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The art of the hiring interview

Bar and restaurant managers share qualities they look for in potential employees

David Flaherty has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. He is 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

Years of planning goes into the opening of a bar or restaurant — from raising capital to the physical build-out, to tiny details like tableware and what type of hand towels to put in the bathrooms.  

But perhaps the most important thing for any owner or operator to nail is hiring staff.  

These valiant men and women will be the ones to greet your guests and embody the vision and culture you wish to create with each moment of service. It’s the moments of human connection that provide the most profound experience for your customers, and these are nearly all done by someone other than yourself.  

Learning to master the interview process when hiring a new employee is an essential skill that will ensure that your team won’t just accomplish the day-to-day needs of running your operation, but also will whisk guests away on a journey that is truly memorable. That’s what separates the good spots from the truly great.  

Every role in the restaurant is important. And while a great résumé will get someone in the door, knowing how to quickly gauge personality can be your biggest asset in landing the right person for the job.  

Jarred Roth, beverage director at Fowler & Wells in New York City, has been in management for seven years, and is often the first point of contact for new employees looking to work on the beverage team. He often asks applicants about things not related to their restaurant experience, such as where they grew up, if there was a focus on food and drink in their upbringing, and what their hobbies and goals are. 

At the core of his questions, he’s looking to create opportunities for them “to speak passionately about something,” as that is what he will need them to communicate to guests in order to bring the restaurant to life.  

Another key question Roth asks applicants is what their definitions of service and hospitality are, to instantly gauge if they understand that knowing how to properly set a table for a soup course is a very different skill than knowing how to truly listen to a guest’s needs. He’s looking for people who speak fluidly and with confidence, but also with a sense of humility, even if they have a résumé that’s second-to-none.

And although work experience is key, Roth looks more at their longevity at previous gigs.  

“Six months here and there, no matter where it's from, is an absolute red flag,” Roth said.

In Seattle, Aaron Wood-Snyderman has worked at The Metropolitan Grill for nearly seven years, serving for the last nine months as wine director.  

When Wood-Snyderman interviews potential wine team members, so does the bar manager, the dining room manager and, lastly, the general manager. All managers need to be in agreement before hiring.  

He rarely hires from out of house, and the majority of the wine team members have worked in other capacities in the restaurant before being promoted.

Any sommelier Wood-Snyderman hires needs to have passed the Court of Sommeliers Level 2 certification exam, but he said personality always trumps résumé.   

“I can teach a monkey the proper steps of wine service, but I can’t teach someone to be engaging and awesome with guests,” Wood-Snyderman said. “Job one is making people happy — not selling expensive bottles. A résumé can never tell you if someone has that ability.”   

Wood-Snyderman often asks an applicant to tell their favorite joke to see how they communicate, while also paying close attention to non-verbal cues.  

“Lack of eye contact and nervous movements are detractors, but I actually do like it when the interviewee is — within appropriate limits — animated in their conversational style,” he said.

As part of the interview process, many managers bring in a potential new employee for a “trail,” where they can assess how well the potential hire gels with the existing team, a crucial component that can’t be overlooked. Fit is everything.   

“I pay them a solid hourly rate and bring them in for three short shifts,” said Annalisa Maceda, who was formerly human resources manager for Chefstable Restaurant Group in Portland, Ore., as well as director of operations for the Tippler NYC and Tippler Nashville bars.

“If they work out, then they are hired and already trained up. If they don't work out, it’s usually obvious after one or two shifts, and I just let the candidate know it didn't work out.” 

Maceda has found this process helpful for hiring bussers, waiters and bartenders alike.

The same principle applies in the kitchen, said George Kaden, who was most recently executive sous chef at Renata in Portland, Ore.

“The kitchen trail is huge,” Kaden said. “Seeing how a cook moves, interacts with other cooks, uses their tools, manages the cleanliness of a station, etc., is really the tell-all that trumps any phone or face-to-face interview.”

In the end, it's less about the questions you ask, and more about the experience of interacting with the candidate.  

“I like to think of it more as a conversation than an interview,” Roth of Fowler & Wells said. “Interviews are very formal and put people into a stiff and somewhat uncomfortable position. I want to see a person for who they really are.”

TAGS: Operations
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