Running a good restaurant is quite literally an act of plate-spinning. You need to manage the supply of ingredients, schedule all of the staff, and prepare the facilities — all before the restaurant is even open. What’s a day in the life of a restaurant manager really like?
We spoke with a restaurant manager who has worked for both chain restaurants and smaller independent establishments to learn how he arrived at his current job and what his days look like.
Tell us a little about yourself and your experience.
My name is Edward. I am 25 years old and I have been managing restaurants for about four years. I have opened new restaurants in two different states and helped struggling restaurants become successful again, and have worked for both corporate chains managing 150 employees and family-owned places with a whopping 12 employees. I’d never say that I should be regarded as an expert in my field, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know what you can do to be successful in this field and what can get you into a lot of trouble very fast. I currently am a dining manager in St Pete Beach, Florida..
What drove you to choose your career path?
To put it simply, I love food. Growing up, food was always a source of comfort and a way to spend time with family without the awkwardness of actually having to talk to each other. Something about connecting those warm and fuzzy memories to food and dishing it out so that people can create their own memories told me that this is where I need to be.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
Like I said, I’m not an expert. I don’t have a degree in restaurant and hotel management (I actually majored in history) and the more I’ve learned about the business, the more I’ve realised that most of us don’t have a degree that relates to what we do. Obviously, every restaurant is different and I’ve applied to places that literally laughed at me when I told them that I don’t have a degree in restaurant and hotel management. I was lucky enough to start working for a company that believed in promoting from within, and they gave me a chance when they offered me an opportunity to go into a manager-in-training program. I had only been serving there for about two months but I had previous supervisory experience in retail, so they took a chance on me. And to them I’ll forever be grateful.
What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
Preparing for guests to come into the restaurant. The amount of planning it takes to properly run a restaurant smoothly is a bit mind-boggling at first, but it gets easier once you understand it. It’s a lot more than a waitress in the front and a cook in the back. It’s hours of prep before we even open, maintenance staff cleaning every inch of the restaurant and kitchen, checking inventories, purges, more prep work, scheduling and training.
Even the music selection isn’t necessarily random. When you walk into a restaurant, everything you see, hear, smell, taste and feel is like that for a reason. That fresh-baked bread smell that makes your mouth water? Some places artificially pipe that in. When I first came into the managerial side of the industry, the company I worked for spent nearly a week explaining to us the “why” behind all of these factors and it opened my eyes. Why would anyone want to spend $10 on a cup of coffee when you could make it at home? Because we like the atmosphere, the music, and the way we feel when the barista writes our names on the coffee cup sleeve like we belong there. It’s science and it’s sometimes used to seduce us.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
If you’ve ever seen a movie or TV show about working in a restaurant, they often have a stereotypical manager who is a lonely, awkward, sometimes perverted guy who sits in the office all day doing “paperwork”. I’d love to say those people don’t exist, but they do. I’ve heard horror stories about places crashing and burning and the manager has no idea what’s going on because they are hidden away in their office. I learned early on that the office isn’t a hangout and you should never be there for more than five minutes. I’ve even had a general manager remove the chairs from the office to make sure we got the message — thanks Ryan. But he was right.! My job was to be out in front kissing babies and making sure every one of our guests is having the best dining experience possible. I’m not here to argue with you about how your steak was cooked (even though I know you are probably wrong), I’m here to blow you away with our food and service and make you want to tell all of your friends how amazing my restaurant was.
What are your average work hours?
Once again, it varies from place to place. I was working for a corporate chain in Texas doing 70-80 hours a week, seven days a week, for a good month or two because we were short on managers. Once things got settled, it averaged out to 55-60 hours, which is similar to what I do now. 10-12 hour shifts are the norm for most places, but it all has to do with how well you discipline yourself, and getting your work done in a timely manner. To simplify: you stay until the job is done.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
If you ask anyone who has ever worked for me, I would hope they would say how easy I am to get along with. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fired dozens and dozens of people and done hundreds of formal write-ups, but you have to be the kind of person that your employees can come to when they have a problem, and someone that they don’t want to let down by doing something wrong. I’ve had lots of people compare it to parenting. I pride myself on building loyalty with my employees. Not just to me, but getting them to buy-in on making the restaurant itself as successful as possible. With the success of the restaurant comes the success of the employees, and it’s important to not let them lose sight of that.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession?
Like most people, I’ve had good bosses and I’ve had really, really, really bad ones. Bosses that asked me to spy on employees, to lie about things to get someone they didn’t like fired, and ones that “accidentally” made up numbers to look good to their boss, and blame us when they were found out. But you learn from people like that. I build relationships with my employees. I try to know their hobbies, the names of their kids, their birthdays, and so on. A little recognition and the knowledge that they aren’t just a number goes a long way. That single mum with three kids doesn’t have to worry if she knows that I know her daughter’s birthday is in two weeks and she needs to make some extra money. Little things like that build the loyalty and “family” relationships that drive most restaurants.
