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National Restaurant Association - Busboys to boardrooms: How first jobs got them there

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Busboys to boardrooms: How first jobs got them there

Restaurant professionals agree: Hard work and a smile can carry a restaurateur from hand towels and busing to handshakes and board rooms. Find out how eight industry leaders from Washington, D.C., turned their first jobs into their life’s work. 

Mirta Gutierrez

Executive chef, Tortilla Coast-Capitol Hill

First job: Dishwasher at Angelo and Maxie’s steak house, Washington, D.C.

Lessons learned: While washing dishes, I often watched the chefs preparing food. I wanted to do the same, so they taught me knife skills and how to prepare food on their own time. My co-workers also taught me the importance of helping others succeed.

Career progression: After Angelo’s and Maxies closed, I became a sous chef at District Chophouse. After nine years, I went to Rosa Mexicano and later worked for Spike Mendelsohn’s restaurants.

Notable moment: Meeting and cooking for President Obama on his birthday.

Why restaurants: The restaurant industry gave me a chance when I first moved from Argentina, even though I barely spoke English. I now get to do the same for others, and I especially love seeing many teenagers who work here get off the streets, start in an entry level position, and grow into a manager or another higher position.

'There’s something magical about the restaurant industry. There’s so much opportunity: if you like it, if you open up your heart to it, you can do anything.'

Alan Popopvsky

Owner, Teddy & the Bully Bar, the Lincoln

First job: Dishwasher at Rustler’s Steak House.

Lessons learned: I found out I liked the spirit of the hospitality industry and working with people. It inspired me to continue working in the industry.

Notable moment: Delivering room service to Stevie Nicks.

Career progression: Worked as a server in Atlantic City and two Four Seasons locations; founded a PR company for restaurants; eventually opened my own restaurant.

Why restaurants: My mentor in the industry pointed me down the right road, and I now really enjoy helping others develop. I love working with people and creating positive experiences for my employees and customers.

'This is a great industry for finding yourself. I wouldn't want to do anything else.'

Ris Lacoste

Owner, RIS


First job: Stocked shelves at Johnny Gorka’s Polish Deli at age 12.

Lessons learned: The importance of purveyor relationships. I would have coffee ready for delivery men in the morning, cold soda in the summer, and hot cocoa in the winter when they they delivered bread and milk. You have to be gracious and hospitable.

Notable moment:  Participating in “Cooking for Julia” a film that aired on PBS celebrating Julia Child’s 90th birthday.

Career progressionI left Gorka’s and got a job at Friendly’s where I was training opening and closing at age 17, and later went to Paris because of my degree in French. A college friend connected me with La Varenne Écôle de Cuisine where I worked as a full-time typist in exchange for a French cooking degree.  When I returned home to New England I got a job cooking for Bob Kinkead, and we opened a host of restaurants together in D.C. I was named executive chef at 1789, where I worked for 10 years. 

Why restaurants: You never stop learning. There are a million rewards. You complete a million tasks every day. Good or bad, each day ends. You get to start with a clean slate the next day, which is a beautiful thing. It’s something most professions don’t have. 

'You get to be yourself in this industry, and we are a family that encourages misfits. Everybody belongs, you are fed, and it’s a very nurturing environment.'

Leah Cheston
Wine director/ assistant general manager, RIS

First job: Hostess in a small town restaurant in North Carolina at age 16.

Lessons learned: Customer service and dealing with people. I also learned a lot about what not to do, which can be just as valuable.

Career progression: Managed a wine bar in North Carolina, then  worked at a wine bar in the Sonoma Valley. After working for a wine wholesaler in Miami, I studied to become a sommelier and decided to go back into the restaurant business.

Why restaurants: The restaurant industry is a little bit of love and hate because of the high pressure environment. The beautiful thing about it is that your night ends, and you get to start over the next day.

'I encourage everyone to work in a restaurant at some point because it is a great experience, and it’s not that easy.'

David Moran

Managing director, The Hamilton

First job: Dishwasher at P.J. Moran’s, owned by my parents, in New York City.  

Lessons learned: I’ve had three mentors in this business. My dad, P.J. Moran, taught me to be a congenial host. Jeff Morris from the Fisherman in Ithaca, N.Y., taught me that being excellent at what you do is not only important but really cool and something to take pride in. John Laythem, the CEO of Clyde’s Restaurant Group, taught me to be generous and do whatever you can to make people happy and wow them.

Career progression: Worked as a busboy, server and manager at the Fishermen and eventually was offered 50 percent of the shares to stay and expand the business. I then joined the Clyde's Restaurant Group,  where I oversee a host of restaurants 24 years later.

Why restaurants: You get to interact with people from different walks of life. I love watching my employees succeed and grow. 

'Everything I have is from my first job. You develop a competency and a confidence in yourself that when you do apply for other jobs and move up, you’re not scared; you’re ready for the challenge.' 

Anthony Lombardo

Executive chef, The Hamilton

First job: Dishwasher and busboy at the Clawston Elks Lodge in Michigan.

Lessons learned: The importance of hospitality and customer service. And that I wanted to continue working in the restaurant industry.

Career progression: Worked as a clerk at Panera Bread and a dishwasher at Lone Star Steakhouse, eventually working up to head line cook. After graduating from the CIA, I worked at several restaurants, including 1789 in Georgtown.

Why restaurants: Eating, of course. I love food! But the people in this industry also are great. This restaurant is big, with 10 sous chefs, and there is so much diversity in the kitchen. It’s fun to get to know and collaborate with a lot of different people. 

'Even as a kid, I knew that I loved the restaurant industry. I lived for the rush of a Friday or Saturday night service.'

Josh Hahn

Operating partner, EatWell Management

First job: Worked front of the house at Baker’s Best, a catering company in Newton, Mass., at age 14.

Lessons learned: The art of a simple gesture from mentor Michael Baker. He was an ambassador of hospitality, and I learned how something subtle goes a long way. He made an effort to make people feel like he remembered them, such as randomly giving cookies or brownies to customers.

Career progression: After college I moved to D.C. and managed Grillfish, and I'm now one of the owners.

Why restaurants: There's no better feeling than running a busy restaurant when everything is clicking. There is an indescribable rush when you see customers happy, and they leave thanking you.

'I remember making somebody a sandwich at my first job and they thought it was such a great sandwich. It was just a turkey sandwich, but I put a lot of effort into it, and they seemed to really appreciate it. I’m not an artist, I’m not a musician, at that age there wasn’t much else I was capable of creating and that’s just a good feeling.'

Geoff Tracey
Owner, Chef Geoff's and LIA's

First job: Busboy at Max on Main in Hartford, Conn.

Lessons learned: The importance of paying close attention to detail and to always wear a smile during shifts.

Career progression: Worked at Georgetown University’s grocery store, then as a server at two restaurants in the Clyde’s group before attending the Culinary Institute of America. Later became a sous chef and dining room manager at another restaurant before opening my own restaurant.

Why restaurants:  People don't only have meals in my restaurant, they have experiences shaped by something as simple as a cheerful server bringing fresh bread. I love it when customers leave with a smile, and knowing that my team helped to make that possible.

'Cooks, servers, busboys … everyone in the industry has a direct impact on someone else’s happiness.'


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