On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with George Donahue, the Director of Training at Sixty Vines and Mexican Sugar, where their environmentally-friendly wine is on tap and perfectly selected to complement each dish.
On this episode of Bring It In season three, George sat down with Sam and discussed the wellness of employees, the importance of the guest experience, and restaurant culture.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Donahue shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: So George, I guess to kick us off, can you maybe tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
George: Yeah, absolutely. Not unlike most restaurant guys and gals, I started early in the industry. I was a dishwasher, 13 at a local, a catfish restaurant on the east coast. Didn’t realize at the time that I was completely falling in love with it. Didn’t know that it was getting inside my veins, but it was. And that’s how I put myself through college, as a server and a trainer for the concept that everyone knows that’s no longer with us in the United States, but I’ve spent my entire life in restaurants and around restaurants, in hospitality in general, hotels as well.
I’m a culinary school grad, hospitality management grad, and went to NC State for a few years as a business grad. Didn’t make it because I realized that I hated it, and that I needed to get back into the hospitality field. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. So I’ve been a part of small mom-and-pop brands that have grown to public companies, and, that’s kind of my sweet spot is being part of organizations that are scaling. I love the craziness of it. Oh, I’ve got two beautiful kids, a beautiful wife, living in Dallas, Texas.
Sam: You know, I find that directors of training, especially in hospitality and food, they’re really tough to go to dinner with. Because they’re always watching everything, they’re always on alert. Is that the same with you?
George: It’s a hundred percent sure. I would say about anybody in operations as well. My family always wants to go eat at the restaurants that I support and it’s very hard for me to do it because when I go I’m on, I’m working, I can’t just enjoy the cocktail. I’m constantly looking. So yeah, that’s probably pretty accurate across the board.
Sam: Okay. In your mind, how do you define quality, customer experience? What does that look like?
George: I think the keyword there is experience. We say a lot here, in our environment we say chase experiences, not sales. And I think that’s where a lot of, I would say that’s probably true for retail as well, but, when you’re so focused on getting the sale and you forget about the experience, that’s kind of the missing piece of the puzzle. So for us and for me in general, like when I’m as a guest, when I’m out and about, that’s what I’m looking for.
I want to know that I’m experiencing something unique. I’m experiencing something authentic, that I’m not getting the same spiel from my server or my bartender that they’ve given 40 times that night. And, it’s hard. That’s hard to do, but that’s what I’m looking for. And I think that’s what most people are looking for is experience.
And I think that’s going to be more important now, as we come out of COVID. I don’t think that run-of-the-mill restaurant hospitality experiences, just going to cut it anymore.
Sam: That’s interesting. What’s changed about your role on the training side? And I asked that from the perspective of, as the service experience has changed in the labor force, maybe, everybody complained about millennials. Now we’re complaining about gen Z. Like what’s changed about that training and development motion to get the most out of your people?
George: Yeah, it’s funny, we’ll find a reason to complain about any generation, won’t we? It doesn’t matter who it is. For me, I do think there’s truth in that, certain generations require a certain approach. But I also think that it’s true that every generation wants the same thing too. So we all want to feel valued. We all want to feel like we’re well taken care of. We all want to feel security. We all want to feel pride in the job that we’re doing, the opportunities that we have. So I think that the consistencies across the generations is more important than what a specific generation needs.
When it comes to delivering whatever learning products you’re trying to deliver, I do think that that can be generational specific, and we try to meet that, but the biggest changes I’ve seen is that the quality and the originality of the training content that we should be delivering now is a little bit different.
The expectation I think is higher. And I think it’s good because it’s requiring all of us to kind of step up to the plate and do things that are unique and out of the box that you’ve never done before and maybe let go of some of those things that we know don’t work, like really bad PowerPoints, and move on to things that are actually effective.
Sam: What is it like? Because so many consumers frequent, everybody eats, everybody goes to restaurants. I think from being in the trenches, you are really seeing the front of house experience to back of house and the operation as a whole. What would surprise the average consumer about building a team or a culture inside of a restaurant brand like Sixty Vines?
George: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that, and I would say just any restaurant, what I think people sometimes miss is the level of soft skills it requires to be good at any position in a restaurant. There’s this old saying like, ‘better be careful you end up flipping burgers.’ I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that before, but it’s like a threat parents make for the kids.
