What comes to mind when you think of success in the restaurant industry? A colorful TV personality or a renowned cookbook author?
Not every restaurant worker wants to be a celebrity chef. Maybe you started your role as a part-time gig and want to explore what the industry has to offer. Maybe you realized hospitality is your passion. You can grow your career in restaurants and make it your profession. These 4 executives started out working in entry-level restaurant jobs. Here's how they got to where they are today.
Mani Bhushan, Founder at Taco Ocho
Mani Bhushan immigrated to America in the 1970s. While he had work experience as an account executive in India, he had to start fresh once he moved to the US. So he enrolled in college (for the second time) and took a job at Jack in the Box to pay the bills. By being reliable and great with customers, Bhushan moved up to assistant manager and then store manager.
He credits his success to investing in his people. At Jack in the Box, Bhushan focused on giving staff special responsibilities, such as overseeing the storeroom. That gave his team members the confidence to take on more duties and gave them motivation to move up.
"Constantly develop your people...they will succeed and in the process they will help you succeed as well," says Bhushan.
Bhushan eventually moved on to become a district manager at Taco Bell, and then a market manager. In that leadership position, he created classes for managers on skills like leadership and cost control. These courses were bite-sized presentations that Bhushan developed from his own experience. That initiative and determination advanced him to National VP of Operations, where he oversaw half of Taco Bell's US stores.
That was 20 years ago. After a stint as SVP of Operations at Blockbuster, Bhushan returned to the restaurant industry as a founder with Taco Ocho. The Mexican brand now has four locations in the Dallas area.
- Restaurant Career Path: Crew Member → Assistant Manager → Store Manager → District Manager → Market Manager → National VP of Operations → SVP of Operations → Founder
- 4 words of advice: Constantly develop your people.
Shawn Grodensky, Culinary Director at gusto!
When Shawn Grodensky was a boy, his father dragged him out of bed to bus tables at the family restaurant in Virginia. As he got older, he graduated to washing dishes and food preparation. Some chefs took him under their wing and taught him how to cook. While working in the kitchen full-time, he earned the respect of his team members and became the sous chef.
"I think it's a lot of humility, understanding that you don't know anything...willingness to learn and open-mindedness, and then determination, right? Because once you learn, you have to practice it and perfect it and that was something that I enjoyed. You know, you teach me one thing, I'm gonna perfect it cuz that's the kind of person I am," says Grodensky.
He knew he wanted to be a chef from an early age. But his father pushed him to get a college degree in case hospitality didn't work out. (Spoiler alert: it did). Fresh out of college, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America.
Grodensky's first role as Executive Sous Chef jump started his love for menu development. The owner had seen his resume at a different restaurant and called him up. It was there that he started making menus and creating dishes on a regular basis.
He spent some time as Garde Manger and Pastry Chef in another kitchen before meeting Nate Hybl at The General Muir. Hybl was the first person he met on his first day, and they just clicked. On a golf course, he asked Grodensky to join him on a new QSR venture with fresh bowls and wraps. They worked together to develop recipes for gusto! before it opened in Atlanta. Now with 11 locations and counting, the rest is history.
- Restaurant Career Path: Busser → Dishwasher → Prep Cook → Line Cook → Sous Chef → Executive Sous Chef → Garde Manger → Pastry Chef → Executive Sous Chef → Kitchen Leader → Culinary Director
- 5 words of advice: A growth mindset is crucial.
Kam Talebi, Founder & CEO at Kaskaid Hospitality
A good leader understands the pain points of their staff. With experience in the front and back of the house, Kam Talebi has walked a mile in both shoes.
Talebi entered the world of restaurants as a line cook at a salad station. He worked saute and the grill before dipping his toes into serving. "I have always been very passionate about food and hospitality. Always helped my Mom in the kitchen, and as I grew older I picked up tricks from her on entertaining guests. Always had a love for taking care of people this way. Feeding someone is a very pure way to show that you care about them."
Talebi told Edina Mag that his family came to Minnesota in 1979 for his mother's breast cancer treatment. Due to political unrest in Iran, they were unable to return to their home country. After college, Talebi and his brother concocted a menu and a business plan for CRAVE American Kitchen + Sushi Bar. The owner of the restaurant where he worked mentored him and helped him find funding. The brothers have since expanded into Kaskaid Event Group with five restaurant concepts and 1200+ employees.
- Restaurant Career Path: Line Cook → Server → Founder
- 5 words of advice: Lose your ego. Be curious.
Kelly McCutcheon, Group Director of Training & Development at Whataburger
It's hard to say where Kelly McCutcheon's love for training started. Was it from the chef who told her that she couldn't teach anybody anything? Or because she comes from a long line of teachers?
Like many students, McCutcheon got a side gig as a server at P.F. Chang's in college. She quickly became a trainer and climbed the ladder to oversee 60 restaurants on the East Coast. Then Peggy Rubenzer, her former colleague, recommended her for a Director role at Hopdoddy Burger Bar.
"Not only was she a boss, but a mentor and working to develop me...We continued the mentorship and the collaboration as she went on to Shake Shack," says McCutcheon.
In that role, McCutcheon led the creation of the TM to GM career training program. It teaches staff how to move into leadership and it helps restaurant managers identify who has the hunger to grow. Her drive and enthusiasm helped her get promoted to VP of Training and then VP of People.
Now McCutcheon and Rubenzer have reunited to work together again at Whataburger.
- Restaurant Career Path: Server → Trainer → Regional Training Manager → Director of Training → VP of Training → VP of People → Group Director of Training & Development
- 5 words of advice: Mentor people different from you.
How to grow your career path
Although these execs have different backgrounds, there are common themes to their success.
1. Be a sponge
Stay curious and keep learning. Get rid of your ego and understand that you don't know everything. Kam Talebi learned to create a great product and a great dining experience by working in both the kitchen and the dining room. Mani Bhushan read business books to create classes for restaurant managers. Despite minimal pastry training from culinary school, Shawn Grodensky accepted a pastry position to strengthen his skills.
"3 different cooks or servers will show you 3 different processes for something. Take the best bits, improve upon them, and make it your own," says Talebi.
2. Don't underestimate your network
What you know is just as important as who you know (and what they know about you). Someone you work with now could hire or recommend you for a role in the future. Such was the case for Kelly McCutcheon and Shawn Grodensky. You may also find mentorship from your leaders, like how Kam Talebi learned about opening a restaurant from his boss.
"Cross-developmental mentorship, where the mentor and the mentee are both gaining as much as they're giving...That helps to create the best teams both from a leadership level and a restaurant level," says McCutcheon.
3. Have a passion for hospitality
The restaurant industry isn't for everyone. It’s a tough work environment. The people that stick it out are the ones passionate about food service. They have the drive to constantly improve and upgrade their skills. They're reliable and determined to win.
Mani Bhushan runs 4 restaurants. How does he identify employees with potential?
"Number one, the drive. Those people will come to work on time. They're happy when they talk to the customers and the customers are happy to talk to those people. They wanna learn...they show keen interest in learning more things. Those are the kind of people you can spend the time and make 'em grow and eventually they'll be your winners."
Restaurant groups like gusto! and Hopdoddy Burger Bar lay out clear growth paths for employees. If career development is important to you, seek out companies that bake development into their culture. Investing in employee knowledge and skills makes the restaurant business and the team better.
Learn why we're passionate about restaurant career growth at servingwhatsnext.com
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I've taken orders at a drive-thru and a golf course. I've quit a Thai restaurant after 3 shifts. I've done marketing at a Tex-Mex franchise. Now I create content about the restaurant industry.