The Champagne corks should have been popping for Eric Justice. Barely into his 40s, the admittedly driven chef had achieved the sort of success that instructors recount in culinary schools to stoke students’ dreams and determination. He was overseeing culinary operations for one of the industry’s hottest concepts, making a good income from a company hailed as a great and challenging place to work.
But the skyrockets weren’t flying for Pei Wei’s vice president of culinary development. Justice was packing 40 extra pounds, treading the broken glass of divorce proceedings, not seeing his kids enough and just not feeling the elation a person with his ambition might have expected. “Here I had this great job, but I wasn’t that happy about it,” he recalls. “Nothing was wrong. It just wasn’t remarkable.”
It’s an all-too familiar bit of soul searching for people in foodservice. Restaurant Business recently surveyed restaurant folks to see if the job has lived up to expectations. Forty-six percent said they’re not as happy in the business as they’d anticipated.
Many didn’t pinpoint what’s missing, or how to get it in foodservice. When we asked our disappointed respondents what would make them happier, about 20 percent skipped the question. Of those who responded, more than 9 percent gave an answer that amounted to changing careers.
Justice, who started in a kitchen at age 16, didn’t want to change careers. But he couldn’t diagnosis the blahs of his current job track. He read the Top 20 business books, but “they didn’t really have an impact on me. No one seemed to be talking about how to change as a person.”
In the winter of 2009, a friend invited Justice to attend a three-day business seminar, where instructor Jonathan Clark spoke of setting “declarative goals” and carefully considering the way you pursued them. It was called Mastering Performance.
For whatever reason, where other self-help philosophies had failed, this one clicked. Justice walked into the program with nagging feelings and walked out with a new direction. Happiness, not merely success, would be his goal.
And, in an epiphany, Justice realized a seeming contradiction: he wasn’t going to find that happiness by focusing on his own well-being. He was only going to make himself happy by making the people around him happy. (We’ll pause for a minute so you chefs can get your head around that one…Ok, let’s continue…)
He saw that he and he alone had to be the agent of change, but the focus had to be on others: his family, his coworkers, his peers, even his boss. He was going to pay them the same share of mind he’d once zealously devoted to himself.
And, in short, his soul-searching and life change worked. Justice terms it “phenomenal.” He’s happy like he’s never been happy. He empowered the people around him, took responsibilities off his plate and gave himself more time to cultivate a life outside of work. Today he’s back with his ex-wife, competing in triathlons and responsible for P.F. Chang’s namesake brand as well as the Pei Wei chain.
He’s no longer the hotshot who knows better than any subordinate, who gets impatient because other departments always seem to be standing in the way of excellence, who finds his emotions unduly souring situations.
Justice gets so much out of empowering others these days that he shares his journey at industry events and mentors other chefs, hoping to re-engineer the business into something more exceptional and rewarding.
Forthwith, Eric Justice’s Guide to Happiness in the restaurant business.
First, empower yourself. Let’s start with something you already know too well: restaurant work is demanding. Now, Eric Justice will tell you something you don’t know: you can’t use that as an excuse. You can’t use it to rationalize your poor health, your bad attitude or your strained marriage.
For 27 years, Justice had told himself the pressure and workload were why he neglected exercise, short-changed his family, rode his staff hard and ate the way he did.
“Most people walk around with the belief life happens to them,” Justice explains. “The premise I started working on is I have a say in how my life goes. That’s when things changed.”
As of today, the restaurant industry does not control you. You are in control.
Ditto for your life outside of work.
“It’s like the whole weight thing,” says Justice. People “don’t know any differently. They see all these diet books and hear about all these strict plans, all these rules that you have to follow. They look at it as good/bad, right/wrong. When they have a bump in the road, it just ratifies that they are failures, that they can’t do it.”
For Justice, the self-empowerment led to drafting a personal mission statement out of sync with how he’d lived until then:
“My goal as I got into this—my declarative goal—was that I stand for a future that works for everybody.
“That was a big step because my career was always about me, me, me,” Justice acknowledges. “I was never really interested in other people. It hadn’t been a priority to make sure I took an interest in other people having great lives.”
