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In Chili's Grill & Bar’s competition to be named a "Five Star GM," Teresa Nguyen came in 27th place in 2021 and was No. 1 in 2022.

Teresa Nguyen has walked miles in her employees’ shoes

The Chili’s Grill & Bar general manager stared with the company at 17

It should come as no surprise that Teresa Nguyen, managing partner at Chili’s Grill & Bar in Pasadena, Texas, has empathy for the workers at the restaurant she oversees — she has literally walked many miles in their shoes.

Since she began her career as a host at a Chili’s at age 17, Nguyen has worked every hourly position in the restaurant, including spending more than five years as a server and more than three years as a cook. She was also an assistant manager for seven years before becoming a general manager and then a managing partner.

Those experiences help her empathize with her crew and relate to the challenges they face in performing their jobs, said Doug Comings, chief operating officer at Chili’s Grill & Bar.

“She understands the team,” he said. “She knows them individually — what's important to them, and what motivates them.”

Nguyen, who herself is married with two young children, strives to meet her workers’ needs around things such as preferred shifts and scheduling, he said, and she also seeks to ensure that they enjoy their time at work while performing at a high level.

Her experience has given her patience with people, she said, and helped her better coach her workers and develop their talent.

“I understand that sometimes you're going to have the best shifts of your life, and then you're going to have some rough, bumpy shifts,” said Nguyen.

She described her biggest reward as “being able to walk into my restaurant, or any restaurant, and making sure that everyone within those four walls is going to be happy and having a great shift.”

Even during the pandemic, when many restaurants were facing difficulties around staffing, Nguyen was able to weather those challenges better than most because of her ability to create a sense of belonging among her crew, said Comings. Sales at her location were up in the double digits post-pandemic versus pre-pandemic, he said.

“It starts all with the team. She has a happy team,” he said.

In the fiscal year that ended last June, Nguyen had a turnover rate of 10% at her restaurant, an impressive statistic that contributed to her winning the 2022 Chili’s GM of the Year Award. That included a $20,000 cash prize and possession of the Norman Cup, a glass chalice named after Norman Brinker, the founder of Chili’s parent company Brinker International. The award also included the Black Comp Card, which is good for a 100% discount at both Chili’s and sister brand Maggiano’s Little Italy for one year.

Nguyen cited winning the award as one of the highlights of her career at Chili’s.

“I told myself that once I was promoted as GM, I needed to be on top,” she said.

In Chili’s competition to be named a “Five Star GM,” Nguyen came in 27th place in 2021 and was No. 1 in 2022.

Another highlight of her journey at Chili’s was a detour she took in 2019, when she helped a franchisee open a Chili’s in Vietnam, where her family is from. At the time, there was a general manager position opening in the Houston market, but she chose to go to Vietnam, where she was not only able to help the restaurant open but also to visit her father and other family members.

“The best experience I have had in my entire career was to go over there and see from the bottom up how everything operates,” said Nguyen.

She credited other people she’s worked with throughout her career at Chili’s with helping her develop into a top-performing GM, including Robert Mason, who was a VP of operations for the South Houston market when Nguyen was an assistant manager. During a visit to the restaurant where Nguyen was working, he pulled her aside and told her that he saw potential in her, she said.

“At that time and place, I was young [and] I was scared. I was like, ‘No, I don't think so,’ but he was definitely my biggest advocate in pushing me to be a successful GM and a powerful GM, and also an Asian female leader,” she said.

She also credited Aaron White, executive VP and chief people officer at Brinker, with helping her separate her personal and business life, and her husband, a former “ChiliHead,” as Chili’s employees are known, for his support.

Comings said that Nguyen is a role model for others in the company because of her accomplishments and her ability to get the most out of her team while ensuring that they are happy in their jobs.

“The power of Chili’s is the strength of our general manager, and Teresa exemplifies that,” he said. “It's all about being able to build a team — a quality team. It begins with a GM that creates a fantastic sense of belonging, provides clear direction and support, and Teresa does those [things] phenomenally.”

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