What does it take to be a restaurant manager?

by Suzanne Hall


Culinarians who don’t want to spend all day (or all night) in the kitchen but still want to be part of a restaurant team might look toward management to keep them in the industry they love. Restaurant managers are an integral part of a successful restaurant and a respected member of the restaurant’s team.

Among those who took this different culinary path are Claire Sanders, a manager at Aba, one of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants in Chicago, and Cheryl Stanley, a lecturer in food and beverage management at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration (SHA) in Ithaca, NY and at eCornell, the university’s online division.

Claire Sanders interacts with guests at Aba

Sanders’ attraction to the restaurant industry began with culinary and business management courses in high school. They led her to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York where she earned an associate degree in baking and pastry arts and a bachelor’s degree in applied food studies, which also included some business management courses. Stanley joined the culinary world at age 10 when she started her own business, Cheryl’s Chocolates. Later she attended SHA, graduating in 2000. There, she discovered a passion for beverages. After graduation she worked in both beverage and food service in hotels and restaurants in California. Then, while operating her own restaurant consulting company, she was an adjunct instruction at the CIA before returning to Ithaca.

Before joining Aba, Sanders worked as pastry chef and dining room manager at Canoe Bay, a resort in Chetek, WI. “There I was focused on service. Now my responsibilities include costing, scheduling, labeling, overseeing orders and hiring.” Sanders tells her students that other responsibilities include marketing, menu development and interacting with the entire staff, including back of the house.

Sanders starts her all-encompassing job between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and usually doesn’t leave until 2 or 3 a.m. She finds the hours the most challenging part of the job. “You have to find time to have a life and I do,” she says. That life often involves socializing with other managers. As one of five managers at Aba, she does get some days off.

Professor Cheryl Stanley (SHA) teaches on the first day of fall 2016 classes at the School of Hotel Administration (SHA).

“Restaurant managers aren’t home for dinner at 5 p.m. every night. They spend more time with staff than their family. They have to find a work/life balance,” Stanley says. “While the hours are the most challenging, the most fun is troubleshooting and the role I can play in getting the servers and other staff up to the level we expect,” Sanders explains. That troubleshooting can include everything from solving a customer problem to fixing a broken toilet.

Because the title “restaurant manager” means so many different things, Stanley stresses to her students the importance of being humble. “You have to be able to see someone else’s side and have empathy for guests and staff.” Sanders would add that restaurant managers need to be solutions-oriented and confident. “You have to walk toward the problem.”

Interior of Aba • photo by Jeff Marini

Sanders believes that education provides 49% of what a restaurant manager needs to be successful. “The rest can’t be taught.” There are several ways to get the education needed to be successful. Schools like Cornell offer two and four year degree programs. Online programs, often taken by those with previous culinary or business training provide certificates. Both approaches are enhanced by on-the-job training.

The good news is that the job outlook for someone seeking a position as a restaurant manager is very good. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that between 2016 and 2026 foodservice management positions would increase by 9 percent. That amounts to 27,300 new jobs. The Bureau goes on to report that the median wage for a restaurant manager in 2018 was $54,240 or $26.08 per hour. Job seekers with a combination of work experience in foodservice and a bachelor’s degree in hospitality, restaurant, or food service management should have an edge when competing for jobs at upscale hotels and restaurants.

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