Article by Tim Mulhall, CaterTrax Sales Executive, Former Restaurant Owner and Multi-Unit Operator
A Catering Management Software Sales Exec shares life lessons learned as a restaurant owner/operator, revealing the key ingredient that could be making or breaking your career in the non-commercial foodservice industry.
If you can run a restaurant, you can run anything – I firmly believe that. The thing to remember is you can’t let the chaos of the business control you. Something is always going to happen. Someone will call in sick, or your dishwasher will break, and you’ll find yourself working the line at lunch and washing dishes in the evening; getting your managerial work done after that. The key to it all is as simple as it is difficult – be extremely organized. You need to have a plan. I’m sure you’re saying “but I have a plan”. You know what they say about the best laid plans. I guess my point lies more in how you support them.
I was in my late 20’s when I threw in the towel on running someone else’s restaurant and decided to open my own. Armed with experience and my Mercyhurst hotel restaurant degree, I was confident I had the wherewithal to give it a go myself. Just about the time this notion came around, I sat a few barstools down from a guy heading down the same tracks, and we partnered up to become the proud new owners of a 14,000 square foot train station-themed restaurant, bar, and banquet hall, with outdoor volleyball courts.
Every part of the place had its own feel. The front lobby, an old train depot, was a gorgeous mix of brick, brass, and iron that you walked through before stepping into the cherry wood train room that housed the bar, bands on weekends, and karaoke on Tuesdays. Like all bars, it was also home to its share of embarrassing antics, but this isn’t that story – you’ll have to call me for that.
The train station building was actually moved from across the street before we ever came around and resettled right in front of an old pickle factory which became our dining room. The pickle factory had a towering brick smokestack that gave the building an interesting appeal, but the best part about it was the gigantic, completely unmovable, cast iron boiler that sat inside it. The boiler had a high archway you could walk down into where we could seat 16 people in addition to the tables we had around the outside of it. To sum it up, this was a pretty cool pickle factory.
But back to the best-laid plans. We had a plan for generating revenue every shift of the day. From 9-11 AM, we’d host corporate meetings before opening to the public for lunch. Happy hour kicked off at 4, and we strung the volleyball courts with lights to keep us busy into the night. We did events in the banquet hall on weekends when the rest of the place was closed. My partner and I had a rule that one of us would always be at the front during service to greet guests – trying our hardest to open the door for every single one. The other guy would usually stay in the back expediting orders and checking food before it left the kitchen. New servers always waited on my partner and I once before they ever waited on a customer.
The coolest thing we probably ever did was our Monday night football raffles. We bought two La-Z-Boy recliners and parked them in front of our 52 inch TV. People would pile into the bar on Sunday trying to win a recliner spot and all the beer and wings they wanted for the Monday night game. It didn’t cost much to fill the place during football season and after the food critic from the Democrat and Chronicle gave us a 4.5-star rating, we were always busy – sports or not.
We had a phone that rang in the sound of a train – I did say it was a themed restaurant. You’d hear a huffy Choo Choo sound every time someone called to order catering. We’d quickly take down orders in a three-ring binder, running through the list of the questions while the restaurant and bar swirled around us – How do you want it set up? Equipment? How many pounds of potatoes? CaterTrax wasn’t around yet – there was no online ordering, automated production sheets, or rooms manager.
We skated through our first wedding with barely anything we needed upfront. Fortunately, the guests never felt it, but we certainly did. We rented more chairs and got a new table skirt that fit the head table of the growing wedding party. My partner was particularly excellent at setting tables – all the knives lined up perfectly. Details. At the end of the day, the difference is all in those little details like the perfect table setting.
Unfortunately, details are also the first things to get lost in the chaos. If you can’t stay organized, you can’t pay attention to all the little things that are kind of the reason why you started doing all this in the first place. I was working day and night, but driven by the fact that I was putting out a product people enjoyed and they were willing to pay me for it. I loved meeting new people, the rush of peak times, the comradery of working as a team, and the satisfaction of meeting goals and growing sales. But, without something holding it all together, passion is overshadowed by the stress of trying to stay on top of everything yourself.
As a foodservice operator, you can’t be in every place at once even though you want to be and even though you’re trying hard to be. You want to do your figure 8’s, walk-throughs, and coach on the fly – correcting actions and praising the positive, but you can’t when you’re washing dishes or hopping on the line all the time. A restaurant, bar, banquet hall, and volleyball courts are different beasts, and while we had the experience, it was becoming increasingly difficult to stay organized as we were being spread thinner and thinner. We didn’t last.
After we finally closed the doors to the train station, I got a job in financial sales – far removed from the restaurant biz. New owners have since repainted, and the volleyball courts are covered in playground mulch for the daycare that now lives in the pickle factory. In a cliché twist of fate, the sales road led me right back to the foodservice industry as a sales executive for a catering management company, CaterTrax. I’ve accumulated a wealth of knowledge that I can share, and CaterTrax is the same in that way, drawing on the experiences we’ve all had to help others meet their goals and keep their passion alive. Our marketing team did a survey a few years back that showed the average lifespan of a caterer is 13 months. I hate that. We all do. There’s a lot of seasoned foodservice folks here who are all really passionate about this industry. It’s certainly not the pen and paper business a lot of us remember though. That we don’t hate.
I don’t think technology is revolutionary because I sell it, I think it’s revolutionary because I’ve lived without it. Operators can’t be everything. For your plans to work you need to be nimble, flexible, and able to think on your feet. You have to be the type of building that’s sturdy enough to move across the street when it’s better for business. To support these plans though, you need something stable that will keep you organized amidst the revolving chaos of your day. Something like a gigantic cast iron boiler stuck fast in the middle of everything. I guess I could say that’s how we are at CaterTrax – always there no matter where you are.
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Tim Mulhall has been with the CaterTrax family for 6 years. In his current role as a Sales Executive he combines his colorful foodservice history with his sales experience to consult with operators across the country looking for a software solution that can meet the needs of their unique operations. Before joining CaterTrax, Tim managed multi-unit foodservice operations, owned his own restaurant, and spent 7 years in financial sales at HSBC. Tim earned his hotel restaurant degree from Mercyhurst where he was VP of the department. He was also bestowed the highest honor of Eagle Scout by Gerald Ford. Both merits he credits for his ability to find the perfect tools for getting the job done right, in the kitchen or otherwise.