THE PROFESSIONAL ROAD TRAVELED
1986-1990 – The Formative Years
“It all began at a small 5,000 watt radio station in Fresno, California…”
Sorry — that’s Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show — my all time favorite sit-com.
As a wet-behind-the-ears, twenty-something know-it-all, I was accepted into a management-training program with a leading, innovative food-service company in Boston. One year of front-of-the-house, back-of-the-house, and kitchen training was an invigorating eye-opener, and taught me that I knew practically nothing about the industry. After graduation, I spent the next four years working at different catering and food service venues throughout the company. Along the way, I learned a lot, screwed up some, and figured out that I liked what I was doing — most days.
1991-1995 – The Sink or Swim (or Both) Years
Realizing a goal I had been working towards, I signed a purchase and sale agreement on an existing breakfast & lunch restaurant in Boston’s financial district. I liked the concept of Monday thru Friday no nights/no weekends. And I liked the feeling of having my own place. The next five years were spent running the restaurant and trying to build the corporate catering business. Our kitchen prep space was approximately the size of a small jail cell, which got particularly challenging when we actually started generating some catering business. While I had some experience at this point (in retrospect, not very much), there was a fair amount of learning as I went along.
I remember often feeling like I had woken up in an unfamiliar house in the middle of the night, patting along the walls for a light switch.
A pizzeria operated one floor above my restaurant. About three years into my tenure, Mario, the owner, decided he had had enough. One summer night, he took his pizza paddles and disappeared.
Due to the unique lease situation I had gotten myself into (if I only knew then, the things I know now…) I, as the primary leaseholder of both restaurants, now owned a pizzeria. For the record, my previous pizzeria experience consisted of popping a frozen Celeste Pizza-for-One (Four Cheese) in the oven. Looking back, I can now spin this as a glass half-full, behind-every-cloud-is-a-silver-lining event.
Two things happened right away:
(1) We added an Italian-themed fifty item salad bar which was a big hit,
(while on the topic, where have all the salad bars gone from restaurants? I miss them!)
(2) We gained much-needed workspace for the growing catering business. Since the pizzeria didn’t open until 11:00am, our morning production area went from the jail cell, to the second floor penthouse. We were movin’ on up!
I could say,
(3) And eventually I learned how to make a helleva pie, but that would be a stretch — maybe a decent one — but that’s it.
During this time, I learned a lot about starting and building a corporate catering business out of an operating restaurant(s). I also absorbed a fair amount of learning as you go along bumps and bruises along the way.
As it turns out, these five years of “growth opportunity,” a term I use to describe learning from your mistakes, were invaluable down the road.
1996 — The Early (and Shortest) Retirement on Record
My first, five-year lease (mistake — not long enough) was coming up for renewal and I had a decision to make. The restaurants were doing ok. I was working a ton of hours, paying the bills, and earning a modest salary. The catering business was starting to take off, just not as rapidly as my rent(s). I was quickly discovering with more business, I needed more staff, equipment, delivery vehicles and working capital. Because of the rent I was now paying on two restaurants (I tried re-negotiating with the landlord to no avail) continuing to operate at this location made less and less sense. And, because my passion for corporate catering was overtaking my desire to run a restaurant, I decided it was time to find a better, less expensive location.
Easier said than done.
After looking at alternative locations for months, I had yet to find the right spot. My time window was closing, and I had to figure something out – fast. In what I would call a combination of panic, balls, lunacy, and creativity, I opened up the Yellow Pages (pre-Internet), and started calling other catering companies in the area. After tracking down the owner / right person to speak to, the conversation would begin something like this…
“Hi, [fill in name], I think I can guarantee this will be the most bizarre phone call you have received in a while. I am a competitor of yours.” (Proceed to introduce myself). “My lease is about to expire and I’m not renewing it. I’m actively looking for a new location, but haven’t found one yet. I am wondering if you would have any desire to rent me some temporary space in your kitchen where we could operate, until I find a new home.”
“Umm…ahh…ok…umm…ahh…what did you say your name was?”
It was an interesting time.
Over the next two weeks, I met with about a half-dozen of my competitors / potential new, temporary landlords. We would start out discussing how a transitory lease situation would work. Inevitably, each meeting would reveal more of the many hurdles such a unique situation presented, including;
How are two competitors going to successfully share the same space?
What are the chances of both teams of employees working in harmony?
What about the phones?
Isn’t it going to be a little dicey regarding proprietary issues, like each other’s customers and recipes and methodologies?
And on it went.
Then something happened.
I was meeting with the owner of an independent, large volume operation in the heart of the downtown financial district. He had an excellent reputation and I’d always admired the business he had built. After doing the usual dance for about twenty minutes, he asked,
“Why don’t you just sell me your client list?”
“Hmmm…” I thought. Let’s see…I was worried about the clock running out. I had about two weeks before my lease ended, with nowhere to go. I was feeling tired, hassled, and conflicted. Truthfully, I didn’t really know what “sell me your client list” meant, but I do remember associating it with me handing him my problem and him handing me a check. We began to discuss and negotiate different ways an agreement could be structured. After a couple of days of back and forth, we made a deal.
