaurants from being a dishwasher. Here are a few points to ponder:

Every path has a few puddles. This is true in the dish area and true in life.

If you don’t have time to do it right, you won’t have time to do it over. I learned that bosses may never remember how fast you did something, but they never forget how well you did it.

Experience teaches only the teachable. Some people are motivated to rise from the dish room by a yearn to learn more, others are motivated merely to get out of the dish room. I’ve learned to look for people who not only want to better themselves but also learn from both their failures and successes.

Always run a full load. Locating and then leveraging out operational inefficiencies across multiple units has its parallel in learning to save pennies in order to make dimes by keeping those dish racks full every time you run them through the wash and rinse cycle.

Learning how things work builds self-reliance. Overhearing our owner constantly complain about the repair costs of our dish machine, which was well-worn and constantly breaking down, I resolved to stay late one night—off the clock—and tear it apart and fix it. Well, I ended up with five extra parts, and it didn’t work so well after that. The owner, who I was certain would fire me, was instead fired up by my initiative, and he bought us a brand new dishwasher. From then on, I knew how to fix the little things.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In the dish room I learned that a great way to make friends is to do little favors for them. For instance, keeping scrap buckets for servers’ pets can snag you a team of them when you need help moving.

People can simultaneously be high-performers in one area and low-performers in another. That same owner I complimented regarding his people skills was abysmal in fiduciary matters. He thought a general ledger was an army hero. He nearly drove the place to bankruptcy, and I learned later to look for leaders with a fuller palette of strengths and skills.

Test it before you buy it. Good salespeople have seduced many multiunit managers or GMs into buying glasses, plates or accessories that look good but chip or break during washing or rinsing. Run everything through the dish machine three times in a full rack before purchasing it.

You can learn a lot around a garbage can and dirty dining-room dishes. You quickly see which side dishes are either being over-portioned or under-appreciated by guests. I learned to regularly report this observation to the kitchen manager.

Every employee should have a mentor as well as a boss. While many see foodservice entry-level jobs merely as time in career purgatory, usually on their way to something else, the enlightened manager knows that careers can be inspired and born from both coaching and commitment whether it’s in the dish room or in the dining room.

Wet-Nap. Scrap Master. Sud-buster. These are but a few of the evocative nicknames bestowed upon me as a dishwasher. They may not be terms of endearment, but I’m proud to have earned them. In fact, to this day, my nickname among family and friends is “Hobart.” And that should tell you a little something about how proud I am of where I started.

Is my reflection on the role overly sentimental? Perhaps. But work, like life, is experienced forward and can only be understood backwards. And maybe my greatest lesson of all from the dish room is simply this: that which was hard to endure is sweet to remember.

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