Three women talk about their rise to restaurant leadership

By Dan Linehan
Special to Delaware Business Times

Lexi Hawkins, Alison Gutsche and Christine Wesley started serving at restaurants to support their liberal arts educations. But something about restaurant life — its chaotic energy, frenetic pace and the challenge of creating something delicious amid that disorder — pulled at them in places that geology, biology or sociology did not.

“You never know what you’re going to be dealing with, whether it’s a literal fire or flood, all while trying to deliver food,” said Hawkins, general manager of Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Newark.

All three women have climbed the restaurant ranks to be general managers of Grain’s three restaurants, in Bear, Newark and Kennett Square.

They belie the stereotype of the bad-tempered restaurant leader, embodied in the fiery Gordon Ramsay, a celebrity chef often filmed belittling staff. Instead, they say earning the trust of their staff is a better way to build camaraderie.

And their success comes during a time of greater emphasis on gender equality in restaurants. Though head chef positions remain overwhelmingly male nationwide, women hold 45 percent of all managerial positions in restaurants — more than in the average industry.

Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, said restaurants value hard work regardless of the gender of the person doing it.

“There’s no glass ceiling in my mind for women” in restaurants, she said.

Grain did not set out to hire women to lead its restaurants, but believes the diversity at the top breeds new ideas, said Lee Mikles, one of its two co-owners.

Hawkins and Gutsche, who leads the Kennett Square location, were promoted after starting as servers; Wesley joined as general manager in Bear in October after spending about five years with Big Fish Restaurant Group. Mikles says promoting managers rather than hiring them ensures the leader is familiar with translating Grain’s culture into action.

General managers do a lot of everything, but their defining characteristic is adaptation.

Dealing with chaos

From the outside, it seems simple: Take order, make food, serve food. But the world has a way of intervening.
There was the time Grain H20, in Bear, was without power three nights in a row. Some problems can be overcome with improvisation, but no amount of thinking on your feet can help when you can’t turn on the oven.

So Wesley had to gently inform the customers that they’d have to leave, news that some guests responded to with understanding and others with resentment.

Another time, a police officer called the Newark location on a busy Friday night to say they wanted space for
40 people in just an hour.

Hawkins, who slowly opened up patio space as customers left, demonstrated her adaptability under pressure and her rapport with staff, said Jim O’Donoghue, the other co-owner.

Though dealing with finicky customers can be stressful, the adrenaline-fueled nature of this work is ultimately an argument in its favor.

“I couldn’t deal with the monotony of an office job,” Hawkins said.

Though all three general managers earned liberal arts degrees, only Gutsche, the manager at Kennett Square, spent much time working in her degreed field. She worked at the Delaware Geological Survey studying the ways that sand changes over the eons.

But seven years after trading an office for a dining room, she says she feels at home now.

General managers have their hand in just about every part of a restaurant, but one of their hardest jobs is peacemaker.

One ‘house,’ undivided

There is often tension between the people who work in the “front of house” — the public places where waiters, hosts, and bartenders serve guests — and those in the “back of house,” the kitchen and other places guests don’t go.

When a restaurant is busy, servers make more money but cooks and dishwashers just have more headaches. And tempers can flare when one person’s mistake becomes the next person’s crisis.

At first, Grain had an executive chef to lead the kitchen and a separate manager in the front of house, effectively creating tension at a restaurant’s highest levels. In part to defuse this tension, they’ve since changed to hire a general manager responsible for both sides of the restaurant, a common leadership model.

General managers have to speak two languages. In the front, they have seconds to feel out an upset customer. In the more rough-and-tumble back, they depend on their rapport and shared respect with staff.
Part of being a leader is keeping a level head during tough times, said Gutsche, at the Kennett Square location.

“If people start to see you’re stressed, everything falls apart,” she said.

It also means standing up for your team. As Mikles explained, one recent evening at Grain H20 a musician was being abrasive to staff and Wesley, instead of telling her staff to accept it, spoke with the performer.
There’s a strong business case for general managers who cultivate happy staffs, Mikles said. Experienced employees make for more satisfied customers, and there’s a cost to replace workers, especially in a time of low unemployment rates.

The women say gender stereotypes can make it a little harder to earn respect. One time-honored way to gain some cred is showing you can, and will, do every other job in the restaurant, from bussing tables to washing dishes, Gutsche says.

Leishman, the restaurant trade group CEO, said there’s a cultural shift underway in historically male-dominated kitchens.

“As you see the industry valuing work-life balance and a less stressful culture you’ll start to see more women take these roles,” she said.

Though the general managers say their gender hasn’t affected their career arc, they do say it has occasionally been a factor in how they’re treated.

Talking down

The women say they have been underestimated, and in some cases attribute it to gender stereotypes. A service tech takes a look at Hawkins and asks if there’s someone who knows about the equipment. A guest condescends to Gutsche, starting with the low-key epithet “young lady.”

Wesley said she sometimes downplay her own authority with customers to avoid appearing overly assertive, introducing herself as “one of the managers here.”

In addition to conducting the symphony that is a modern restaurant, general managers also lead a culture, which is another way of saying a brand.

Making the culture

Grain’s culture emphasizes a welcoming atmosphere that aims to become a “third place” between the formality of work and the privacy of home. It’s part of the general managers’ job to bring their own ideas to the table.

“As we scale, we want to make sure we’ve got somebody who knows the market, knows the neighbors,” said Mikles, a co-owner.

Often, the women suggest small but meaningful changes.

For New Year’s Eve, when many Kennett Square patrons would be dressing up to attend a town celebration, Gutsche suggested replacing typical wristbands with nicer cloth versions to complement their nicer clothing.

This sort of attention to detail is second nature to the general managers. As the group’s discussion with a writer in the Kennett Square location ended, Wesley walked around the table, moving all of the chairs an even distance from the table.

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