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A familiar account, too little told

Not many restaurant conferences explore the wisdom of the rapper Macklemore. Even fewer consider ways of diffusing the tensions between Pakistan and India. But those distinctions are nothing compared with the story shared during the Global Best Practices Conference of a teenager who got a job as a restaurant dishwasher to earn beer money. He was there to recount it himself and accept an award as the holder of a different job today, the presidency of Darden Restaurants.

"I’m not going to talk about Darden today,” said Gene Lee as he accepted the Workplace Legacy Award from Conference hosts Joni and Wally Doolin. "I'm going to talk about myself and my story—my story, because it couldn’t have happened in any other industry. Sometime we have to remind ourselves how special ours is."

Lee explained how he started in the dish room of a York Steakhouse in Massachusetts, looking for nothing more than a way to generate pocket money. He decided to climb the ladder and land a cook’s position because “that’s when the girls who worked as waitresses would talk to you,” he explained.

That led to more responsibility—and more desire to stay in the business and manage a restaurant. He decided to forego college and make a career in the business. “When I told my father, he didn’t speak to me for three months,” Lee told a hushed room of executives, many of whom seemed familiar with the story. As many acknowledged later, it could’ve been their story.

Lee achieved his management goal, but the restaurant was subsequently sold by the big corporation that owned the five Boston-area Yorks to Uno, the regional pizza chain. Uno wasn’t sure how to revive what it’d acquired, so chairman Aaron Spencer, a god in the business, worked side-by-side with the then-27-year-old Lee to learn the operation. Together, they hammered out a turnaround plan.

Lee cited Spencer as the first of many legends who helped him up the ladder. The list would eventually extend to Uno and Ruth’s Chris CEO Craig Miller; LongHorn founder George McKerrow; and Rare Hospitality CEO Phil Hickey, currently the chairman of the National Restaurant Association.

He eventually did get a college degree, an MBA, in 1996. “Aaron and Craig paid for it,” he explained.

He moved to what was to become Rare Hospitality, the parent of LongHorn, Capital Grille and Bugaboo Steakhouse. Eventually, Rare agreed to merge with the company that had sold Lee’s York Steakhouse, Darden Restaurants.  He went from a $1-billion-a-year company to one posting revenues of $8 billion.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, when Darden announced Lee’s promotion to president and COO. The dishwasher could drink the imported stuff now.

“I hope my story, of going from the dish room to the board room, is something you take back with you,” said Lee. “We work in a great industry. Our industry is being maligned in the press today. We need to stand up more for ourselves.” He urged the industry to celebrate stories like his own.

Which brings us back to the uniqueness of the conversations on and off the stage at the Best Practices Conference. If there was a recurrent topic, it was the very thing that Lee was recommending. Why aren’t more stories like his being pushed into a social dialogue that routinely paints restaurants as a scourge? Why does the industry allow itself to be portrayed as a dead-end field where people in ridiculous uniforms flip burgers or push a button to fill soda cups, only to be paid a pittance?

It wasn’t wistful thinking uttered with a sigh. That was the real distinction. There were signs the industry may finally be mustered into action, with powerful groups enlisted to spread the word.

The talk was of action, not resignation. And that was the real departure.

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