For the Love of the Game

FOH Managers in all their glory.

July 8, 2015 ● 6 min read

Managers are a special brand of human, especially in a restaurant. The best ones (like Dana Frank, pictured above) are collectively unruffled in the worst situations—plumbing explosions, guest tantrums, nine people requesting vacation time in the same week—and among staffs composed of those either doing it for the money or the vibe or the flexibility, they are the people who are doing it for love. They are the chosen ones, and instead of trying to capture the magnitude of what they do every day, we figured, hell: let's just let them speak for themselves.  


My focus has been on wine for ten years, and I didn’t want to get too far away from that. We’re in a really unique position here; we have a dedicated wine director, and I have an assistant who somms on the floor a few nights a week. That’s a big thing for Portland, and I didn’t want to get away from that while being the GM, even if that’s effectively what my role is.

I love hospitality and taking care of people, so there’s something about ‘service director’ that makes me feel like that’s what I do, instead of sitting in the office doing paperwork. I think it’s a combination of a lot of different things that makes a great manager, but I really love to work. I like organization and order. And in the context of Ava Gene’s, I see what the goal is, and I feel really passionate about achieving it. That sounds kind of cliche, but I know exactly what we’re trying to do here and I feel so driven by that. Ultimately, Ava Gene’s is about giving people delicious food and great beverages, right? But it’s also about really taking care of people. We’ve been extremely service-driven here. We want people to feel like they were really well taken care of.

There’s something extremely gratifying about that. For a long time, most of our menu was in Italian, and our wine list is Italian, and it’s kind of intimidating when you walk in and it’s all marble and brass and big and loud, and people get a little freaked out. So there’s something really rewarding about flipping people’s expectations over.

If I look back at the manager I was and the kind of wine director I was six or seven years ago versus now, I’ve grown up a lot. I like that about myself, that I can look back and actually see that where I was then is very different from where I am now. I think when you’re young you think you have it all figured out, but it takes years. And I certainly don’t have it all figured out now. I’m constantly thinking about how to get better at this. How do I better relate to the staff? How do I make sure there’s a balance between really taking care of our guests and also making sure it works for the restaurant, and the restaurant makes money? There has to be a constant dialogue between front and back for any of that to happen.

There have to be constant tweaks to dial in the actual service experience. Those are the kind of things that occupy my mind, as opposed to, did we hit our labor numbers, or is the kitchen dialed in, or do the floors look nice and waxed? All of those things are important, but what I’m constantly thinking about is how we make sure we’re taking care of guests in the best way.

We’ve had a lot of freedoms at this restaurant that I have never experienced before. Here, if it’s your anniversary or your birthday, you sit down and you’re greeted with sparkling wine. If guests come in who are friends of the house, we always send something from the kitchen. If somebody doesn’t feel like they had the best experience, we can offer them a gift card for drinks on us. I’ll call people personally if we get feedback. For me, I’ve never worked somewhere that had that ability. It goes a long way, and you take it for granted until people come in and see it. It seems like it should be that way, but I guess it exists a lot less than we think.

I look forward to coming to work, and that is the best feeling. I love having a staff of people that are like, this place is fucking awesome. Especially when you’re here until one in the morning and then you go home and get up and are back by 9, you have to have that. My standards, after being at Ava Gene's for a few years, are so high. It’s not white tablecloth fine dining high, but they’re up there. Even if the whole restaurant is going down in flames, you can still take care of your guests. You could definitely say I’ve drunk the Danny Meyer punch, but who hasn’t? I’ve never worked for him, but his book sits by my nightstand.

I would say working in this position has helped me understand that everyone has their neuroses and their thing. That’s magnified when people are in restaurants. Our ultimate task is to make anyone happy no matter what their thing is. I think that in life, that allows me to be a little more compassionate and understanding of how people are and operate in the world. I’m not always successful at that, and I’m pretty Type A, and I don’t know how much patience I would have for that without doing this kind of work. And it’s made me a better diner. Sometimes it drives my husband crazy because I see everything when we just want to eat dinner and not see everything. But I can look around a dining room and see that like, clearly they’re short a person. That sucks, and I totally know what that’s like. Or the bartender is so far in the weeds because there’s 15 guys at the bar who all want Manhattans. I get that.

You want to take care of your people, but you have to take care of your house. And there’s not a ton of money in it either, so it’s definitely a neuroses. But I never wake up and don’t want to go to work. Never. 


I think the key to being successful on an average day, although there really is no average day, is prioritizing. Like our printer broke two days ago, so it’s trying to get these people to come out, and now we can’t print menus or reservation it’s staying focused amid everything. And trying to plan ahead as much as we can.

My day usually lasts anywhere from 10-14 hours. It sounds like a long day, but there’s never enough hours in the day to get everything done. I’ve worked in restaurants for the last 20 years. I’ve always had a strong passion for food, even though my background was in business before I went to culinary school. I guess it makes sense that I would wind up in restaurant management. I’ve fallen in love with this industry. In order to be happy, I need to constantly be stressed and overwhelmed and have a lot of things to do. I love being on my feet and running around a large restaurant every night. People tend to look at this like it’s a job I have in the interim, and not like it’s my career and a job that I love. But running around a busy restaurant every night feeds my soul.

There’s a lot that goes into what people see. It’s balancing the financials of the restaurant, the have to be everything and everyone in the restaurant as a manager. There’s so many different skill sets you have to have. I don’t know if people realize that. You have to have a good background in food, in operations, in finances, and you have to be a people person and sympathetic.

You have to love taking care of people, staff and guests. If your staff is happy, making the guests happy comes naturally. We always have to stay positive, and strong, so the staff knows they can lean on us for anything. It’s a two way street—they really have to trust us and we have to trust them. I’ve worked in both FOH and BOH, so really cultivating that love between the two is important to me. We’re all here for one reason. There has to be an understanding of where each role is coming from. Leadership is bridging the gap between the two, and it’s why I chose to be here.

There usually isn’t one large struggle, it’s just multiple small ones everyday. You have to be 100% committed, because it’s long hours and it’s hard, but it’s amazing and wonderful and fulfilling all in the same way. You really, really, really, have to love it. Or else you might go crazy. 

As told to Cassandra Landry. Photo courtesy of Travis Blue.