How to Find and Choose Restaurant Mentors

A good mentor can transform your future.

The employee turnover rate in hospitality jobs — a heavy hitting 74.9% — is 26% higher than the average private sector job. With the future of the workforce resting in the hands of Generation Z and the wildly high cost of replacing restaurant staff (one report estimates costs of $5,864 for every hourly staff member), investing time and effort in mentorship for yourself and your team can pay off big.

Job satisfaction, opportunities for career growth, and a welcoming company culture are all ingredients Gen Z workers crave and markers that mentorship can help achieve. As the restaurant industry grows — the National Restaurant Association projects sales of $1.2 trillion and an industry workforce of 17 million by 2030 — and the labor force declines, satisfied staff are crucial for building a successful restaurant business. 

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Implementing formal or informal mentorship strategies can turn restaurants into career destinations where people come and stay.  According to Rob Gifford, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), “82% of Gen Z surveyed say a restaurant was their first paid job – that’s a tremendous amount of young people who experience what it’s like to work in our industry. Our new study shows that we have the opportunity to purposefully foster longer-term relationships with Gen Z.” 

This new study by NRAEF also reported that more than 40% of Gen Z workers said mentors are advantageous to building the confidence and professional skills necessary for them to advance in their careers. 

But mentorship isn’t only for the youth. Constant learning, inspiration, and professional growth is important for restaurant people of all ages. 

Felix Torricer, general manager of The Slanted Door, in San Francisco, CA, shared how mentorship led to his nearly two-decade working relationship with executive chef Charles Phan. “I came to Slanted Door 17 years ago, burned out from work at other well-known restaurants. Charles tapped me to start up the restaurant’s private dining room.” Chef Charles saw potential in Felix and mentored him by providing guidance, trust, and upward opportunity. 

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“We’re treated like family here. That’s why I’ve been here so long. With that said, family needs to trust each other, and that’s where I came to have my position in upper management. Charles is such a visionaire.”

Author

Felix Torricer

General Manager, The Slanted Door

How to Find a Mentor

The first step in finding a restaurant mentor is to consider your career goals. The right mentor should have practical experience you can learn from, whether you want to open a restaurant, become a chef, or earn a front-of-house leadership role. When you know where you want to go, you can find a mentor who has successfully walked before you. 

Next, research the local scene for those who have achieved the goals you hope to. Often, up-and-comers in the restaurant industry find in-house mentors. In-house mentoring is common in our fast-paced world, especially if there’s a dedication to a specific chef or group. In-house mentoring provides an opportunity to shadow, get hands on, and foster long-term employees. 

If you’re looking outside your restaurant for a mentor, you can network to learn about potential candidates. “Talk with people that have worked with the chef or person you’re interested in,” recommends Felix. “Get to know what it’s really like to be mentored by them.”

Find a mentor you can relate to and who you trust, but don’t let differences in experience or background stop you. While our industry is made up of a diverse workforce, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2018 that only 10.7% of food service managers were black and 22% of chefs and head cooks were women. There still isn’t equal representation across leadership roles in the restaurant industry. 

The words of Condoleezza Rice, American political scientist and diplomat, can serve as an inspiration to those seeking a mentor who may be frustrated by the lack of equal representation in our industry. Rice, who was the first female Secretary of State, famously said to Time, “…had I been waiting for a black female Soviet specialist role model, I’d still be waiting. So my role models were white men—old white men—those were the people who dominated my field. Don’t wait to see someone like you.” By finding a mentor and growing into your career, you can become the mentor someone else needs in the near future.

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What is a Mentor?

A mentor is a person who has successfully achieved the goals you hope to achieve and can offer knowledge and experience to guide you. There’s no one model of mentorship. Some corporate organizations have formalized programs while in many restaurants, it falls to management to provide staff mentorship. 

Howard Cummins is now the general manager of Le Colonial in San Francisco, CA. In his nearly 40-decade career, Cummins has opened or reconceptualized more than 75 restaurant properties, bringing them back to life after struggles or ownership changes. When revitalizing a restaurant, Cummins takes the in-house, hands on approach. 

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“My style is to take the identified general manager and stay attached at the hip for a month. That way I know and they know how we each make decisions. We stay attached until I feel they’re confident to make decisions and I can give them more room. I work to understand how to help motivate them and not debilitate them until they are ready to lead on their own.”

Author

Howard Cummins

General Manager, Le Colonial.


Felix explains how he uses the mentorship provided to him by chef Charles Phan. “I let my team know how valuable they are. If there are disagreements or service missteps, I open with their strong points and then address the situation and how to correct it.” Felix provides a safe structure for his staff to learn from their mistakes while coaching and providing opportunities to help them grow in their careers.

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Benefits of Having a Mentor 

There are personal and organizational benefits to restaurant mentors. For your employees, a restaurant mentor means guidance, investment in their leadership skills, and a clearer career path. 

Gen Z, the up-and-coming lifeblood of restaurants, wants all these things. Savvy employers will need to plan for this and provide. According to that recent NRAEF report, 82% of Gen Z got their first paid work experience in a restaurant, and 1/3 of them aspire to become restaurant owners, managers, and operators. Additionally, 58% of the Gen Z workers surveyed who had a mentor were in more senior positions compared to 29% of those who had never had a mentor. 

By encouraging restaurant leadership to serve as mentors, and by seeking out mentorship yourself, the restaurant industry can become stronger. The mentees of today become the mentors of the future. 

Howard tells us about the benefits of mentorship. 

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“It’s not just black and white numbers. It’s developing a team where employees feel valued and like they are part of a team. If someone is struggling after three months, is that their fault or is it ours...are we failing them?”

Author

Howard Cummins

General Manager, Le Colonial

The characteristics of a mentor are important beyond the person’s status and achievements. Felix explains that trust is critical in mentorship, and it goes both ways. A mentor acts as a sounding board to navigate work challenges and opportunities, and a mentee needs to listen and evaluate how to take on the advice. 

Understanding is also a core characteristic of a mentor, said Howard. As a mentor, “Seek to understand before you can be understood. If you show an interest in understanding the person, you’ll understand them better, but then they will also take your constructive criticism better.” 

How to Ask Someone to Be Your Mentor 

You’ve determined where your career is headed and researched possible candidates. You work hard, and your determination will let a future mentor know you’re serious. 

Be thoughtful in your approach, and offer something in exchange if you can. Invite the person to coffee or, if it is appropriate, offer them insight into their own business based on your own experience. Let them know your goals. Ask if they’re available for mentorship. Determine what that might look like for both of you. If they’re not available, don’t take it personally. Ask someone else. This is your career your building — it deserves time, love, and support. For more structured mentorship, there are organizations that foster specific areas of the restaurant industry, like the James Beard Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program or the NRAEF’s ProStart program for youth. 

Whether you’re starting out on the line or want to expand your restaurant empire, learning from a mentor can support your success. 

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