Then empower others. You get what you give—haven’t we all heard that? So why don’t we believe it? Well, Eric Justice believes it. And after tossing off the shackles of industry victimhood in Step One, he got busy with Step Two. And while it might sound like a slogan of some life-improvement retreat, it had significant and practical implications for how Justice interacted with everyone at work.
“My teams weren’t as fulfilled or as good as I wanted them to be,” Justice recalls. “They just did what I wanted, because I had a stick.
“To get things right, I’d have to have my fingers in it,” he says. “I always felt the need to give it my stamp of approval, to make sure it was right. I wasn’t expecting it to be right unless I got in the middle of it.”
And, typically, everything did turn out right when he had his fingers involved. The food was a hit, deadlines were met, corporate was satisfied, and he got all the praise. And, back to the central contradiction of this story: that should have made him ecstatic, but it didn’t.
He realized that he was holding back a staff that wanted to be creative, and not just to execute his ideas. He was going into a workplace oblivious to the happiness (or lack thereof) of the people who surrounded him.
“My attitude had been, “Why don’t they see it my way and just get out of the way so we can do it?’” recalls Justice.
Now, he started listening, a definite 180 for him.
“I didn’t give people my full attention. And even when I did, I really wasn’t listening,” he says. “I was ready to talk over them, to come up with the answer and move on.”
Now he makes a concerted effort to be open and attentive with his four-person staff and Chang’s chefs in the field. “I’m not already looking for the answer from them, with the answer already formed in my head,” he says. “I let them be the ones working out the answers. Even if I have an idea, I want to tune into them because their ideas might be better.”
He similarly surrendered more of the execution to their discretion: “Now it’s about giving them more responsibility and letting them go do it, knowing they can get the job done.”
The test of his newfound power sharing came earlier this year, when Justice embarked on a 21-day trip to Asia to explore new possibilities for Pei Wei’s menu. While Justice was away, the culinary staff would be called upon to prepare meals and presentations for Chang’s executives and field-level partners.
“Two or three years ago, I would’ve sat down with them, gone over a long laundry list with them, really detailed, and made sure they knew they had to do this, they had to do that,” he says. “I’d have told them, ‘If you screw this up, I’ll have your head on a skewer.’ So all they would think about was, ‘Don’t screw up!’”
This time, “we had a 15, 20 minute conversation, and I said, “‘How can we do this?’ They had some ideas. They got it, and told me how a championship team would act.”
The team’s performance in Justice’s absence drew effusive praise from the brass, which he made sure he channeled their way, another tenet of his reorientation plan.
Beforehand, “I was a little stuck on making sure people knew I had a hand in [a success],” says Justice. “Now I’m much more likely in any situation to point to my team, thank my team and give 100 percent of the credit to my team.
“That’s not a normal thing for chefs to do, to give over that credit,” he acknowledges. “We’re the biggest egos, the biggest narcissists. That’s the whole celebrity-chef thing.”
Next, stop being a jerk to Purchasing. Or Marketing, or Operations, or whatever department is outside your own. You’re not the only person who works hard and has a hand in the success of the company—or in your own success, for that matter.
“I was under the impression that [my department was] doing the difficult work, meaning the creative process, meaning everyone else was supporting or subservient to that,” Justice acknowledges. “Hey, we were the guys doing the important work!”
So, like every chain culinary department chief, he had trouble understanding why Purchasing was always deflating the soufflé.
“Dealing with purchasing, my attitude was, ‘I have to come up with things, you have to go find this so we can do it. That’s not the difficult part.’ I was un-empathetic and unaware of what their struggles were.”
Working his new approach, he learned the departments were hardly at odds in the overall goal of making Pei Wei and Chang’s financially successful. Ditto for Operations. He saw and tried to alter the ways in which he wasn’t making their jobs easier. It all started, once again, with listening instead of telling or acting.
Justice believes the departments were more successful as a result in working toward such common objectives as faster ticket times, cleaner restaurants and better food costs.
Finally, about that family of yours. Taking the tension out of work relationships was easier than ending combative interactions in his personal life. But Justice is back with his ex-wife and four daughters, all of whom are under age 13. “My household is a lot more peaceful now,” he says. You almost expect to hear the sigh.
