In the interest of learning more about life on the other side of a shitshow, Eater sat down recently with someone who has worked in the New York restaurant industry for 11 of the past 13 years. Our subject, who asked to remain anonymous, has worked for Jeffrey Chodorow's China Grill group, SushiSamba, and the original iteration of Jeff Klein and Graydon Carter's Monkey Bar. He frequently held positions as assistant general manager and general manager.
With so much experience to discuss, the interview ran too long to print in its entirety, but here, now, are some of the juiciest bits on what it takes to manage both the little guys and the monster shitshows:
First of all, how did you get into your career in restaurant management?
My progression is not terribly remarkable I don't think. I just happened to start work at the Royalton [Hotel] because a friend of a friend hired me. You know, I'm fairly well-spoken, I'm well groomed, and they needed a waiter. And I needed a job. I'd been in New York for two or three weeks and I really reluctantly went back to work in restaurants. I really didn't want to. Because I had been doing tech at the time and building websites, but it was just after the crash, the dot-com bubble, so no one was hiring at the time. So I was like, "Oh shit."
...So I stepped into this table-waiting job, and six weeks later, of the four managers, only two were left and I was offered a management job and I took it. I was probably more mature than the other guys, and I was an asshole. Yeah, I was not a good manager.
In what way? Why weren't you a good manager?
Um, I did not know how to talk to people.
But you learned, eventually.
You learn, yeah, fuck yeah you learn, but you learn it the hard way. I did not know how to talk to people. I knew how to get things done, I knew how to do everything, I knew how to do everything probably better than most employees. But that doesn't make you a good manager. It makes a you a good firefighter, it does not make you a good manager. Or a waiter, yeah, you'd be a kick-ass waiter. And you'd make more money. Being a manager is a thankless job. Being a manager a lot of times is akin to babysitting. You're dealing with every single bullshit excuse and ailment that a human being could possibly have. And at the same time trying to motivate them into making some money so that the restaurant makes money. And not screwing things up so that you don't alienate your clients. And the learning curve is pretty steep.
So what did you learn? What are the most valuable things that you learned?
Everything has a solution. Staying calm is utterly important. Protecting, giving your employees a sense of security is paramount. You have to protect them, they have to be protected. Because if you don't, they'll never wanna deal with you. Listening astutely to what your superiors and your ownership says is really important. And the only reason most restaurants are in business is to make money. And that's something that you have to remember. But yelling at people, yelling at anybody never made you money. One thing I learned was that it's completely unnecessary to raise your voice, ever. You can accomplish just as much, if not more, by speaking in the tone of voice I'm speaking in. You can express your displeasure that way. People will take you very seriously.
How long did it take you to learn that?
Ten years. You do not learn that in hotel and restaurant management school. You do not.
On the life of a general manager:
When you're general manager, you're like the father and the mother. And the owners are the rich uncles. You still have to exert your authority and maintain respect. That's the relationship that works. It's not the only relationship. Certainly there are other relationships that work. But the most successful ones I've seen in terms of general management are the ones that protect everyone underneath them from everyone above them. And give them a sense of security in their job, their income. Working in restaurants is hard on you. You're on your feet eight, 10, 12 hours a day, dealing with people who are hungry, or thirsty, or had a bad day. Or whose mom just died, or they're breaking up with their boyfriend. Or whatever it is. You're dealing with these people every day, and it's your job to make them feel good. And you've never seen them before, you're not their shrink, you're not being paid $250 an hour to figure out their life like a lawyer is. You're being paid a pittance in comparison.
On mistakes managers make:
I know the case of a woman who became my general manager at the Royalton the last few months I worked there, and then she was promoted to work for another restaurant within the restaurant group, then she jumped ship after that and helped open Buddakan. And it was her job to make sure that Buddakan got two and half New York Times stars or better, and they got one and a half, and she got fired. It's just that simple.
Is that common?
Yes. But she didn't know how to put together an environment where people wanted to work together. She put together an environment where people were competing with each other. And people were suspicious. I remember patently she'd tell me one thing, and then I'd hear her tell another person something else. And when people like working together and they get two different stories, then things start to happen that are not good. The other thing about this woman is that she came to work at the Royalton maybe four months after the twin towers fell. And she was one of the assistant managers of windows on the world. So, you know, she came by a lot of her trouble honestly, I would say. But at the same time, she's a graduate of hotel and restaurant management school, and I don't know that it really helped her. She spoke softly, but she told a lot of lies. And people could verify that. And then they don't trust her.