Another thing I do differently is refuse to rule with an iron fist. You can bully someone into doing what you need them to do, or you can ask them nicely. Both will get the same thing done, but no one hates you for doing it the second way. Saying “sweep this floor or I’ll write you up” will cause someone to resent you. Not to mention that when the going gets tough, good luck getting them to help out if they don’t have to. My old standby is “Hey (insert name here), can you help me out by (insert task here). I’d appreciate it,” followed by a sincere thank you. Not only does it accomplish the task, it shows them that you appreciate their help. That means so much in the long run.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
It’s lonely. And stressful. And you have to sacrifice time with your family and friends. But like with any career these are sacrifices that you either need to come to terms with and manage, or simply find a different job that’s a better fit for you. Most places don’t allow for fraternization between managers and employees because it creates a conflict of interest that could be detrimental to business. Sometimes working with the same people makes you want to rip people’s heads off, and sometimes you really love them. When you spend 12 hours a day with the same people, you naturally build relationships. They become a second family.
You have to deal with people who you would normally not associate with — and deal with them while you have a line of customers out the door, while understaffed, and after being called in on your day off. In one ear you have the guest complaining about something, even if they can’t tell you the difference between a medium-rare steak and a well-done steak, and the 17-year-old hostess who like, literally can’t even. You have to maintain your composure and lead your team. Because there is nothing like watching your leader curl up in a ball and cry during the dinner rush; that crushes the spirit of everyone. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.
Do you have any advice for people who visit your restaurant?
My biggest advice to people who dine out is just to have some patience. Real food isn’t served fast. That’s why they don’t give drive-throughs Michelin stars. Depending on the restaurant, ticket times (the amount of time from when the food order is sent to the kitchen to the time it leaves the kitchen) can vary from 10 minutes to 30 minutes or more. Generally speaking, the nicer the place, the longer the food takes. I won’t serve you slop on a plate because you have to be at a movie in 20 minutes. But if your food takes longer than it should, I will be there to apologise; I will own that mistake. And just because you ordered before the table next to you doesn’t mean your food will come out first. Your well-done rib eye (15-18 minutes cooking time) takes a lot longer to cook than their salad and fried shrimp (2-5 minute cooking time).
Another tip is to do some research. Restaurant review sites can be a big help. Know what places specialise in what kinds of food. I once had the sweetest old lady ask me to make her breakfast (eggs, bacon and waffles) at 6PM on a Wednesday night. I can cook with the best of them and I had the ingredients and equipment in-house (even though we were not by any means a breakfast place), so I told her that I would try. I proceeded to make her breakfast to the strange looks of my kitchen staff. I plated it up, garnished it, and proceeded to take it to the table. After a few bites I asked her how it tasted. She said that it was nothing like she makes and told me to get rid of it. Moral of the story: Don’t go into a taco place and expect award-winning Thai food. It’s not going to happen.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
Once again, it varies by establishment. I started with a corporate company that offered me roughly $US40K a year, not including bonuses. I also worked a LOT more and didn’t get a lot of me time. I’m currently working at a family-owned steakhouse which pays me roughly the same, minus a few of the benefits, but with a much more balanced work/life ratio.
How do you move up in your field?
Bust your arse and be prepared to work hard. Like anywhere else, there are always a few people that get by on sweet talking and butt kissing, but to actually make it anywhere on your own merit, you have to work hard. Long nights, working holidays, and doing whatever is needed will get your foot in the door. But to “move up” means more responsibility. And with that responsibility means you’ll have your hands in more areas that you not only need to be competent in, but also be able to explain to others. A good general manager trains the managers under them to do their jobs well and also trains them to be ready when the GM is promoted or transferred.
The best boss I ever had would not only teach us how he did his job, but would actually make each of us do his job on a monthly rotating basis. For that month we would switch positions (i.e. the bar manager becomes the GM and the GM becomes bar manager) and he would coach us on how to project sales, lead meetings, including conference calls with area directors, and other responsibilities that the GM title entailed. It was an immensely valuable experience that I will never take for granted.
What do your customers under/over value?
Our compassion. If your food comes out incorrectly, burnt, or any other way that was not supposed to happen, please let me fix it for you. That’s my job. But please don’t just send things back because you don’t like it or because “It wasn’t what I expected.” Please read the menu and ask questions. I would love to explain how the food is cooked, what it was prepared with, and any other question you might have. We want you to have an amazing dining experience. I want you to leave happy and return as soon as possible. And don’t try to make stuff up to get a free meal. Yes, we see a lot of people but we remember the ones who lie to us and are a pain.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
I tell people who have never worked in the food service industry all the time this simple truth: It’s not for everyone and that’s OK. Some people cannot take the stress or deal with the people I have to deal with. But to me, it’s all worth it. Be prepared for long nights, complaining people, and hot and dirty environments. Yeah, some nights suck, but if you maintain a great attitude and that attitude spreads to the people around you, you’ll have some fun along the way. You can’t fake passion. If you have a passion, follow it wherever it takes you.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.