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What makes a great manager?

You can train and mentor until your head explodes, but the truth is that, to get a good manager you’ve got to start with the right kind of person. And what does that person actually look like? Probably something like Tracy Wilson at Tabla or Todd Orlando at Old Chicago, possibly Ed Berkle at ESPN Zone or Tommy Hart at Smith & Wollensky, or even Shona Barnes at Charley’s Fresh Grilled Subs. All five of these pros have become top restaurant managers. And here’s why.

Tracy Wilson, Tabla, New York, New York

  • Sales up 20 percent since ’04, to nearly $8 million
  • Bottom line improved by  5 to 6 percent
  • Senior female manager at Union Square Hospitality Group
  • Staff turnover less than 5 percent per year

It’s a familiar story: midwestern girl with big dreams of working the stage moves to New York. Suddenly, the economy tanks and so does the theater industry. With few prospects, girl lands in the restaurant business, a stopgap while contemplating her next move.

But for Tracy Wilson there’d be no next move. Seventeen years later, she’s still in the restaurant business. Her stage today is Tabla, a “New Indian” restaurant and part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which also includes Gramercy Tavern, where Wilson started bussing tables in 1994. She worked her way up to executive captain in charge of service there before being offered the assistant GM spot when Tabla opened in 1998.

Wilson, described by USHG director of operations Richard Corine as both a great student and exceptional teacher, was named GM two years ago. She and chef/partner Floyd Cardoz manage 100-plus employees. On an average day, they’ll do 100 to 150 lunches and up to 450 dinners. Sales have grown by 20 percent, and the bottom line is stronger than ever.

Keys to that growth have been Wilson’s frugality and her ability to unite a team and pamper guests.

“We’re constantly fixing things, upgrading and keeping the space fresh,” she says. “But I have such respect for the business that I don’t buy a paperclip without thinking about it.”

Putting in five 12- to 14-hour days a week, Wilson fosters team spirit by creating morale-building events such as a recent barista Olympics and softball team. “I get goofy, I cheer them on,” she says. “Good managers make serving their staff a No. 1 priority.”

She also empowers them to go the extra step. A program she initiated, Plus One, allows staff to hand out cards describing the history of the building if they overhear a guest commenting on it, for instance. Or to give a shawl if a guest is cold.

“It empowers them,” Wilson says, “to do something really cool for their guests.”

PLAYBOOK  Service for the staffers

“Servicing staff is just as importa

nt as servicing customers. It starts with really getting to know them, treating them like family, doing whatever you need to do to be uplifting for them. That includes everything from finding them a
doctor, to celebrating birthdays, to providing the ongoing training and service tools that help them succeed.”

Todd Orlando, Old Chicago,  Fort Collins, Colorado

  • In Top 10 in sales among all units     
  • In Top 5 for shopper reports, 2005
  • 69 percent turnover, in Top 10 company wide   
  •  GM of the Year, 2003

If he wasn’t in the restaurant business, todd orlando might play percussion full-time. “Playing in a band is the only time I get the same kind of rush as I do working in restaurants,” he says.

But Orlando’s not about to give up his gig as GM of Old Chicago in Fort Collins, Colorado. Armed with a degree in hotel and restaurant management and a few years of experience, he joined the company in 1999 in Dallas and three years ago moved here.

Orlando’s store sales are consistently well above the company’s average. His performance in everything from labor-cost management to server retention to bottom-line profitability contributed to his being named GM of the Year in ’03 and keeps him in the Top 10 among managers company wide. He’s helped open a new unit in Kansas City and sits on committees at the home office to share operations and management input for long-range planning. And he’s twice been awarded the company’s VITA award (it stands for vitality), which annually recognizes one manager for bringing Old Chicago’s corporate culture to life.

Orlando’s approach today leans heavily on management guru Ken Blanchard-style situational leadership and goal-setting disciplines. “I start every day by setting goals for myself and for the restaurant. And situational leadership has taught me to diagnose problems and match up solutions. That’s my arsenal for everything. I used to be an ‘I say, you do’ type of manager. But I’ve learned to take a step back, diagnose first and then try to meet the employee where they’re at. I encourage my staff to do the same with each other and their guests.”

Orlando does three pre-shift VITA meetings every day. “We cover the basics and talk about what’s going on inside and outside of the restaurant. We try to align our values with those of our employees. It’s worth a lot. We have a saying here that other restaurants hire your arms and backs; we engage your hearts and minds. I make it my job to do that every day.”

PLAYBOOK  Mix-and-match management

“I manage to four distinct employee types. Enthusiastic beginners require a lot of directing. I define the priorities. Disillusioned learners [need] more coaching. I still decide, but with more of their input. Cautious performers take the lead in goal setting and I ask what I can do to help. [The] self-reliant have what it takes to decide what’s best. I delegate.”

Ed Berkle, ESPN Zone, Las Vegas, Nevada

  • Check averages increased 10 percent in less than a year
  • Beverage cost down from 17 percent to 16.6 percent
  • Food cost went from 26.5 percent  in ’04 to 26.2 percent last year
  • 2005 sales $13.8 million
  • Staff turnover of 58 percent

On his way up through the disney organization, from waiting tables at the Polynesian Hotel in Orlando to managing guest services at the Disney Institute and eventually running Walt Disney World’s toniest restaurants, Ed Berkle became know as a Mr. Fix-It. He’s turned numbers around at Epcot pavilions and overseen the opening of the first on-site McDonald’s, managing combined revenues of almost $40 million. He’s implemented new, high-end service standards at Coral Reef, and opened Flying Fish, the resort’s premier restaurant. He’s now putting his stamp on Disney Regional Entertainment’s ESPN Zone in Las Vegas, a 33,000-square-foot sports bar.

