January 18th 2010

From Chase’s Blog

While I don’t know what the future holds for the hospitality industry, I do know that an introspective glance back never hurts as you make plans and promises for the coming year. I grew up at a time when in grade school we practiced crawling under our desks as a preventative measure against a nuclear war. My parents cried for joy when I was vaccinated against Polio. I came of age with 8-track tapes and still enjoy Zagnut candy bars. If it doesn’t test your mettle to hear from someone who has crested fifty years in life, read on!

I started working for my first restaurant when I was fifteen years old and was glad to have found a part time job. The daily challenge of providing food and drink to an unknown number of patrons and making a business out of transforming strangers into regulars had an allure for me that continues to this day. It suited me and I stayed.

Now when I say ‘suited,’ do not mistake that for a belief that I had some sort of a special gift. I am not a famous chef, but instead I grew into the role of manager because I had a knack — a knack for thinking, talking and doing. Subsequently, I led and managed places of my own, as well as places for other folks of all sizes and styles: restaurants, taverns, nightclubs, casual service, quick-service, fast-service, entertainment complexes, single units, multiple units, local, national and U.S. government-owned.

As is likely the case for many of you, I am visited by ghosts of the past during this time of the year. They weave and wisp through my mind reminding me of where I have come from and how rocky that road has been. Just imagine…when I started out in this industry there weren’t any POS systems or computers in the office and people blew their cigarette smoke right in your face every chance they had; I watched as red meat was frightened out of fashion, then back in, out again, in; Disco (the music and the lifestyle) self-emolliated before my eyes (and rightly so); I made some money when Country music galloped into the city and lost some when sports became a 24/7 fixation; and I flirted around the abyss of addictions that vanished many of my friends with the slow efficiency of a hand crank meat grinder.

During those earliest years I must’ve asked a half-dozen people how to correctly pronounce ‘sushi.’ And ‘going green’ used to mean that someone was about to hurl. I never went anywhere without my pager. (Where did they all go?) AIDS, M.S., Lyme disease, C.F.S. , the big C. have all wreaked their loveless havoc upon my loved ones  I have worked around or through blizzards, blackouts, floods, wars, tornados, sewer main line breaks, and super scary natural gas leaks. (FYI, the hospitality industry brethren were always the second responders to any community crisis.)

How about you?

Have you heard lately from a ghost of the present day? That silent but boisterous partner in all of your hospitality business quests…The Specter of Pressure? That’s right; the unseen breath thief who seems to shout, “I’m riding shotgun!” as you jump in and start driving up and down your punch list.  “S.O.P.” reliably rears its ugly head as you try to make payroll when you’re “a-lit’l-bit-short”; when you must renegotiate down a lease with a cranky landlord when you’re behind on rent; as you discover that nobody has made the quarterly tax payments; when a junkie is tapping on your temple with his piece and you’re praying that you can remember the safe combo on the first try; when top talent jumps to a competitor leaving you high and dry; when your pipes burst in January or the HVAC quits in July; when gift card sales fall short of bringing in the year; when the crazy person in front of you threatens to kill you as you stand between him and his ex-wife/girlfriend, your new server (suddenly the protection offered by a restraining order seems tantamount to waving a red flag at a bull). Yes, if you have chosen to pursue a career in hospitality management/ownership, you may as well acknowledge living with the Specter of Pressure, as it will surely “pop on by” almost everyday.  

So what’s my point? Well, our industry has double trouble and triple challenges. Your trouble could be a roiling boil on the front burner or just simmering on the back burner, but it’s always something; it’s never going to be nothing. (That’s just the way of the world — and our industry — as decided by the dark tricksters of gloomy places.) Look at it realistically; there are simply too many pieces and parts moving way too fast for things not to jam up every now and again. And all this is nicely amplified by our “frienemy,” the Specter of Pressure.