...When you get to be manager, it feels like you can do everything. And usually you can...except manage. The Peter Principle is alive and well in restaurant management. The Peter Principle is: Everyone gets promoted to their level of incompetency. Makes perfect sense.
On how to be a good manager:
First of all, one of the things that someone once told me is: this is not brain surgery. This is not rocket science. This is taking care of people and trying to meet their expectations. That's it. If you identify what their expectations are, then you can let them know right away if you're going to meet them. And if you're not going to meet them, then you gotta tell 'em...Usually what they want is recognition and acknowledgement. And that's what anybody wants, that's what employees want too. They want recognition and acknowledgement, and sometimes a little perk here and there for having done a good job. I've known bartenders or waiters who were happy to make 150 bucks a night because they loved working for the managers. The job was so easy. They'd walk in and eight hours later they'd walk out with 150 bucks, which is not a lot of money for a waiter, and they would be happy because it was stress free. They had fun. On the other hand, I've known people who work in restaurants and bars who make $250, $350, $450, $500, $600, $800 a night, and fuckin' hate it and, and they don't last three months.
And you're not listening properly.
Definitely not. You're in your own head. Even if people are talking at you, you can't register it. Staying calm definitely works.
On the difficulty of making money:
What was your food cost? What was your beverage cost? What was your labor cost? Those are the three main costs for any restaurant operation. You get those under control, and some of your incidentals and you got it made. Because there are some things you cannot control. You can't control your rent, you can't control insurance, you can't control your energy costs unless there's a way for you to be less energy intensive, but running a restaurant that serves 300 or 400 covers a night and has 20 foot ceilings is 10,000 a month is just ConEd. And anywhere from $40,000 to $75,000 a month in rent. You get the picture here. I mean, there are restaurants you hear, 'Oh, they made $10 million.' Well, they spent $8 million to run the restaurant. And after that maybe $2 million is left. And out of that $2 million they have to pay a lot of other things, including their investors, including all kinds of stuff. And if they end up with $800,000 or a million that year, that's great. A ten percent margin on a restaurant business is really pretty good. And you can do better, but the only way you can do better is by packing them in more.
I worked at SushiSamba as general manager for a little while, which was insane. Absolutely insane experience. ....When I was at SushiSamba I figured out that each seat was worth a dollar a minute in that restaurant. Because you take the average check, and you take the average stay, and the average check at SushiSamba was $75, and the average stay was 75 minutes. And every minute that seat was empty was a dollar we lost. Not just a dollar we lost, but 20 cents per minute that that server was losing in tips. Keep that in mind ladies and gentlemen.
On mistakes owners make:
Sometimes it's hard for owners who haven't actually run restaurants to understand how they should run. There's a huge trust factor that has to exist, and when ownership displays less and less trust in their upper management that works for them—that's responsible for making a profit for them—then either they didn't hire the right person or people, or they themselves have some control issues that they can't control, and they should not be in the business. Because, just as any kind of investment, ownership has to take the long view. And a lot of times they don't, and that's unfortunate. And really there are very few restaurant groups with a culture of rewarding the ones that are good performers.
...One of the biggest mistakes is getting anxious when it's not working. If you're getting anxious that it's not working,you never believed in the concept that you put together in the first place. So I would say find people that believe in the concept you put together and let them run with it.
On what makes a restaurant successful:
In terms of running a food and beverage operation, running restaurant or running a bar, the more successful ones that I've seen are the owners who are there, actually on the floor, talking to their guests. I remember, my restaurant career started at McDonald's when I was 16. I remember when the word 'guest' was never used for someone who patronized a restaurant or a bar. You always said 'customers.' A customer is someone who buys something and leaves. A guest is someone who buys something and stays. And you treat them as if they were in your own home. And I think really a total revolution in the hospitality industry was when they started thinking of the people that came and frequented as guests rather than as customers. And McDonald's still thinks of their guests as customers, I think. But, you know, this cute place where we are right now, pretty sure they don't look at us that way. They don't look at us as someone who's gonna come here and then never come again. I'm sure that they want to establish a relationship with us.
...The places that really are successful are the ones where, whether it's owner-operators or whether it's the management the owners choose, they create a direct relationship with their clientele, with their guests, and that relationship is what maintains and helps the business grow. When the managers feel undermined in that regard, when they feel like they're not supported by ownership, that's when things start to break down.
...But please impress on your readers: Most restaurants are not complete disasters. Most restaurants are dirty, but they don't pose a health risk. Most restaurant owners do it because they love taking care of other people. And not a lot of people know how to do that. It's a very hard thing to do. Try cooking dinner for 10 people in your house!