“I’m just trying to create a different environment, not the one I grew up in,” he explains. As a boy, his father would start shouting whenever he saw anyone in the house come up short. Strangely, that person was always someone other than himself.
Similarly, “I used to think, ‘If only my wife would change that. If only she’d do it this way instead. If only my kids were better behaved’—it was all on them,” he says. “I realized it was really about me and my reaction.”
Respect replaced emotion. When the kids act up, he still resorts to the parental classics of sending the transgressor to her room, denying her video-game privileges or calling her on a rule infraction. But “we sort of have a discussion. I realized I didn’t have to be pissed at them. They feel I’m safer, so they’ll come to me more often now and apologize before we even know they’ve done something they shouldn’t have.”
With his wife-turned-significant-other, “I was hung up on the resentments and what I saw as her faults,” he says. Not any more. He describes a current-day mode of interaction that’s much longer on communication and much shorter on anger-stoked fault-finding.
With less time spent snapping or stewing, Justice has more time for his personal life, which would make him the envy of disgruntled respondents in our survey. Insufficient time outside of work was the most cited reason for their unhappiness in a restaurant career.
“I don’t have more lay-around time, and I don’t want that,” he says. “But I have more time to do more,” including things around the house, “because they just seem to take less time. And I enjoy it more.”
He also finds the time to train for five or six triathlons a year.
Repeat when necessary. Justice has been consciously working to reprogram his mode of interaction since about the start of 2010 and “I’m not at the finish line, by any means,” he says. “I still make mistakes, I still screw up. I still get hung up, I still get emotional at times.”
He now uses Clark as a corporate coach and tries to spread the learning by informally counseling co-workers and even chefs outside of Chang’s.
“Ninety percent of my career has been about me,” he says. “Now it’s about helping other people.”
How I stay happy:
Owner, Grub Restaurant
Food is the best way for me to recharge my batteries; I love checking out new restaurants that pop up throughout Los Angeles. Something about being on the other side of the fence helps me relax, unwind and remember why I own a restaurant.
Owner, Manhattan of La Jolla Restaurant
La Jolla, CA
When things get crazy in the restaurant I cool off, literally, by going into the walk-in refrigerator. It helps both mentally and physically. I also like to go over the restaurant receipts at the end of a busy evening, not to look at the numbers, but to remind myself of each happy guest that came through our doors.
Owner, L’Opera Ristorante
Long Beach, CA
As a restaurant owner I need to set the tone in the workplace, so I can’t show my stress when I’m on the job. A trick that works for me is running five miles a day, six days a week. It clears my head, pushes the stress away, and puts me in a place where I look forward to work.
CEO, Veggie Grill
Manhattan Beach, CA
I like to have fun with the kitchen crew. The kitchen can be chaotic, but I like to look for the humor and get people laughing.
President, Teriyaki Experience
My advice to fellow restaurateurs about dealing with stress is simple: clearly identify and share your long-term goals. Also celebrate each success as a team. You’ll feel good about it and your team will feel good about it.
CEO, Field Restaurants
I think every person in this business needs a mentor. When work becomes frustrating I turn to my mentor for feedback and insight. I also clear my head and step out of the day-to-day work mindset by heading to the mountains for a day of snowboarding.
Owner of 26 Hungry Howie’s Pizzas
Michigan & Utah
The most stressful aspect of managing multiple units is the inability to be present in all my restaurants at one time. I’ve learned not to let situations that I cannot control add to my stress load. If a stressful situation occurs, I explore ways to prevent that situation from reoccurring.
CEO of McIndy’s Ventures and owner of 14 McAlister’s Delis
As we continue to grow, the number of items requiring my attention grows as well, no matter how much I delegate. To keep my stress level down I focus on developing a competent, hard-working team that shares my vision for excellence. I always make sure to provide the right tools my staff needs to do their job effectively, so that I’m not worried about work while spending quality time with my wife and family.
Owner of 4 Muscle Maker Grill restaurants
Owning multiple franchises is very time-consuming, but I make sure that I have dinner with my family everyday and I dedicate one full day a week to spending time with family and friends. Also, while the day-to-day work of my job is mentally and physically exhausting, my passion for what I do both mitigates my stress and provides the key to my success.