Since taking over, he has assembled a new management team, a dozen people cherry picked to help steer the ship. “As a manager, one of the things I’m best at is ‘right-fit talent,’ recognizing cast-member (Disney-speak for employee) talents and placing people in the right positions for them to succeed,” he says. “We now have a team in place here that I think is very well suited to help grow this business.”

Berkle and his team have so far increased check averages by 10 percent, customer service excellence scores are up and key cost areas are under control. Beverage and food costs declined over the past year. Staff turnover is among the lowest in the company.

Sales last year were $13.8 million and his target for this year is $14.6 million for the entire operation, which includes dining, retail and a 10,000-square-foot interactive game arena. Berkle says the growth will come from continued emphasis on employee training and service improvements, as well as on attracting more party business. “We did about $1.8 million in parties and events last year. Going forward, we will reconfigure the game arena to provide more banquet space.”

Depending on the season, Berkle says he works 50 to 60 hours per week, spending about a third of each day interacting with employees and guests. The rest, he says, is typically consumed by meetings and responding to e-mails. To his staff, however, he’s always accessible. “You have to slow down and hear what people are talking about. Work isn’t 24/7 for them. They’re dealing with things like school and childcare issues. You need to recognize that and help them find balance.”

PLAYBOOK Right people in the right job

“Getting the right fit for someone requires several interviews and several different perspectives. It is always best to have different senior management members doing separate discussions to ensure it is the right fit for the team.
If they are currently employed it is great to stop by their work and observe interactions with the guest and staff.”

Tommy Hart, Smith & Wollensky, New York, New York

  • One of highest-grossing a la carte restaurants in the U.S.
  • 400,000 covers per year
  • 10 percent of staff, including all senior managers, in place for more than 20 years
  • More than 50 percent of business comes from regulars

One of Tommy Hart’s goals at the 450-seat Smith & Wollensky in Manhattan is to have every guest feel as though they’re dining in a great 100-seat restaurant. That feeling, he says, comes from personal attention. “The guests at one table don’t care if there are 500 other people being served at the same time. They want to feel like you’re there just to serve them.”

Starting at the legendary restaurant in 1977 as a box lifter in the basement, Hart worked his way up through the back of the house and was named GM in 1984.

The restaurant does 400,000 covers a year and is among the top-grossing a la carte restaurants in the nation, says Alan Stillman, founder and CEO of the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group. In its 29-year history, top-line sales have grown every year with the exception of 2002, following the World Trade Center attacks. Hart gets much of the credit. “Tommy’s an incredible people person,” says Stillman. “He’s the No. 1 presence in that restaurant.”

Despite having an army of managers reporting to him, Hart still personally deals with disgruntled customers. “No matter how good you are things will sometimes go wrong. When they do, I handle it and visit with the guest. I might pick up the meal, or offer a gift certificate to invite them back. If I’m not here, I call the next day to apologize. I send gift certificates and I follow up with another phone call a couple of days later to make sure they were received and that the customer is happy. You can never lose sight of the fact that every guest is valuable.”

Employees are even more loyal than the customers. Hart, at 29 years with the company, is not a rarity. “We have more than 20 employees, or roughly 10 percent of the staff, who’ve been here for more than 20 years,” he says.

PLAYBOOK Courting Regulars

“Over 50 percent of our business is with regulars. We bend over backwards to cultivate that business. I know their names, and I work the floor to give them a warm welcome and invite them back when they leave. They’re all treated with the same level of personalization. We want them to feel like we’re really focused on them.”

Shona Barnes, Charley’s Fresh Grilled Subs, Lancaster, Ohio

  • No. 1 rank in monthly sales at mall food court since August 2005
  • 50 percent sales increase in 3.5 years
  • Comp sales turn-around from negative $3,500 in week 20 to positive $13,500 in week 52 in 2001
  • 25 percent annual employee turnover

Dial up charley’s fresh grilled subs in the River Valley Mall on a weekday and Shona Barnes is likely to pick up the phone. Stop by for lunch, and odds are she’ll be the one packing your order. Barnes’ store is one of 18 company-owned QSRs in the 300-unit Columbus, Ohio-based chain. She started part-time at the place when she was 16 and says she knew early on that she never wanted to work anywhere else. By 21 she was GM.

That was in June of 2001, and she’d inherited a mess. Comp sales for the year were negative $3,500 and the unit was floundering.

Barnes set five-year goals of proving herself as a manager and making her store a top contender. Within three years, she’d done both. Sales at her store have grown by 50 percent and, since August 2005, Charley’s has ranked No. 1 in monthly food-court sales volume. Her 25 percent employee turnover rate is way below industry average.

“Managing is about getting results through others,” she says. “For me, that means getting in the trenches and not asking employees to do things I wouldn’t want to do. I work the line every day, and I meet and greet every customer I can.”

Managing through incentives is a big part of her strategy. “I do a lot of contests. It might be for $10 selling ‘x’ number of a certain sandwich or ‘Charley-size’ upgrades during a one-hour period,” she says. “I do it every day, all day.”

Barnes also gets personal with her staff. “I get to know what’s going on in their lives. If their kid is sick or they’re having school issues, we talk about it. I do staff cookouts, take them out for dinner. I do whatever I can to be proactive and show them I care.”              

PLAYBOOK  Spur-of-the-moment motivation

“If I run my hourly report during lunch and we’re down on customer counts, I’ll tell my cashier that she gets $10 if she brings in five more customers. All of a sudden she’s talking with people and passing out menus. Ten bucks might not seem like a lot, but it is to these guys.”

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