By Ed Avis
Want to become a better manager? Learn how to listen. That’s a key piece of advice from winners of el Restaurante’s 2016 Manager of the Year Awards.
Sponsored by Jarritos, the first annual awards contest recognizes managers of Mexican and other Latin cuisine restaurants—people who are instrumental in helping the restaurants succeed but rarely get the recognition they deserve. We hope this contest changes that a little!
Listening may not seem like the most obvious managerial skill, but it came up frequently in interviews with the winners. Listening to customers, fellow employees, and owners is something the best managers do well.
The following profiles of the first, second, and third place winners, followed by a list of honorable mention winners, show why their supervisors consider them workplace heroes!
He Has Walked in Their Shoes
1St Place: Miguel Solano, Azteca Restaurant, Toms River, N.J. Miguel Solano understands his employees. If they have a problem, or need extra time off, or make a mistake, he empathizes because he has probably experienced the same thing in his two-plus decades at Azteca.
“I have been here since I got to the United States in 1991,” says Solano, a native of Mexico City. “I started washing dishes, then I moved to a line in the kitchen, first doing salads and later cooking. I became a manager after eight years.”
“I am extremely fortunate to have Miguel as part of our team and I believe he deserves much praise for his efforts,” wrote Tony Schiano, Azteca’s owner, in the nomination form.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Solano gets the most out of his employees by treating them with respect.
“It is easy for me to work with them, because I started like they started...I know what it feels like to be in their position,” says Solano, who also credits Schiano for being a great teacher.
When problems arise, such as when an employee is late, Solano handles the situation firmly but calmly.
“I have a talk with them on the side, never in front of other people,” he explains. “First of all I ask them, ‘What happened?’ They start talking, and I say, ‘I understand, but you have to understand that we can’t do it without you, because others can’t do it without you. Even the dishwasher is important.’”
Schiano confirms that Solano’s relaxed personality helps him get along well with employees.
“Miguel has an easy-going but serious personality, which allows him to get the most out of all of our employees and still get along well with everyone,” he says. “He leads by example, and makes others around him better.”
LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN
Even though Solano has decades of experience, he knows other employees have ideas that are worth listening to. When he trains new employees, he shows them how to do the job the way he would, but gives them flexibility to try new ways.
“I’m not the kind to say, ‘Only do it my way,’” he says. “I say, ‘Let’s try my way, but if eventually you do it your way and it’s right, that’s OK.”
Solano says loving the job is the most important part of being a good manager, but the ability to listen is a close second.
“You have to listen to the employees, you have to listen to the customers, you have to listen to the owner. Then you’re going to be a good manager. It cannot always be your way, because other people have opinions, too.”
From Nursing to Restaurant Management
2nd Place: Stephanie Gomez, Rio Mirage Café, Surprise, Ariz. When Stephanie Gomez
needed a career break after 12 years as a registered nurse, she realized her desire for change could meet her parents’ urgent need.
“My dad was in the restaurant night and day,” she says, referring to Rio Mirage Café, which her parents, Alex and Rachel Gomez, have owned for 16 years. “He had a manager who left the company, so he was here day in and day out. I said, ‘Well Dad, let me help you!’ Five years later I’m still here. I love it!”
Not only does she love it; she’s very good at it, too.
“We cannot say enough about what Stephanie’s dedication has meant to us,” wrote Rachel Gomez in the nomination. “We can count on her to manage and direct operations, including catering. Stephanie does it all, from keeping labor under control to organizing the company Christmas party.”
Stephanie says some of her nursing skills come in handy. For example, people in a restaurant enjoy the close attention of staff, just like hospital patients rely on nurses.
“People are pretty much the same wherever you go—they want you to help them make sure their experience is nice,” she says. “They want to be happy when they leave.”
Surprise, Ariz. is home to many retirees, who appreciate the attention Stephanie provides.
“Her guests love her and always ask for her as she enjoys visiting with them as much as do [her]. Since we serve an elderly population, Stephanie is the only ‘outside’ contact they have,” Rachel Gomez says.
LISTENING PAYS OFF
Stephanie knows that good management starts with hearing what others have to say.
“I think one thing that is important with all types of people, from employees to guests to upper managers, is to listen,” she says. “I think before speaking we really have to listen to what the other person is saying, and sometimes we have to read between the lines. I have learned that sometimes people are not good at asking for what they need—you need to work with them to understand their needs.”
Motivating employees is another part of Stephanie’s job. She encourages staff to suggest new menu items, which inspires them to be creative, and rewards them more tangibly with an employee-of-the-month award.
“And we occasionally do little prizes, like whoever sells the most of this type of margarita gets a shirt,” she says.
FOR THE FAMILY
Stephanie is motivated to work hard because the restaurant represents her family’s legacy. She is proud of what her parents have built, and wants to keep it thriving. In fact, the next generation is already involved—her son, a college student, tends bar in one of the restaurant’s two locations on the weekends.
“Everything I do here is for the future of our family. And when I say ‘family,’ I also mean the people who work here and their families,” she says. “Their kids have started to work for us as well. I like being involved in keeping this going for all of them.”