I’ve always really been bothered by that statement because in my mind you’d be so lucky to end up flipping burgers and there’s a few reasons why. What you get from a people standpoint and being able to learn how to be around people and interact with people and deal with stressful situations and conflict management and de escalation and all of those things, it’s like a crash course. And you just can’t get that in a concentrated form I believe really anywhere else outside of the hospitality industry. So I think sometimes we forget that these are actual human beings in the restaurants and they’ve had to adapt and change and learn and grow just to be able to function in that kind of stressful environment.
And it is stressful. I mean, it’s an intense work environment, and a lot of things come from that. And so one of the things you said about what’s changed in training the last few years, the focus on wellness and helping to be full. Their cups are full. So it’s like I expect you to provide an incredible experience to a guest, you’re just not like mentally there, you’re not mentally in it, you’ve got stress from outside words that you’re bringing with you, we’ve got to help that. And so we’ve just been focused on that.
And also we talk to people a lot about that so that they can have awareness, like what it’s like to be right now in the hospitality industry dealing with COVID and all that. So it’s been a wild ride.
Sam: Yeah, as a sports guy, I always kind of looked at the training director as kind of like the strength and conditioning coach. I mean, they didn’t necessarily get to recruit the players that show up in their weight room, but it is their responsibility to develop them.
But from your vantage point, what type of recommendations do you have to folks out there who are hiring right now? What does it look like from your view on the type of worker that stands out to be successful in a job, in a hospitality environment?
George: There’s options right now. I mean, everybody is hiring. Everybody is looking for the best. If I were to give advice to other employers who are struggling finding that talent and bringing that talent in, I go back to that word authentic, and I just see a lot of really subpar talent recruiting strategies, where I get filtered out by an ETS system that doesn’t care about me or what I’ve got. Maybe I submitted the wrong type of documents to the computer and it just kicked it out. Maybe there’s nobody actually filtering through. So I, personally, think the talents out there. We’re seeing it where I am and it’s not easy and I don’t want to paint too broad of a stroke on it, but I think that personal touch is what is missing.
And anyone who’s tried to look for a job in the last few years has seen that the rise of technology in that space has been great because it can help, but it can also really hinder in a lot of ways. I can speak specifically in my industry because I know it the best. A lot of restaurants are kind of being handcuffed by the technology they choose.
So you’re really smart about how you go to market with your job propositions and what you bring to the table as an employer, but then not letting a piece of technology get in the way of that. It should be amplifying, not handcuffed.
Sam: Totally. In your current role, correct me if I’m wrong, but you do have and are building a training team that supports your strategy, correct?
George: Yeah. So like a lot of training directors, I wear a few hats and even HR, a little bit operations, a little bit off services. And then in the restaurant we have certified trainers that facilitate the training for new hires in our restaurant. And we have training restaurants that are specifically for salary training when we hire new managers, but, yeah, there’s a whole team of us, making it happen.
Sam: Just to also kind of pull some advice from you, I think there’s been a big surge recently, there’s going to be, I think, a really big surge next year as HR budgets really start to maybe normalize of organizations, either rethinking or investing, better in whether it’s software or it’s people around development and training, as a category. What advice do you have to someone who is standing up that department from scratch? You’ve done a lot of scaling up in environments where brands are moving really quickly. What would you tell me if I got hired tomorrow? First time head of training, I’m really excited about the opportunity, but I’m green. What are the things I should focus on?
George: I think where I’ve found success in the past is being really connected to the business. So, understanding the financials, of not only the unit level financials, but the GNA at the corporate level, understanding what the strategic goals are for the company. So being locked in step with whatever the CEO is trying to accomplish. That to me is really important if you want a seat at the table.
Training directors that are disconnected from the financials of the business often are not included in decisions that they could and should be included in. So that’s always what I tell any new time, training the person is to get involved and really intimately familiar with the financials. Once you have that, I think that it is a job of, and it’s ever really written anywhere, but I really do see it as our job to be the champions of people. And to be the ones that are pushing the envelope on how we should be training, when we should be training, and what we should be training.
It also is a very common challenge for us that we often are given things and say, ‘Hey, I need a training program for this.’ But it’s not actually a training problem. It’s a leadership problem, or it’s a communication problem, or it’s simply a coaching issue, right. We can coach better. And so training directors, if you really want to be good at it, you gotta be able to kind of identify what problem we’re actually solving for, and then yes, providing a solution for it. It’s not like saying, ‘oh, that’s not my job. It’s an operations issue.’ But it’s saying it’s not actually that you need a training guide video, game, whatever it may be, it’s that you need help with your leaders being able to be better coaches. Let’s focus on that.
