By Michael Neff

Hospitality as a business is unique, in that anyone who throws a decent dinner-party or mixes cocktails in their kitchen thinks at some point that they have what it takes to work enter the field as a fully-formed professional. I love to cook, and all my friends think I should open a restaurant. Oh, yeah? I can use a calculator, but that doesn’t mean you want me keeping your books.

Building a meal, and running a profitable establishment are two very different beasts. Of all the skills necessary to run a restaurant or bar, the hardest to learn and most important to eventual success is effective management. A good manager is worth her weight in gold, and can be the difference between a fulfilled staff who knows their business, and a sign in the window that reads, “Restaurant for Lease.”

There are many paths that can lead you in to the service business. You can start from the bottom and work your way up. You can go to a school of some sort, which only really works for back-of-house, as I know of no “Waiting Table School” and the bartending schools I’ve seen aren’t worth the time it takes to retrain its graduates. These days, you can apprentice, an option that didn’t really exist until fairly recently.

Or you can do what I did, and lie.

After many years in the business, I don’t recommend the latter course for most people. You’re almost always found out, and end up in a less favorable position than if you had been honest from the beginning and fessed up that you don’t know what you’re doing. Waiting tables takes a lot of skill, as does effectively bussing, hosting, and bartending. It’s very difficult to fake your way through the early stages of these jobs without causing yourself, your bar, and your clientele a fair amount of grief.

I am now not only established as a career bartender, but I own two bars of my own; one of which boasts a fifty-seat dining room. While I had worked for years to perfect the craft of tending bar, when my partners and I opened our first place over two years ago, I realized that the biggest aspect of the hospitality business that I had neglected was management. Sure, I could run a bar, write a schedule, order for the week, and make sure that the lights are turned on and off at the appropriate time, but there was always a point where a problem occurred that required the voice of someone in a higher pay-grade.

Now we are the ones getting phone calls at 3 am when half the power goes out. We have to figure out what to do when the sixty-person party on a Friday night becomes seventy-five. There is no higher pay-grade, so we are called to deal with everything from accountants to plumbers to event-planning. It’s difficult and stressful, and I now have a lot more compassion for people that I’ve worked for in the past.

As stressful as it might be managing a business, managing employees is another challenge entirely.

I’m a bartender, so I’m pretty good with people. I am not, however, a very good manager, and I’ve given a lot of thought as to why that might be. My conclusion was surprising to me. As I am an owner and an operator, I still show up for work every day and make drinks. I have an infinitely higher level of expectation of my staff, as I have an unavoidable expectation that they execute at the same level as I do. I find myself constantly trying to balance the compassion I feel for people who are in the trenches alongside me, with the frustration of watching them perform below levels a manager has a right to expect.

Over the years, I’ve worked with all manner of owners and managers. The first, a man named Craig Peiss, was the one who tolerated my lack of honesty and taught me my craft. He deserves a word, because everything I learned about hospitality, I learned from him. I have met few people who could exhibit the elegance and charm, both with customers and staff, that this man could manage.

With Craig, everything was fixable. If you were late, he would ask you if you lost your watch. If you arrived with a two-day growth of scraggly beard, he would tell you how much more handsome you look when you shave. He was no push-over; if problems persisted, the conversation changed dramatically. But the way he addressed issues almost always ensured they disappeared. He made you want him to respect you.

I am famous around my shop for being hard to please. When I reach those moments where I am about to explode because some little detail is not as perfect as I want it to be, I think of Craig Peiss. He is the person who taught me that the primary job of a manager is to foster talent and to make sure that everyone is okay. Both tasks are very hard to learn, but essential to the well-being and success of the enterprise.

The fact that I own the joint doesn’t make these lessons any easier.