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Nation's Restaurant News 2023 Power List Darren Foley Marlow's Tavern
Referred to as the “fixer upper,” Darren Foley has been with Marlow’s Tavern for 11 years.

Darren Foley’s hands-on style keeps his team engaged at Marlow’s Tavern

The general manager of the restaurant where other leaders are trained has a passion for teaching

If upper management at Marlow’s Tavern has a restaurant that needs help, they bring in Darren Foley. Referred to as the “fixer upper,” Foley has been with the 20-unit casual-dining chain based in Atlanta for 11 years, showing up and helping improve costs, profitability, local store marketing, and above all staff retention.

Now he heads up the Midtown Atlanta location, which under his watch has become the  training tavern. He has developed servers into training specialists, cooks into chefs de cuisine, server assistants into beverage hospitality managers, and more, all with the goal of spending more time with his wife and daughter.

“I think COVID really opened my eyes,” Foley said. “I was able to evolve personally. I stepped back, got married, had a kid, and I asked myself the simplest question: ‘What is the most important thing in life to me?’ And it’s my family. How do I see my family more? I have to be a great leader at work. If I invest in people and systems at work, that means I get to see my family more, because I can safely walk out of my tavern and know that every guest who walks in is being taken care of the way I would take care of them.”

Before joining Marlow’s Tavern, Foley studied architecture for four years and auto mechanics for three, all while working in the service industry.

“Everybody I spoke to in architecture literally hated their lives,” he said. “They just seemed like they were miserable. That’s the main reason I got out of that.”

Since he likes fixing things, auto mechanics was a better fit, “but I found a passion in hospitality,” he said. “It’s kind of special that you can make someone’s day literally by bringing them food.”

Long before the pandemic, Foley had been a skilled manager and trainer, according to Hank Clark, Marlow’s vice president of operations. 

“We’ve got a long list of people who have grown up in Darren’s Taverns and gone on to bigger leadership roles,” he said. “It’s something special when you get a few of those around the city, and Darren’s one of the best.”

Foley’s restaurant career started at age 17 working for Dave & Buster’s, where he climbed his way up to bar manager. Then he worked for a variety of independent bars before joining Marlow’s Tavern, where he has worked in management at several locations over the years.

“Whenever I had a need, I grabbed Darren Foley and put him into the situation,” Clark said.

Foley’s style is very hands-on, and he can be seen doing whatever job needs to be done.

“I get asked all the time, ‘Are you the chef? Are you this? Are you this?’ My response is always, ‘I’m what you need me to be,’” he said.

“Some of my best shifts have been when we were short-handed,” he added. “It’s all about being calm and having a plan. If your team believes in you and you come out telling them, ‘Hey, this shift’s going to be awesome!’ regardless of how short you are, it happens. I wouldn’t call it cocky, but they have to believe in you as a leader.”

They also have to believe he has their back. And he does.

“My manager today, did I need her in at 3? No. So I texted her and said come in at 5.  Shave a couple hours off their schedule and show that you’re not just an office manager; you’re here to work,” he said.

Another time, Foley said, he noticed a line cook doing some cleaning without being asked, and Foley told him he’d clean the inside of the equipment the next morning.

“Sure enough, in the morning, guess what he checked for?” Foley said. “And the look on his face was like, ‘Wow. This guy’s not just a boss. He’s here to help me.’”

Foley also gives his staff first dibs on taking holidays off. He said his guarantee to his staff is they will spend more time with their families if they put in the work.

The logic is simple: If his employees are happy, they stay with him, and that means he can spend more time with his own wife and daughter.

“It’s easy when you have multiple people in the building who care and are going in the same direction,” he said.

It takes time to build that kind of team and commitment to the staff’s future, so Foley schedules time to talk to everyone face-to-face.

“The back of the house, get them out of the kitchen. Sit them in a booth in the air conditioning, get them something to drink in a glass, not a plastic cup. Talk to them like an individual. You get a lot more out of your staff when you do stuff like that,” he said.

And Foley plans to stay in his job for a while

“I love putting my thumbprint on someone, showing them exactly how things are supposed to be done, challenging them, seeing that light click on in them and helping our company succeed.”

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

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