Many star names have made the move from waiter to restaurant manager, but it is not a natural career transition for all. By John Burfitt.
Jai Leighton was the talk of the restaurant trade in August when he won the inaugural Young Waiter of the Year at the Lexus Appetite for Excellence awards. The 22-year-old works at The Grange restaurant in Adelaide’s Hilton Hotel. In the aftermath of the honour, Leighton had discussions with his managers about where he wanted to go in his career, and there was talk of tracking him into a restaurant management role.
Leighton recalls now that while the encouragement for his future was exciting, winning the award reminded him of why he works as a waiter.
“I did initially want to move into being a manager, but winning the award helped bring me back to my love for the food, the wine and the service,” he says. “The Hilton is now looking to put me into a team leader’s role instead, in which I will still be working as a waiter, but involved in the training of new members. So that means I’ll still be specialising in the waiter stuff and not moving out of that zone, and I’m happy about that.”
Leighton’s experience highlights the importance of identifying the difference between a talent who makes a great career as a waiter and one who eagerly moves from being a waiter to a manager at the first opportunity.
For many managers, starting out as a waiter is an essential part of their training, learning the restaurant trade working on the floor.
While the waitering experience is invaluable, many owners insist it does not necessarily prepare all waiters to make a smooth transition to a management role.
Lela Radojkovic is co-owner of Sydney’s Restaurant Balzac and was recently awarded the Good Food Guide’s Excellence in Service Award. She began her career 20 years ago as a waitress in a Sizzler. Having made the transition herself, and trained many waiters into manager roles, she says it is not always a natural move.
“Waiter skills and manager skills are very different things,” she says. “As a manager, you need to be a really good delegator. As a waiter, you don’t need to be that, as you work on one section by yourself.
“Being a manager is a very intense job and one of the hardest skills to learn. It is a very psychological role and you need to be an even keel sort of person. You also need to have the skill of being on top of people and making sure they are all headed in the one direction.”
It is all a matter of career direction, adds Lucy Allon, who runs the Lexus Appetite for Excellence Awards. Allon previously operated the Sydney eateries, Salt and Bistro Lulu, with Luke Mangan.
Allon, who created the awards with Mangan to help inspire mid-level restaurant talents to become the industry’s future leaders, believes most waiters are not equipped to step up to become managers because of a lack of basic skills.
“Traditionally, waiters have not necessarily gone into this as a career path, but training can address a lot of those issues,” she says. “Courses in people management and management skills can assist in making that mental gear shift between being a team member and a team leader. It is a shift in focus in responsibilities and different techniques.
“They need to be able to make that change from being someone’s colleague to someone’s manager. They also need conflict training, either dealing with it among the team or with a customer who has an issue. Then there are the business details they have to be aware of: profit margins, product costs, wastage and rostering,’’ says Allon.
“Hospitality has not in the past provided that for front of house, but that is changing. Ultimately, this kind of training only helps a business.”
Another new career development initiative is the Discover Hospitality Program, which will be launched online next year. The program will present hospitality workers with long-term career paths and focus on training and job opportunities as well as mentorship programs. Details will be announced in a future issue of this magazine.
For a waiter to make the successful career move from working the floor to running the entire show as a manager, opinions are divided into two camps on the best methods.
One school of thought is that learning on the job is the essential way, while others insist at-work experience is no longer enough and completing accredited training is just as important.
Scott Borg of Melbourne’s Taxi Dining Room and Mikee Collins of Sydney’s Sugaroom are two successful examples of managers who learned the tricks of their trade from the restaurant floor up.
It was during Borg’s tenure at the Circa restaurant in the Prince of Wales Hotel that he made the transition from waiter to manager, and has now been at Taxi for three years. In that time, he has trained eight former waiters into management roles.
“When I made the transition, it was quite natural for me as I have always been very systems and procedures-oriented,” he says.
“A lot of employers are looking for customer-focused, customer-oriented staff who have a genuine passion for service. It is usually these staff who are employed and later take on extra roles.
“What I look for are waiters who are more about nuts and bolts and who cross the I’s and dot the T’s. When you make that transition from waiter to manager, you go from working just one section to being in charge of the staff costs, the budgets, OH&S and all kinds of other bigger issues. It is all very much about systems and procedures.”
Sugaroom’s Collins began his career as a waiter 13 years ago in Canberra, and three years ago made the transition into a management role at the Gazebo Wine Garden.
Collins says on-the-job experience is essential, and he has made those years of working the floor and behind the scenes pay off.
“In restaurants, to be a good manager, you do have to come from the floor,” he says. “You do understand how to prioritise getting things done to getting to the end result, as well as doing everything fast and precisely.”
Collins admits he turned his workplaces into his schoolroom by studying the habits of the successful people he worked with, and asking questions of his supervisors. Once he had his answers, he always wrote everything in a book which became his career bible.
“You have to be aware of always learning from other people,” he says. “I have my own little bible where I would write down all the great techniques and lessons I had learned, like how to cost out things in the operation of the restaurant, or about keeping my networks up.
“I also had a couple of mentors. At each place I worked, I spent a lot of time with the manager, learning about their day-to-day operations, and then I would take the notes. And I still have my mentors.”
Jai Leighton credits his mentor Atef Youssif with teaching him all the skills which won him his Young Waiter award. Youssif began his own career as a waiter at the Adelaide Hilton, and after years as a manager, is now the hotel’s maitre’d.
Youssif says attitude is everything when it comes to spotting and training new talent. “It is their behaviour which is most important—more important than their skills,” he says. “The behaviour towards other workers and managers, how they deal with the kitchen and how they talk to the customers—that is what you look for.
“And the ones who are always asking questions, listen to the replies and then act upon them is the one you want to work with.”
Keria Mackenzie-Smith is another who made the move from waitress to manager by learning on the job. But she insists these days, waiters need more formal qualifications to make that move.
Mackenzie-Smith opened the training company Learning Curve Solutions in January in response to a need she saw for people working in hospitality to have better long-term career options.
“I grew up in restaurants through the family business, but I also studied hospitality courses along the way,” she says. “By working across the board, from the kitchen to housekeeping to the restaurant floor, and studying at the same time, I felt I knew every facet before I moved into management. I did know what was on offer out there, so I could qualify myself.”
She suggests courses can only benefit a transition into a management role, specifically the areas of financial planning, human resources, events and sommelier study.
“With the savvy of customers these days, you need to be on the ball, and while you can learn that on the job, I don’t think study is going to hurt at all,” she says.
“On-the-job learning is great but I think you need study to keep up with what is going on. There are too many young people trying to make it through without.”
Taxi’s Scott Borg is not so convinced about additional study, and believes the results speak for themselves. “The best training comes from the job,” he says. “I have done courses before, but they have not counted for much when it came down to the basic service. Every manager I have trained has come from a waiting background. All of my former team have all moved on to great new jobs. And that’s is very satisfying as it means the training structure we have in place here is doing something right.”