And so problem identification, and then having really creative solutions is, to me, the hallmark of a great training director or anybody in training that can do that, if you can master that, the sky’s the limit.
Sam: Sure. I wanted to ask you this question, just given the amount that is kind of coming up in the new cycle around the great resignation and folks that are considering what you said earlier, people have options. People are starting to look for other paths. From your seat, how are you getting ahead of that for maybe folks who again, may be considering options?
George: Yeah, absolutely. We felt that early on. I mean, I think a lot of the reports that I was seeing was that 40% of the hospitality workforce or somewhere around that has opted out of that. And I think we could probably talk for four hours on why that is. But I think that’s a pretty close number based on what we’ve experienced and what we’re seeing. The good news is, and I can only speak from my small corner of the world, we feel it coming back. We are getting a lot of people that are opting back in and I think maybe that’s because they feel safer, but we still talk daily about that future state, because I do believe it’s coming where you’ve got people who have the opportunity to jump out of the restaurant space or the hospitality space in general and moves to another industry. Maybe they’re taking some at-home work, maybe they’re doing some side gigs, like whatever it is. People are looking for other opportunities. So what we’re doing and what I would advise anyone and encourage anyone in the restaurant space needs to do is think about restaurant culture.
If we continue the way that we are kind of notorious for continuing in the restaurant space, we have a reputation. I don’t think it’s a secret to any. You can go back to Bourdain’s early book. He was calling it out back then, but we have a lot of toxic cultures that happen in the restaurant space.
And a lot of us are born from the stress that we’re going through is we’re trying to pull this off every day. So there’s not making any excuses for it, but we have real opportunities and redefining what it means to be a restaurant or working in a restaurant or building a career in restaurants.
We have a real opportunity and like helping people see that, like, yeah, you can make a very successful career working in a restaurant. And it’s hard for people to see that because when they look at the leaders that are leading them and they’re like, ‘huh, I don’t know. Do I really want to work 70 hours a week and miss all my family events and not be a part of the things that really matter in life?’
And because that’s the picture, that’s what they’ve seen this whole time, they’ll know. So what we’re doing is we’re trying to redefine all of that. We’re trying to reimagine all of that. We’re trying to look at wellness is kind of being our total approach to ‘Hey, you want to work for Sixty,’ this is gonna be all about wellness and what does that look like? You know, we’re still figuring it out. We’re making some pretty cool moves. We’ve got some big plans.
I think any restaurants who are out there that are not thinking about the work environment and the culture, you’re gonna be so far behind because people are over it. They want something better. And we can uniquely provide something really cool and special, but we have to stop with the eighties and nineties and early 2000s mentality of running restaurants and move into the future.
Sam: Yeah, it’s almost like so many folks that maybe get tunnel vision on training and the technical part of the job, and it’s almost striking a balance across everything that you’re coaching and, and focusing on.
George: Yeah. Everything has to have a balance. And of course, we’ve got to get people functionally competent in their role, but I also want them to be better human beings and we need to be better human beings first as their leaders. That’s kind of the first of the table.
Sam: Better humans are better workers, right? That kind of goes together.
George: It’s a funny thought.
Sam: Well, that leads us to our last question, George. Future of work is a topic which is often about robots coming, and there’s definitely your fair share in your industry and restaurants with robots popping up. The flipping the burger thing you might not even be able to do if certain brands had full reign. When you hear about the future of work, what’s your hope for the future of work?
George: My hope for the future of work is that people aren’t discouraged by technology advancing. I see that as an opportunity. I see that as, how can technology make certain parts of the job easier?
Let’s just take something mundane, like rolling silverware, which is a huge dissatisfier and the restaurant. Nobody likes to do it. Everybody hates it, everybody complains about it. I don’t know, if I had a robot that could do it for me, and then I could focus solely on the guest experience, I think I’d be down with that. And so I don’t get so freaked out about job replacement when it comes to stuff like that.
I think that we will find a way, and I go back to that word experience. I just think that people are always going to value that, and they’re always going to look for that, and those that can provide it are going to be ok. And if part of that experience is having a robot flip a burger for you, and that might not be for a while, but ultimately we’re about human connections as humans. I don’t think that that’s going to go away and I’m not worried about it.
Sam: George, thanks for taking the time.
George: You bet. Thank you so much. Great to be here.
Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Restaurants, Hospitality, Staffing, Leadership, Coaching, Training
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