Floppy White Chef’s Hat

I became a manager of a Chinese fast food restaurant because I didn’t want to wear a hat at work anymore. I shit you not, that was the reason. At the place I worked, right out of college, my hourly server uniform included a dumpy, white chef’s hat and I hated it and when my district manager came in one day, unexpectedly to me, to have a “career talk” and offered me an assistant manager position, I jumped.  Not really because of the pay, the promotion or the image of a long management career in my head, only because I knew I wouldn’t have to wear that hat anymore.

Generally when you are asked to become a manager in a quick service restaurant you are usually an employee who has demonstrated some inclination for doing a good job. I was promoted because I showed up on time, didn’t skim the till, worked hard and didn’t give my manager grief. This happens all the time in the restaurant biz, promotions generally have nothing to do with whatimage you know.  At 22, I was running a million and a half dollar business not understanding the first thing about talking to people or getting them to do what I wanted, let alone hiring them, firing them, running costs and raising sales. I was clueless and making my bosses a significant amount of money, by chance, mostly.

I am teaching a whole group of new managers this week about leadership, managing and motivating and  organization and every time I teach this class I am taken back to my early career because that is where my students are now. I think about all the things I wish I would have known when I was a young manager, knowing full well that learning by fire was perhaps my best education, there are a few things could have kept the fire a little cooler at times. I give them some tools, we role play interviews and terminations and I tell them my stories about being cornered in an office by a big angry guy I was trying to fire and gang fights and wok fires and health inspectors. And I try to explain the even more basic things that helped me along the way. Things like saying please and thank you and being kind and honest and fair and taking time to think. They always look at me cocked eyed when I say those things because they are always expecting something bigger. Please, thank you, kindness, thinking, honestly and fairness seem too small to be important to them. There has to be a bigger management secret!

By the end of the week they get it or at least these ideas are in their brains. They understand the tools and they are convinced that using them will make their lives easier. They leave with a massive to do list that we try to pair down and organize before they get on their planes to go home, just to make sure they have a decent starting point for when they are back in the heat. They are excited and I try to temper that excitement a little by telling them over and over how long it takes to refine this management thing and how they will make lots of mistakes and have lots of wins and about the greatness of starting everyday with another chance to do things better because maybe yesterday you didn’t do so well.  And I remind them that they won’t be perfect at this, ever.

When I follow up with them weeks and months later they sometimes talk about the things we have taught them and sometimes they have new ideas and sometimes they haven’t made it at all and are gone. During those conversations I realize where all my early management learnings have taken me too. To this place I am really proud to call my career, where I have learned more than I would have on any other path, doing something I just happened to figure out I was good at, that all really just started because of a floppy white hat.


Author: Eileen O'Toole

A quick service restaurant vet who loves food, teaching, learning and being a single Mom. Believes that waking up each day with a positive attitude and a smile on your face can change the world.

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