I Learned Everything Important About Succeeding as an Entrepreneur Washing Dishes for My First Boss
An ancient proverb states, "Do not disdain humble beginnings."
We all start somewhere. According to a recent CNBC.com article, Warren Buffet delivered newspapers, Jeff Bezos was a McDonald's fry cook and David Geffen was a mailroom clerk. Every self-made billionaires had a first job
I got my first job in the mid-1980s at a restaurant called "Peter's Charcoal House" in rural upstate New York. Despite the establishment's eco-unfriendly name it was a family restaurant that served lunch and dinner seven days a week. Back then it was one of the only restaurants in that area. The food was good and it was always busy.
The owner, Gerald Scorsone, was a dynamic entrepreneur who recently passed away. He left an enduring legacy, including enduring lessons I learned by watching him run his business during my three years working for him as a teenager.
Every role counts.
If you've never worked in a restaurant, there's an industrial dishwashing machine that holds dozens of plates, glasses, silverware, etc. It will sanitize a full rack of dirty dishes in less than a minute. That type of throughput is necessary on a busy night. As a dishwasher, you're basically scraping excess food off plates into the garbage, rinsing and filling the dish racks through the machine. It's not the most engaging job in a restaurant and is the lowest rank in the kitchen "pecking" order. However, I learned an important role one Friday night -- the busiest night of the week -- when the dishwashing machine broke during the middle of the dinner rush.
With the dishwashing machine disabled, I started hand washing the dishes in two large stainless steel sinks, but I couldn't keep up with the volume. At one point, when 10 bus pans filled with dirty dishes were stacked, Gerald the owner jumped in beside me hand drying dishes, then called two of the line cooks -- near royalty in the kitchen hierarchy -- to scrape dirty plates so I could focus on washing. They balked, saying it was beneath them. Gerald yelled,"Hey! Without plates your food doesn't get to the dining room -- every job counts in this kitchen, now get your a** over here and help!"
Every customer matters.
Gerald taught me that every customer matters. I saw this in action every night when I had to constantly take stacks of cleaned coffee cups, drinking glasses and silverware to restock the server stations in the dining room, where the servers would wrap the flatware in napkins and fill drink orders. Gerald was always working the dining room, making sure that he checked in on every customer, asking how they liked their food and service. He thanked them for stopping by.
During a slow night when there was only one older gentleman in the restaurant whom I'd never seen before, I saw Gerald talk with him and engage as if the customer was a "regular." When Gerald came back into the kitchen I asked why he spoke with the guy when the restaurant was virtually empty. His reply has lingered with me to this day.
"It doesn't matter what a customer buys, whether a prime rib or cup of coffee. I want them to come back. I know that if I make a lone customer feel comfortable here and they like our food, they're more likely to bring family and friends next time. I'm building relationships, which build my business."
Every market changes.
Gerald's dad, Peter, opened the restaurant and built it into a local fixture decades before I started working there. Not only did "locals" frequent the eatery, but it also benefited from a fair amount of tourist traffic since it was a couple miles north of Letchworth State Park, which is known as the "Grand Canyon of the East." However, during my final year working for Gerald, a few fast food restaurants popped up south of Letchworth and siphoned off some of his tourist business.
With the shift in traffic, Gerald decided to pivot his business towards event hosting and catering. He invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand his facility and transform the establishment into "Peter's Party Complex." As a "lowly dishwasher" I didn't have line of sight into his decisions and saw the expansion as excessive at the time. To be honest, I didn't think it would last. I graduated high school and went away to college. A few years later I attended a five-year high school reunion hosted at the complex, which seemed to be thriving. Gerald was working the room the night of the reunion, so I took the opportunity to speak with him. He confirmed that his business shift those years before had worked.
"We had to do something, since I saw our sales declining over time," he said. "We're in such a rural market, those sales shifts were noticeable early on. If we hadn't transitioned to events and catering, I would have had to close the restaurant altogether."
He expressed how at the time of the transition there were no venues or caterers for large events within a 20-mile radius, so he took the opportunity to pivot to that space. It's worth noting that his business is still doing well to this day. Looking back, his lessons remind me that it's less important how you start something than how you finish something. Gerald's business instincts enabled him to both start and finish well, while also benefiting those of us who had the pleasure to learn his lessons while working for him.