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.
When Luke Skywalker entered the swamp to train with Yoda, he was woefully unskilled. While he had raw talent, he mostly mucked and flailed his way through the mud. But over time, his confidence increased, his skills showed promise and he could soon harness the Force.
Restaurant managers often travel the same journey. Many are given roles and responsibilities beyond their abilities and are left to sink or swim. They face challenges, but those who are given leeway to power through the early, awkward days of management can become the best investment a restaurant will ever make.
“Restaurants are all about controlled chaos, and all units need to function separately, but work as a whole,” said Lindsey Young DeSmidt, wine director at Park Tavern Restaurant in San Francisco. “In fine dining, where you may be doing 200 to 300 covers a night, it’s imperative that systems are in place to take care of guests and staff. And after all, this is a business that I’m a part of, so it’s necessary that I create revenue for the owners. This all takes time to develop.”
A well-run restaurant appears effortless to guests. But behind the scenes, hours of training have gone into the details. And no one needs to know more than those in management roles.
“This is a never-ending journey,” said Christine Wright, general manager and wine director at Hearth Restaurant in New York City. “You have to put in the work. It's not going to happen any other way. I spent my first two years with my nose buried in books and maps, tasting constantly, reinforcing my knowledge. And I constantly push myself to learn more: I hold classes on subjects I'm not super familiar with, for instance, in order to teach myself to be proficient in that area.”
For Katelyn Peil, wine director at Purple Cafe and Wine Bar, and The Commons Cafe, in Woodinville, Wash., it’s about providing the best experience for guests.
“The more knowledge and passion you have for what you are doing, the easier it is to convey that experience and excitement to our guests,” Peil said. “A lot of people ask why I have been with the same company for so long. Well, this company has invested in me and inspired me to learn as much as I can, and I am thankful for that.”
Acquiring skills and knowledge in different areas, both on the service floor, and behind the scenes, takes mentors.
“I was fortunate to train with a few amazing wine directors to understand the process while I was still working as a sommelier, so that when I stepped into my first wine directing position, I knew what I was doing,” DeSmidt said. “It has a lot to do with knowing your clientele, so you can accurately mark-up your by-the-glass and bottle selections to meet the target margins. And you need to provide some excellent values on the list that encourage guests to discover new things.”
With a plethora of variables — staff, equipment and rent, for starters — managing costs is a daily exercise and requires constant awareness, according to Wright.
“That's why it's important to control what you can, like basic cost of goods and labor — the prime costs,” she said. “My basic line of reasoning is, do I absolutely need this? Can the restaurant operate without it? Can I cut staff from the floor and still operate in a way that all guests are happy? I constantly ask myself these questions.”
Of all the skills managers must master, perhaps the most difficult involve staff. Restaurants are often understaffed, but despite the dire need for employees, understanding how to make a smart hire is essential.
“I was taught early that you had to fall in love,’’ when interviewing new candidates, said Jeffrey Barrientos, sommelier/beverage director at Le Diplomate in Washington, D.C. Selecting whom to hire requires that you “trust your instincts, but also ask the correct questions,” he said.
“And it’s often great to select someone with limited experience and see if they are receptive to training, and have the untrainable intangibles like charm, sense of humor and persistence,” Barrientos said.
The best safety net for a new or developing manager is to inherit strong systems that provide a roadmap for nearly every task in the restaurant.
“Although my main focus is the beverage program, it's crucial I understand all elements of the business,” Peil said. “I am one component of a big picture, and understanding the different aspects of the restaurant is crucial so I’m able to learn what’s most efficient for the business.”
After years of study and boots-on-the-ground learning, a great manager can handle nearly every situation with grace.
“It is so much information to absorb, but you need to make it your own,” Barrientos said. “In our field, we need to give answers to questions in the moment, and it requires a very intimate knowledge and understanding of the products and services we offer in order to be successful with every single guest interaction.”