Take a second now, however, to look at the shiny side of our industry’s metaphorical coin. For example, if you have moved here from another country, but desire a job opportunity that allows you to immerse yourself in our culture with friends that speak your language, you will likely find this in the hospitality industry. If you’re trying to bend your life back into shape after some bad choices, baking bread, making pies, grilling a steak or washing some dishes may be just what you need. While you won’t be starting at the top, you can make a fresh start. If college was out of reach, that won’t be held against you. And if you are currently attending college, jump right in for however long — we take all comers on their way to somewhere else.

Most of all, if you’re making a few bucks an hour plus tips and you’re ready to step up, we can provide full time jobs that start at $28,000 – $38,000 – $48,000 dollars a year plus benefits and, in most cases, a bonus. This can be a life-changing shift in fortunes for someone willing to commit to professionalism and show some fortitude and ambition. The beauty of this industry is that things might even work out beyond your wildest dreams; you may even be able to have a place of your own someday if that’s what you desire.

Yes, we have a rich history of taking in those who have had a hard time getting traction on other hills of life and transforming them into success stories. Jump on your favorite web-fact checker and take a peek at how many millionaires there are in the hospitality industry.

As you struggle and fight for every ounce of your business breath, ask the folks at the top of their game — Anthony Bourdain, Sally Smith, Monty Moran, Steele Platt, Jim Skinner, Diana Wynne, Frank Day, Phil Roberts, Richard J. Schnieders, and so on, if they ever faced adversity in their climb to success. Spend some time reading about Ray Kroc, Dave Thomas or Rocky Akoi who as I have heard it told slept in the bathroom of his first restaurant because he didn’t have a place to live.

No matter how hard “S.O.P.” is punishing you, I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that our collective industry (tribe) has a collective purpose that goes beyond driving the top line or squeezing the middle to make the bottom better. Yes, it is a given that you have to meet or exceed gross sales expectations and there has to be something left over on the bottom line, but mark my words…your guests/customers aren’t coming to you because they want to help you make more money. There is a bigger picture here that some in our industry lose sight of – everyday within your walls you have an opportunity to put forth your finest effort, to be proud and to shine as artisans and purveyors of fine food and beverages, mixology, service excellence, décor and management plate-spinning. Everyday, if you use your talents and skills on behalf of the guest or your employees, you are creating a positive-energy connection and in times of trouble that can count for far more than any leading economic indicators.

For those who did not grow up in this industry, there are a few things from my point of view that are historical givens: We don’t just put heads-in-beds, quench thirst or satiate hunger. Rather, the hospitality industry has the opportunity to fuel the greatest of moments – to help those who want to work to achieve the American dream; to provide first jobs and second or third chances for people who need a fresh start; to enable face to face socialization and teamwork which I believe is so necessary for healthy human beings; to celebrate momentous occasions; to provide taste adventures; to connect and support our communities and inter-generational traditions and to change a life for the better – be it an employee or a guest.

Sometimes when you’re in the hole the best way out is to double-down on a sure thing. The fastest way out of this mess, for all of us, is to leverage the best of what we do and focus on creating and generating, good old fashioned ‘Wow- juice’ – for your guests and stakeholders…“Wow, they really know what they’re doing!”– “Wow, they remembered!” – “Wow, that was different!”– “Wow, did you see that place?”–“Wow, they really took care of us!” – “Wow, that hits the spot!” – “Wow, that was fun!” — “Wow, they dropped the ball, but they sure made up for it!” – “Wow, the restrooms were really clean!” – “Wow, I can’t wait to tell my friends!” — “Wow, you’re a great neighbor!” – “Wow, I don’t know how you did that, but you really helped us out!”

The word ‘hospitality’ should conjure up within you cordial feelings of welcome, warmth, kindness and generosity. Hospitable people and places are those that take other people in, help them out or make them feel better; that, my friends, is a worthwhile definition of an “above and beyond” goal.

This year on your New Year’s Resolution list, somewhere between more exercise and making more money, slip in more hospitality. When times are tough, as they have been, this will be a better strategic option than most to see you through. Take it from a guy who’s been around, it’s what we need; it’s what our country needs, maybe it’s what the world needs more of –

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