I would receive some up-front money (however, fantasies of buying a private island would remain just that — fantasies), and a percentage of sales from my client list for one year, paid monthly. And, I would spend the next two months working with his company to ensure a smooth transition, which was in both our interests.
Those two months were a unique and valuable experience. It was fascinating to see the inner workings of a well-oiled operation/competitor. I learned a lot about how one of the big leaguers did it day-to-day. Inevitably, issues arose that neither of us had ever dealt with. Integrating both staffs (hard — a couple of my people were not happy, and didn’t stick around long), the delicate task of communicating with my customers that we were “merging” — the term I was using, with another caterer, consolidating vendors, working in an unfamiliar space — there were new challenges every day.
I had been warned that soon after I was no longer involved in the day-to-day operations, “don’t be surprised if the monthly checks stopped arriving.”
I was fortunate. I made a deal with a great operator, who I learned so much from,
and he was a principled businessman. He honored our agreement.
1997 — The Next Chapter (or so I thought)
After taking a few months off, it was time to get back to work. The world was my oyster. I was free to pursue any field I wanted to. I considered:
(1) A career in sports broadcasting
(2) becoming a private investigator
(3) being a regular game show contestant and winning enough cash/prizes to
comfortably live on.
My first pursuit was sports broadcasting. I learned that I’d have to go to broadcasting school for two years. Then, the school would try to help place me in an entry-level job, which presumably would entail moving to some remote location in, say, Boise, Idaho. From there, I might get a gig at a local cable channel, calling play-by-play for girls junior varsity field hockey, making minimum wage. And that was if I was lucky and everything fell in place. It appeared that my plan to become the next voice of The Boston Red Sox was a little further off on the horizon than I realized.
My career as a sports broadcaster was over.
Private investigator sounded cool, with an element of intrigue and danger that had appeal. I actually got an offer from a company. They told me I would have to start at the bottom, since I had no experience — sounded reasonable. And that I should not count on making much money for the first couple years — sounded realistic.
I proposed spending a couple days out in the field with one of the investigators, getting a feel for what the job entailed. They agreed. As pre-arranged, one morning I met Annie, a senior investigator, at a McDonald’s parking lot — at 4:00am. We were going on a stakeout. I got in her car and we drove about fifteen minutes to a residential neighborhood. On the way, she explained that we had been hired to investigate a worker’s compensation claim. Roger, who had injured his back at work, had been collecting disability checks for two years. He had just filed yet another extension request, asserting he was still in too much pain to work. Annie said that we would wait for him to leave his house, and then we would, in her words, “tail his ass and see how much pain this joker is really in.”
She also told me that if I wanted to, I could call her “Agent X.”
I am not making this up.
It was VERY, VERY exciting — for about ten minutes. We waited, and waited, and waited some more. For eight hours, from friggin’ 4:30am until 12:30pm, we sat in Annie/Agent X’s car, and did nothing. He never left the house. It was excruciating.
On top of it, about every fifteen minutes, Annie/Agent X would
sing-out, “Ro-o-o-o-ger, come out, come out, wherever you are.”
My career as a private investigator was over.
Finally, I decided the answer had been in front of me, literally, the whole time. I had been watching The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune, $25,000 Pyramid, Family Feud, and Jeopardy (too hard), for years. One day I woke up said, “Hello!! Is anyone home?? I’ll just go on those shows, jump around the stage like a crazy person, and win
lots of money!”
While the specific details are sketchy today, after spending a couple of days on the phone gathering information about how it all worked, I clearly remember thinking, “this is what they mean by, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
My career as a career game show contestant was over.
So, after some soul searching, and acknowledging that I had the food business in my blood, I decided I’d go back to what I knew, and liked — most of the time.
1997(continued) – Present
I could never be accused of job-hopping.
My first decade in the industry laid the groundwork for the next big challenge.
I was offered a position to mange and grow the corporate division for a burgeoning restaurant and caterer rooted in a suburban community, about ten miles outside
It was my home for the next fifteen years.
In 1997, we grossed $200,000 in corporate catering sales.
By 2007, we had grossed almost two million.
It was a busy ten years (520 weeks).
In the spirit of full disclosure, after three years I married my boss. Which I suppose is beneficial for job security. For the record, in addition to being one of the owners, she has built one of the most reputable full-service catering companies (weddings, events with servers, bartenders, linens, china, etc.) in the state.
One of the benefits of getting older, and hopefully wiser, is the ability to look at situations with a more experienced set of eyes. For the first fifteen years of my career, I operated under the notion that to maximize my shot at success, I needed to work as hard as I could and put in as many hours as possible.
And I think there is some merit to this concept. Especially in the early years.
Over time, my perspective has evolved. And I am grateful it has.
Though perhaps unconventional to write about in a how-to manuscript, I am now an ardent supporter of occasionally getting the hell out of Dodge, away from the business, and pursuing other interests in life.
Taking time to relax and get away from the day-to-day routine to enjoy different scenery, new experiences and recharge the batteries is good for the mind and the soul.
And don’t underestimate the break it gives your employees from you,
and perhaps, an appreciation for you as well.
Ironically, sometimes being away from the daily stress and hassle gives me the peace and distance to conceive new ideas, or figure out solutions for business dilemmas.
But more on that later.