Ex-Employees Come Back
3rd Place: Rachel Griffith, General Manager, Go Burrito, Salisbury, N.C. When a Go Burrito
employee quits for another job, a month or so later he or she often asks to return. That says a lot about Rachel Griffith!
“I’m all for my employees bettering themselves and making more money,” says Griffith, who has managed Go Burrito for three years. “So I don’t mind if they say, ‘I found a better job, so I’m going to quit.’ But most of the time they decide to come back.”
Having employees love their workplace and feel like family is key to Griffith’s success as a manager.
“Rachel is the one person that makes me wish I had a cloning machine,” wrote Mikey Wetzel, owner of Go Burrito, in the nomination form. “She runs the restaurant in its entirety, so I can focus on marketing and franchising. She’s an excellent people manager.”
Another story that says a lot about Grif th and the kind of atmosphere she fosters: When an employee’s bike was stolen, his co-workers pitched in money and Grif th bought him a new one at Walmart.
“It really is like a family here,” she says. “We call ourselves the GoBo Fam.”
Griffith says one way she fosters the family feeling is by div- ing in to help whenever it’s needed. If an employee calls in sick, she’ll take that shift and do the job—everything from washing dishes to wiping tables to sweeping the oors.
She also makes sure employees feel appreciated.
“Millennials want to be valued,” she says. “If you can make them feel valued, you have the people side of managing down pat.”
Much of Griffith’s focus these days is on helping Wetzel franchise the Go Burrito concept. She is helping solidify the concept’s interior design, employee management issues and customer service model.
“This is my baby, and it’s wonderful,” she says. “I want to make sure other Go Burritos have the same vibe.”
In the meantime, Wetzel counts on Griffith to keep Go Burrito running smoothly.
“She’s dedicated 24/7, committed to growing the business, and gets personally involved in all aspects of the business,” Wetzel says. “She’s helped me build sales from $0 to $1.4 million annually, and continually improves processes, whether it’s reports, spreadsheets, or some other back end aspect to the business. No, you can’t have her.”
Honorable Mention Award Winners
• Ramiro Alarcon, Chef/Organization, Cielito Lindo Mexican Gastronomy, Sacramento, Calif. nominated by Claudia Martinez: “Chef Ramiro es una persona dedicada 100% a la cocina. Tiene una passion a la todo lo que desempena en el restaurant.”
• Saul Avalos, General Manager, Anchos Southwest Grill and Bar, Riverside, Calif. nominated by Pepe Padilla: “Dedicated to both his family and work. There’s not a task in the restaurant he can’t accomplish.”
• Juan Artemio Delgado, General Manager, Cristina’s Fine Mexican Restaurant, Lewisville, Texas. Nominated by Cristina Vargas: “Artemio started with us at Cristina’s as a manager and has worked his way up to become one of the top producing general managers in our company
of 12 stores.”
• Tim Dellatore, General Manager, Cactus Blue Mexican Restaurant, Bethlehem, Penn. Nominated by Adam Gangewere: “Tim takes the entire restaurant under his wings and runs it as if it were his.”
• Cindy Faraci, General Manager, Pink Taco, Las Vegas. Nominated by James Mendoza: “Cindy is a great leader, co-worker and friend. The staff loves her like a mom.”
• Vianey Flores, General Manager, Cristina’s Fine Mexican Restaurant, Lewisville, Texas. Nominated by Cristina Vargas: “Vianey is an important piece to our success in the Cristina’s family.”
• Jana Fruge, Opening Assistant Manager, 3 Parrots Taco Shop, San Angelo, Texas. Nominated by Efrain: “Jana’s dedication for her career as well as her experience as manager in the restaurant industry is clearly exhibited by her precision in being able to open a restaurant every morning despite any issues there may be either at work or home.”
• Maria Guzman, Manager-catering, Mijares Mexican Restaurant, Pasadena, Calif. Nominated by Rlene Mijares deLang: “Maria always comes in with helpful suggestions and a very positive outlook. she encourages our employees to do their best and be proud to work at Mijares.”
• Drika Acosta Hollenbach, Manager, El Cactus, Manassas, Va. Nominated by Brian Hollenbach: “Erika has always given so much of herself. You can see her heart and love in her food.”
• Gabriela Jimenez, General Manager, Joselito’s Mexican Food, Tujunga, Calif. Nominated by Jose Grijalva: “Since day one she has put everything she has into her job.”
• Carlos Martinez, Production Manager, Viva Xxpress, Garden Grove, Calif. Nominated
by Blandina Carreno: “Carlos es una persona excepcional, por que un periodo de 3 anos a podido tomar todas las desiciones de la compania con gran certeza.”
• Luis Sanchez, Manager, Mazatlan Mexican Restaurant, Dickson, Tenn. Nominated by
Miguel Fuentes: “Great customer service skills...manages the station a proper manner.”
• Ticardo Solano, Assistant General Manager, Nick’s Crispy Tacos, San Francisco, Calif. Nominated by Peter Billeci: “From day one, Ricky has shown me that he has the best interests of the business in mind at all times. His commitment to the success of my restaurant is so incredibly valuable to me, he would be impossible to replace.”
Ed Avis is publisher of el Restaurante.