When I was 25, I picked up a part time restaurant job in Alpharetta, GA. The Hometown Grill & Wine Loft (hi, Peter!) was under development in an old (like, 1920s old) hardware store. It was a two story space, and the vision was to use every available square foot. The downstairs restaurant, bar, and patio was The Hometown Grill, a casual space that paid homage to the “hometowns” of the world in both menu and décor. The dining room was divided into several regionally themed sections, complete with kitsch-covered walls, and a hallway lined with license plates from all 50 states. Similarly, the menu was chock full of geographically assigned dishes, like Maui Chicken Salad, Charleston Chicken Pasta, and Tucson Soup. In addition to the a la carte menu, Hometown Grill offered family style meals (pot roast, meatloaf, lasagna) served with sides like mashed potatoes and macaroni, on platters to be passed around the table.
If the downstairs was colorful and boisterous, the Wine Loft upstairs was the opposite. Dark and quiet, original brick walls and exposed pine floors were the foundation for this unique dining experience. It featured its own menu, a curated wine list, and a guy who crooned jazz standards on Friday and Saturday nights. Despite the shared kitchen and staff, the two spaces were about as different as they could be. During the week, the Wine Loft was often home to bourbon tastings, ladies’ luncheons (I can’t believe I just typed that), and themed dinners.
I was interviewed in the main dining room when it was still covered in 75 year old hardware store dust, and planks on sawhorses propped up architectural renderings. After offering me a server position and sketching out the training days and menu tasting schedule, Peter, the general manager, insisted on snapping a polaroid photo of me wearing a ridiculously large sombrero that was destined for the southwest themed corner of the dining room. I felt silly, but as they taped my photo on the wall next to a dozen or so others, a visual representation of the team they were creating, I had my own sort of homecoming.
In that moment, I was introduced to workplace culture. I hadn’t experienced it before, didn’t have a name for it, but I felt that something was different. And through the weeks of training, the soft opening (I still remember my first table), the grand opening, and all the shifts during the years to follow, I experienced the absolute magic of working on a team of people who are appreciated and included. Was every shift perfect? Heck no! Were some days, some patrons, just truly AWFUL? Heck yes! Did I keep showing up, volunteering for extra shifts, accepting new responsibilities? You better believe I did!
The reason I was a ride or die for my job is because my job was a place that celebrated, encouraged, and rewarded ME. The restaurant was an environment in which my coworkers and I were a tight knit clan . We laughed with each other in the passthrough, cried with each other in the walk in cooler, and ate our weight in breadsticks between shifts.
When Peter put my photo on the wall in the unfinished dining room that day, I felt something different. This wasn’t a job offer. It was an invitation to come home to a team of people where I would be nurtured, professionally and personally. Wow! Have you ever experienced that in a job interview?
The restaurant business, like many in the hospitality industry, is struggling to recruit and retain new talent in a changing labor market. Now, more than ever, hospitality leaders need to be intentional about creating and cultivating attitudes and environments in which employees are invited to thrive. If your company culture feels stale, I’m excited to help you create a plan to revitalize it.
I can still feel that old sombrero teetering on my head. Thank you for introducing me to the magic of workplace culture, Peter. I owe you for a few dozen breadsticks!